5 Tips for Living with a Messy Partner, According to Relationship Experts
Living with your significant other can be hard at times, but especially these days, while we’re sheltering in place and most of us are spending more time at home (and together!) than ever before. And while it is a privilege to stay at home with our loved ones, that doesn’t mean the situation can’t still be difficult. It takes lots of communication to make sure your home dynamic works for both of you, and it’s all even harder if your partner happens to be messy and you’re the neat one (or vice versa) — your respective differences add stress to both of you.
Here are some tips from relationship experts who understand the challenges of living together, particularly when either partner might not see eye-to-eye on, say, whether or not a cabinet door needs to be closed once something is taken out.
1. Speak your mind. Nicely.
Sometimes in relationships, things matter more to you than to the other person. But the other person is not a mind reader: There’s no way for your partner to know if something matters or not to you if you haven’t talked about it. Instead of responding in a reactive tone when your partner leaves a pot soaking in the sink, wait until you’ve simmered down to talk to them about it and the reason behind why it bugs you so much.
Here’s how to do it: “Make sure not to accuse with ‘You always, you never, you keep doing’ statements,” says Brynna Pawlows, LMSW, a therapist based in New York City. Instead, keep it to your own experience: “I get really anxious when my home isn’t in order. I start to feel that my home isn’t a relaxing place anymore and it contributes to my day-to-day stress.” Communicating to your partner the stress it makes you feel will make them understand, from your perspective, how you internalize their messy habits.
2. Be specific — about one main thing.
Coming at your partner with a laundry list of things they are doing wrong isn’t going to sit well — with either of you, probably. What bothers you the most? Is it the way they never tuck in the breakfast chair under the table? The trail of crumbs that’s always scattered down the counter? The baked-on food they leave to harden on the stovetop? Start with the one thing that’s the most important to you.
Here’s how to do it: Rather than saying, “Pick up this mess,” break down the request to the main thing you’re after, suggests Gabrielle Hartley, a divorce attorney, coach, mediator, and author. Adding a little structure and context makes the ask more tactical and therefore more motivating to the person on the receiving end of the ask. “Once you get the one thing you are looking for, allow the other small things to go,” Gabrielle suggests. By starting with one simple habit like putting a dirty dish in the dishwasher or wiping down the counter after cooking a meal, you can either build from there or realize that some things are worth letting go.
3. Designate a messy zone.
One messy zone won’t hurt you. In fact, it can probably help you! If you’re asking for change in the kitchen, as opposed to meeting in the middle on every little issue, consider giving up another area in your house as a space that’s allowed to be a little less than perfect.
Here’s how to do it: Whether it’s a closet, a desk, or a small section of your bedroom, give your partner a space to be messy, suggests Taina Brown, a life coach who coaches clients in the LBTQ community. Take it a step further by letting them decide which area it is. By empowering them to have their own messy zone, they’ll be more motivated to maintain your desired level of order in the kitchen because they’ll have their own space to be their messy, lovely selves. This messy zone can even be part of the kitchen. For example, if they hate all your various cups that you use throughout the day, you can set up a space on the counter where they can hang out together in a judgment-free zone.
4. Remember: You’re on the same team.
This is not a you-versus-them situation here. As corny and cliché as it sounds, it’s a we situation. And because of that, it doesn’t help to compare and contrast who’s messier and who’s neater and the merits thereof. You’re in this together. The ultimate goal here is to make your home together a cozy place for both of you.
Here’s how to do it: By prioritizing connection over disconnection, you will instantly be reminded that your home should be a reflection of both of you. “Trust that, as a team, you will be able to come up with a creative solution that considers both of your needs,” says Chicago-based dating coach Gabrielle Valdes. Do it by adopting an “us” mentality, by hearing your partner out, and speaking up about your needs. “Instead of making your partner the problem, turn toward him or her — not away,” she says. If you have a problem, that means you both do and you can work together to fix it.
5. Show appreciation.
Saying thank you is the simplest thing, but it goes such a long way. So often, we remember social niceties with strangers more than we remember with our family — especially our romantic partners. And that’s because it’s easy to take our frustrations out on the people we love the most, on those we can fully let our guard down with. Exercise gratitude when your partner remembers to empty the overflowing recycling bin or wipe down the fridge shelves. It’s the little things as much as the big things that should be noticed.
Here’s how to do it: Instead of focusing on the negatives or your partner failing to attain your own definition of cleanliness, look for the effort your partner is making each day. “Keep in mind that your partner may be trying their best to meet you in the middle and clean to their best abilities,” says relationship coach Shachee Mehta. Simply say thank you or try being more specific like, “I noticed how you cleaned down the sink earlier. That meant a lot to me.” Watch how it makes them glow. You may notice how one compliment will result in an effort to make more changes. Thank you is such a simple expression, but it’s more powerful than you might think.
Got any other tips for cohabitating with a messy partner? Leave your ideas in the comments below.