Spouse Lacks Cleaning Basics

Archived Q&A and Reviews

See also: Messy House, Messy Family Members
May 2003

After 13 years of marriage, my wife and I love each other dearly. We have two your children, and as part of teaching the kids how to be responsible about keeping the house tidy, we are coming to realize that our own habits are appalling. I take responsibility for my own failings, and freely admit that I need a kick in the butt now and again to correct occasional sloppiness around the house. I believe, however, that my wife has never learned some basics of how to take care of her living environment.

She has never lived on her own, having moved in with me from her parents' home. This has left her with a lack of understanding of some basics. When I was living on my own, I didn't have the neatest home in the world, but it wasn't a pigsty either.

No one is perfect. I am not interested in a ''who's right and who's wrong'' argument. I just want to find a way to a tidier house. As it stands, our kids don't have play dates because we are too ashamed to allow anyone into our house. Friends invite us to lunch or dinner and we never reciprocate.

In the beginning I tried ignoring the problem and quietly and calmly cleaned up after her. That just led to me resenting her behavior, and it certainly didn't do anything to change her behavior.

After that, I tried gentle and friendly (really!) reminders. That led to defensiveness and what I perceived as scoring points. (Me: ''Can you put your mail away now please?'' Her: ''You left the bath mat on the floor again.'') In some ways, I feel that I have three kids.

I am by no means a neat freak, and my own lack of discipline makes it hard for me to feel I can call her on her faults. (Naturally enough, she is quick to point that out.) What, other than renting a drill sergeant, can I do to help her break decades of bad habits and help us get this place ship shape?

I feel that this problem really needs a hands-on solution. She doesn't even realize that she is making a mess. What she needs is for someone to follow her around and help her understand her habits so she can address them.

Has anyone faced this sort of problem before? Role stereotypes tell me that there are many frustrated wives with a slob for a husband. We've reversed the roles, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating. What can I do?

Here are some ideas of ways to help make your house less overwhelming to keep clean and clutter-free

1) rent a storage unit (Door-2-Door in Oakland is a good one) to put all the stuff that you don't need in your house on a daily basis This will free up some space (and head space too).

2) plan to invite friends over twice a month. this will probably motivate you both to make your home company-clean. This has worked wonders for us.

3) if you can swing it financially, hire a housecleaner once a month to do the hard-core cleaning.

4) after freeing up some space, go to IKEA and get some organization items that will provide a particular place for things.

3) for $12 at Barnes & Noble you can buy the most amazing easy- read book on freeing your life of clutter Clearing the Clutter for Good Feng Shui by Mary Lambert.

I am fastidious (at least about my house)and my husband is a very happy slob. When we became married, we agreed that my husband could always have one part of our home to call his own, and that I would never say anything about that area. We also agreed that the path to a harmonious relationship was to always have a housecleaner. I know, I know -- that's too expensive. When my mother pointed that out, I answered that if the housecleaner came twice a month and only cleaned the main rooms, my housecleaner cost less per day than my mother's (ugh) cigarettes. It's also a lot cheaper than marriage counseling. We gave up lattes to pay for the housecleaner. In the end, it's taken all the pressure off that whole aspect of our lives. So let's say you have a housecleaner clean only the livingroom, kitchen, and bathroom. Then, when people come over, the main rooms are presentable. How family members manage their own bedrooms is their business. Of course, this leaves you with the dilemma of the bedroom you presumably share with your wife, but perhaps with other areas of the house in some order, you have less to negotiate about--and maybe, like my husband, she'll grow to enjoy a tidier house once she's had one for a while.
--Neatnik Happily Married to a Major Slob
I feel for you and know how you're feeling. *Please* check out Flylady.net. Flylady's (aka Marla's) system has helped me start to regain control of my clutter, throw things away, and create a more peaceful home for my whole family.

Her mantra is ''You are not behind! I don't want you to try to catch up; I just want you to jump in where we are. O.K.?'' She feels that many people who have issues with home tidyness are actually perfectionists (a character trait she considers a flaw) who become overwhelmed by the task at hand, because they ''can't do it right,'' and therefore never start.

Another one of her gems is ''housework done incorrectly still blesses your family,'' meaning of course, it's better to do something than nothing and it's time to stop thinking of housework as drudgery and obligation and scorekeeping, but instead as an expression of your love and respect for yourself and your family. Members of flylady write in with testimonials that you'll get via email along with her reminders to do your laundry, start your morning (afternoon, evening) routine, clean out your car, etc.

Reading your post I see that you feel your wife has never learned to clean. Flylady doesn't teach you how to clean, per se, she thinks you should just use what you have handy and get going, stop blaming the fact that if only you had the ''perfect'' cleanser or ''right'' cleaning technique you'd have a clean house. And when you mention you never have anyone over...flylady has termed an acronym for that CHAOS (can't have anyone over syndrome).

I love her and believe this woman has found her true calling in life. Check it out yourself first and then share it with your wife, if you think she'd be receptive. But do it for yourself and as many people have experienced, the spouse (admittedly usually the more sloppy husband) comes around and participates.

One caveat at the beginning the emails are overwhelming. Lots of them! Don't try to do them all at once. Read your welcome letter and just start with those things. As those become habits, slowly start adding other emails to your routines. But don't burn out by trying to do too much too soon. Babysteps!

Please feel free to contact me if you want more info!

Get a housecleaner.

Seriously, in a situation like yours, getting a housecleaner can really help diffuse the situation and end resentment. My husband is an ungodly slob. Before we had children, it wasn't the end of the world - I would spend every Saturday cleaning the house. After our first child was born, I just couldn't keep up with it. The anger and resentment just built and built. FInally I decided that hiring a cleaner to come in every other week was cheaper than a divorce. It was definitely the right decision. I can easily keep up with the daily picking up (with the ''help'' of my 2 toddlers), and the cleaners take care of the major stuff like mopping floors and scrubbing the bathroom. It's not that expensive, either - we pay $75 every other week.

I do worry that my children are not learning how to scrub and mop, the way I did from my mother, but my mother did not have a full time job. Also, I keep reminding myself of what my husband and his sister once told me. They were raised by a single mother who worked full time, and on the weekends and evenings did laundry, cleaned, cooked, etc. Both my husband and his sister told me they could never remember doing anything fun with their mother. So I guess my point is, you must decide what is more important - peace and harmony at home, or forcing your spouse to clean up after herself.
happier with cleaners

You didn't say whether your wife WANTS the house to be neater - if she feels as bad about a messy house as you do. If she does, then you should ask her for her ideas about how both of you can make things better. Listen to what she says about you - even if you think you're the neat one, and tell her to help you change your habits, while getting her permission to help you change hers. But if she is fine with the way things are now, then it's a lot tougher. In that case, I have only two suggestions -- hire someone to clean up (and maybe if there is someone else cleaning the bathroom, she'll have more time to tidy), and train your kids to pick up after themselves, so you only have one person to pick up after (her). Also, give her a messy zone - my husband has one, where I cart all of his stuff and close the door. Finally, I wouldn't let a messy house stop me from having my friends over. I love going to someone's messy house - it makes me feel so much better about my own.
Try checking out flylady.com

It's free and it sounds like you're living in CHAOS (Can't Have Anyone Over Syndrome).

It really changed the way we live. We can actually welcome unexpected visitors into our home without shame!
Been there

I have the PERFECT thing for you - it is flylady.net. Sign up and try it - it is free. It is too hard to explain in a short posting, but I will say that it has really made a big improvement in my home. But I have to warn you; you won't be able to ''fix'' your wife. The only thing that you can do, according to flylady, is to be an example and hope that one day your attitude will be contagious and spread to your wife and kids.
Wow -- I know it's not possible, but it sounds like this could be written by my father! I grew up in the house you describe, presuming you also have 3 big dogs, between 2 and 4 cats, and an assortment of other creatures living under your roof. My parents fought about the mess in our house constantly, in often cruel and painful ways, slamming dishes around, piling clutter feet high on counters, and we NEVER could have visitors without it being a major crisis. My father still cleans up after my mother, and when my mother comes to visit, we clean up after her (my sisters and I call her ''hurricane grandma'' since moving through the house after she's been for a visit really is like navigating a disaster zone). I too, alas, am (or, I hope, was) the same way -- I just simply did not see the mess I left in my wake. Because I had to negotiate life with housemates for many years -- including one roommate who I eventually married and started a family with -- I have over time become aware of just how unusual -- and unacceptable -- my messy behavior is/was. But, I have to say, it's still really hard for me to see the mess I make -- and to clean it. After dealing with the tension around this in therapy for a couple of years, my partner and I finally came to the realization that therapy was more expensive than a cleaning person, and so we hired one. Things have been much better ever since. I was (and still am) pretty uncomfortable with hiring help (the cost, not wanting to hire people poorer than me to clean my mess, etc.) and we still do fight about it, but I have to say it's been a relationship saver. It's also helped me see what a clean house is and helped me learn how to help maintain one -- believe it or not, I just didn't know, and I'm really still not very good at it (I'm good at many other things!) -- and the cleaners are. My husband has also come to be okay with taking on more of the cleaning than I do, which is important, too (frankly, I think that this really becomes an issue mostly when women are messy and men have to do more picking up after them, not so much, or in such dramatic ways, when men are and women have to pick up after them...which i suspect is much more rampant -- so there's that component at play here too.) I've talked about the mess in my parents' house (gently...) with my mom, who now says that they should have hired help years ago (even though it would have been a financial hardship and totally out of character for them) -- and I know it would have made for a MUCH happier and healthier home for all of us, and changed our lives dramatically (though my mom now contends that having to deal with all that pet and dust mess swirling all over the place as young kids is what strengthened our constitutions and made all healthy as horses -- but that's another story). So -- hire some help if there's any way you can, notice all the amazing things your wife is good at even if she can't clean to save her life, and come up with some system of sharing the work of keeping the household going where you do more of the day to day cleaning and she does something that draws more on her strengths (I do most of the cooking and yard work, for example). But do deal with it. Good luck!
they call me ''mudball''
Try the website www.flylady.com anon.
I wonder if you and your kids started getting better about housekeeping that your wife would notice and eventually follow suit. Maybe she can learn by example? Also, you didn't say how old your wife is, but I know that in my own case, when I was younger and first living with my husband, I wasn't as good or diligent at housekeeping as I am now, 9 years later, and I'm still not as good about is I'd like to be. I truly think that good housekeeping comes with maturity. I sure don't know any older people with messy homes! Hope this helps.
Your wife may have attention deficit disorder, which could be why she's having such a hard time keeping the place clean. I lived on my own for many years, but I still am a total slob, and I think it's because of my ADD, which wasn't diagnosed until I was an adult. She might benefit from medication and/or counseling if that's indeed the problem.

It could just be that she's tired, and cleaning is not a priority for her. Maybe you could hire someone to come in and clean?

The other idea would be to hire a professional organizer to come in and set up a system that would make keeping the place neat easier.
Jennifer R

Why don't you try Flylady (flylady.net)? Notice, I said YOU, not your wife! You are the one who wants to change. You can't change someone else. After she sees your change, she will eventually follow suit (but not if you nag). If you have children, your example will also inspire them.
Hi - please check out Flylady.net. It's hard to describe. Lots of good advice about dealing with a messy house by establishing routines and especially by getting rid of clutter in your home rather than attempting to organize it.

It gets a little cute sometimes, but I think they really understand why people let their homes get messy, and there is a lot of encouragement and work on attitudes. I am trying to incorporate, little by little, her ideas into my hectic life.

Good luck!
Starting to fly

Have you considered hiring a house-cleaner, say once or twice a month? I noticed that a lot of clutter started to disappear when my husband and I started with a house-cleaner a few years ago. We clear our stuff so the cleaning can happen and it doesn't always return. And enjoying the CLEAN house is motivating too.

It's relieved a lot of stress between us without a direct negotiation. I think this is a hard issue because a lot of habits are established in childhood. I tended to clean more, he didn't see the need for it, but now really enjoys a tidy clean house. We pay $52 every 2 weeks, well worth every penny. Think about cutting back on dining out once or twice, and there's the amount for cleaning.
love the house-cleaner

I highly recommend that you visit the FlyLady website (http//www.flylady.net). Her methods and routines have really helped me get in control of our home, starting with very simple routines (like shining your kitchen sink and picking out your clothes at night before bed) and slowly building on them. She emphasizes decluttering - really going through rooms and the house on a regular basis and getting rid of the extra stuff, because it makes it so much easier to clean. One of the things that makes the system work is if you sign up for her emails, she sends you reminders throughout the day, and a ton of testimonials from people who are just like you (or worse!!!) and have been able to get their homes in order.

The hard part for your situation is it is hard to change someone else. The FlyLady recommends that you set the example, not nag, etc. Does your wife want to change? Is she also embarrased by the house? If so, it will help her so much to learn that there are others like her. If not, you might have to lead for a while. Make sure that all your stuff is in order. I know, it is not fair for one person to have to do all the cleaning. The hope is that by watching you your wife will learn how to keep things neat and just get in the habit.

I don't want to sound like I am proslytizing or something, and really I am not affiliated with the Flylady website. But it has made a huge difference in my life, and I am now able to have people over, as well as setting an example for my son! A big thing with me was that I didn't want my son to grow up in a messy house. So just go to the website (or there is also a book, Sink Reflections) and read about her system. I can't emphasize too much how it has changed my life. Good luck!
Learning to Fly

Are you my husband, writing this so that I will realize how truly frustrated you are?

Your story sounds familiar. I am the wife that moved directly from my parents' home and never learned the basics.

I am trying very, very hard. And although my husband constant bitchin' has definitely helped, his saying ''Thank you for putting your mail away (or whatever other small thing I have managed to do)'' has worked wonders. So keep on nagging, but offer the occasional nod of appreciation. Give your wife a break! anon

For help with your messy house, check out www.flylady.net for a system to get your house and life uncluttered and keeping it that way. Its like your own personal household coach, (not quite a drill sergeant), but helps you learn routines to make your household work easier. Although some of it seems a little silly, it actually does work. nancy
I think I read about it here first but will re-recommend flylady.net. It's not for everyone (you get a ton of daily email) but the combination of her practical suggestions and 'home-spun' psychology work for me. We no longer live in total CHAOS (can't have anyone over syndrome).
My advice in a nutshell log onto www.flylady.net, which is a whole website devoted to developing manageable routines around housecleaning and learning to enjoy the pleasures of a clean, tidy, peaceful home. The site sends out reminders every day for both daily routines, weekly tasks, and monthly ''zones'' to work on intensively (i.e., kitchen or bathroom etc.) It sounds a little dorky, and I sometimes think the list is aimed primarily at people who are a bit more traditional and conservative than I am (!), but it has really helped me get my home (which is also inhabited by two grown-ups and two wee ones, as well as an odd collection of pets) in shape. Anon
It sounds like you could use the services of a professional organizer. An outside professional will look at the ''mess'' with a critical eye and design solutions that don't assign blame, but address the family's organizational issues. An organized household not only provides a ''cleaner'' environment, but less friction in relationships, time and money saved, and a greater sense of calm in one's living space. It's worth it. I'm an organizer myself, but there are others in the yellow pages. My partner and I (also a UCB Parents Network member) are available for free consultations.

Good luck.

Much of what is in your post suggests that you BOTH have a problem and need better habits. But your suggested fixes indicate that you really think SHE is the one with the problem, and you want to figure out how to motivate her.

I think you need to have a program that you both adopt and buy into that you can help each other with mutually. My guess from the tone of your post is that the reason it's not working is that she feels defensive and that you're blaming her for being the messiest one. Try again... anon

Have you considered a personal organizer to help your wife and yourself set up systems for managing your household? Lindsay Hilsenbeck is someone who does this and is very sensitive in her dealings with ''organizationally challenged'' people. Her number is 669-1152. She will visit your home and actually help you organize, not just tell you how. She leaves you with a system to handle things after she's gone home and doesn't charge an arm and a leg either. I imagine that your wife is really as bothered by this as you are but doesn't know what to do other than defend herself against your advice. Far better to call in a neutral party to help you both get organized and spend your time enjoying a nice house.
I live in a household with my partner and my sister, as well as my two-year old daughter. We have had some challenges adjusting to each other's living styles, so here is what we have done.

1. Recognizing that we each have different priorities in terms of maintaining a household, and trying to respect each other's contributions. For example, we count grocery shopping and cooking as household maintenance, just like cleaning. My husband is the handiest of all of us, and so his home repairs are also counted. The point of 'counting' all this is just to get into the mindset that we all contribute to the running of the house, and all these contributions are of value. This helps cut down on resentment about who is or isn't doing x. Along those lines, we also have discussed the fact that we each have different definitions of mess (my sister hates clutter, I could care less about clutter but hate dirt and grime, my husband is more like me in terms of dirt vs. clutter.) This has helped us take away judgements about the others being slobs, and helps us remember that they just see mess in different ways and clean accordingly.

2. We have a (in theory) daily clean up time where we set a timer and everyone, including the two-year old, cleans for 10 minutes. We get so much done in that ten minutes, cleaning is more fun, and no one feels like they are cleaning alone all the time. While our goal is to do this daily, it oftens ends up being less frequent than that, but we are getting better about it.

3. We have weekly family meetings to discuss issues that have come up, including issues around mess and the house. As cheesy as it sounds, we start off by saying something we have appreciated about the others that week (i.e. I appreciated that x put all the laundry away, and that y fixed the leaky faucet.) This really helps set a nice tone for the meeting, and diffuses the built up frustration that might be brought to the table. We discuss which things are really important to us individually, and then we all make an effort to focus on those areas.

Bottom line for us is that everyone has his or her own standards of clean, and short of health hazards, judgements about the cleanliness of others has been counterproductive for us. Knowing that x doesn't care whether or not the stovetop has been wiped down, but has done it anyway, actually makes us grateful to each other instead of feeling like the others aren't pulling their weight. Doing things as a family makes everything more fun and teaches our daughter about cooperation and contributing to our community as well as how to keep a house neat. We still have our issues, but so far so good! Most of this was my sister's idea, and I think she got these ideas from a book called Chores Without Wars. Good luck!
not a neat freak

I also live in a house that is usually a mess - sometimes it's really bad and sometimes it's mostly just ''overly cluttered''. I, not a neatnik but definitely a person in need of some semblance of order, was a terrible nag for a long time. It was really stressful to have that be such a huge part of our relationship. She is a terrible slob - dropping things anywhere, never putting ANYTHING away, and then really resenting me when I'd give what I thought were gentle reminders. I ended up doing most of the picking up as well. We [partially] resolved it by trying to have a schedule first, we hired someone to come in and clean the house every other week - not a solution for everyone, I know, but the spirit of it can be lifted it forces us to pick up the night before, and it's generated a feeling of regularity about picking up in general. Like every sunday night we try to do a ''big'' pick-up, and every night, whoever isn't putting the boy to sleep does dishes and a quick living area clean up. It's our deal, and sometimes it doesn't happen, but most of the time, since we have the agreement and the expectation, it at least kind of happens. -anon