Opposites attract, or so they say, and in many ways this phenomenon can work out well for a couple — they complement each other’s interests, styles and habits. But one area in which a couple’s differences can make living together less than harmonious is home organization.
I’ve worked with many clients for whom organization is a major source of discord with their spouse. They argue about topics including where the keys and mail belong and how to handle bill paying, laundry and grocery shopping. All of these tasks seem like they wouldn’t be difficult for two adults to agree on, but they just are, and for lots of reasons. Unless couples find ways to deal with their organizational divide, the stress on their relationship can be immense — both for the neat spouse and the more laid-back, untidy spouse. Here’s how I’ve seen people make things work.
When a couple move in together or get married, they often assume that cohabitation means that they’ll share everything. But once the boxes are unpacked and they begin settling in, it becomes apparent that one person prefers a very neat closet and the other couldn’t care less whether all the shirts are hung in the same direction or if the shoes are lined up. Or it might become clear that one person likes a tidy desk in the home office where everything is put away and the other can function only when everything they need is right at their fingertips.
It’s a good idea to try compromising and to make joint spaces work, but it’s also okay to realize that neither of you is going to change drastically enough to totally accommodate the other’s wishes. So it may just be better if one person sets up a desk in the basement or decides to have their closet in a spare bedroom. Arguing about what an office or closet “should” look like is usually not helpful. People function differently, and they’re rarely able to change ingrained habits dramatically. So don’t waste years trying to get your spouse to come around to your way of thinking. Giving up on sharing everything is not a failure. A willingness to take a different approach is a sign of respect.
With some couples, one person feels very strongly about keeping a particular room organized but is willing to compromise on other areas of the house. Maybe your spouse insists that the kitchen counters be clear of papers at the end of each day, and maybe you can’t stand when shoes pile up by the front door. Make clear rules about certain spaces. The guidelines need to be specific, attainable and enforceable — for example, before the cleaning service comes, everything must be picked up off the floor. This strategy allows both spouses to have input but also requires cooperation.
In most homes, there are a couple of areas that regularly become cluttered and disorganized. Sometimes the spaces that get the most traffic, such as the kitchen and family room, become messy the fastest, and sometimes it’s the less frequently used spaces where things tend to get stashed until they can be dealt with later — the dining room, a spare bedroom or the unfinished side of the basement. But for an organized person, the location is irrelevant. They don’t like it when things are out of place or difficult to locate. And for the less organized spouse, if the clutter is hidden away, they think no one should be offended. However, the mess will eventually need attention. If one person is better at — or more knowledgeable about — where things belong in a particular room, they can be responsible for straightening up that space, and their partner can take on another area. Split the work and set a deadline. Or agree to clean your designated space every Sunday evening or every two weeks. Resentment builds when one person is in charge, so make it fair by dividing the responsibility evenly.
Doing nothing when there is disagreement about how to live in and enjoy your home is not a viable option. If you can’t resolve your differences alone, call in a third party to offer objective advice. It doesn’t need to be a professional organizer, and a relative may not be an ideal choice, but a friend or neighbor may be able to help you clean out or straighten up your closet a couple of times a year or share ideas about how they process bills. You can also hire a person or service to clean your house every few weeks. This will not only help to keep the house clean, but it will also require you to do some straightening and picking up before the cleaner arrives.