Marriage and Family Therapist
Cyndi Sarnoff-Ross is a licensed psychotherapist with almost twenty years of clinical experience in the fields of clinical psychology and organizational management. She has worked extensively with a wide variety of…
He’s Messy and She’s a Neat Freak – How to Manage the Difference
Posted in Healthy Relatio... by Cyndi Sarnoff-Ross on May 02, 2013
It is often said that people who try to control their outer world really want to manage their inner one. To some extent this may be true. What happens when couples unite and their organization style is vastly different? Surprisingly (or maybe not for those who live it) this type of difference can put a tremendous amount of strain on a relationship. It doesn’t have to be an irreconcilable problem though if lines of communication remain open and there is willingness to compromise.

There are many people who derive a great deal of satisfaction and even joy by of creating an orderly environment. Most people, even those who seem to be okay with a bit of chaos, enjoy order to some extent. Although there are some people who seem not to notice clutter at all. It is as if it is invisible to them. When I have couples in my practice that have very different tolerance levels for disorder, the partner who craves order typically picks up most of the slack. Unfortunately, this is not without repercussions.

I always find it curious when one member of a couple has piles and piles of whatever it is they feel the need to pile up and, despite the fact that it agitates their mate, they do little to remedy the situation. Sometimes a pile really is just a pile but so often those piles are representative of the things in one’s life that they don’t wish to deal with, those things they would rather remain oblivious to. There are those who fall into this category and others who are simply hoarders. For both of these groups it would serve them well to discuss their piles with a therapist and begin to work on the issues they represent. The rest of the mess makers may simply be people who are not bothered by the clutter but inevitably they are bothered by the discord it causes in their relationship.

If you are on either side of this issue the first step is to sit down with your partner and lay out the facts. Like all couples’ issues the goal is to increase the empathy you have for your mate and begin to experience the situation from his or her perspective. This can help to decease your own anger and or frustration. Convey to the other person how their behavior makes you feel without being judgmental or critical of them.

For instance, saying something like, “you are so messy I can’t stand to even be in the house and that makes me really upset,” is not productive. Instead speak to your own experience by saying something like, “when I am surrounded by piles of stuff I feel anxious and have a hard time focusing. It would help me to feel so much more relaxed at home if we could tackle some of these piles.” Of course you need to find you own words and report your true feelings but how you do this is key to finding a solution. Compromise is also key. What role can each person play to help solve this problem going forward? How can the person who desires order assist the person who is comfortable with chaos in helping them to unclutter?

In the end both parties will need to move more to the middle and, as with the true meaning of compromise, everyone will be a little happy and a little bit unhappy. If the 1st conversation doesn’t go well then you may want to consider involving a therapist in the process. While it may seem like a trivial topic this is often just a starting place to obtain tools to navigate other differences in the relationship.

- Cyndi


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If you take two people, one will always be messier than the other, or just in different ways. I know a couple where the wife is neat and the husband is even neater, possibly OCD about neatness, and it drives her crazy. Either one of them would be worse off with anyone else.
By Fern RL  May 07, 2013
But why does a compromise on this field always seem to mean that only the messy one has to change? Keeping things immaculate means using a lot of time for it, and the messier side of the conflict might just want to use it for something else. It does not mean he/she expects the other person to clean up or organize. It means he/she expects both to have lower standards in orderliness in order to have time for other things. So, why is it always the messier one who has to give up? (Cindy, you did not write like that - I am relating here to the general opinion, not to your article!)
By eliana216  May 06, 2013
I mean no disrespect, but wouldn't the ideal solution be an outcome where the messy partner grows up and starts behaving like an adult?
By RichieD  May 06, 2013
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