Dear Carolyn: My longtime partner is in many ways a wonderful woman. I definitely will be her committed companion for as long as we both shall live. However, she is a total slob. Although our living room is kept up fairly well, the bedroom looks as if a tornado has just come through. The bathroom has cosmetic-type junk strewn all around. The kitchen has flies buzzing around the unwashed dishes.
She has been like this for as long as I have known her (about 35 years). I myself am conscientious about cleanliness. However, I will absolutely not clean up after her. She would like it if I did, but I know if I do she will never take responsibility for herself. So the situation never gets resolved.
I have tried everything I can think of to get her to change. Being firm, being easy, ignoring it, gentle shaming, being insistent, educating, logical reasoning. Nothing has worked.
I don’t want to give up on this and still have hope for some remedy. Can you give me any advice?
D.: Maybe, but I’d rather give you a Golden Mule award: Thirty-five years of not making a dent is an epic amount of time to keep believing you can make a dent.
To be fair, I’m basically built to agree with you; the expectation that I’ll clean up someone else’s mess can send me from 0 to outrage in seconds.
But I’m never outraged by, say, an infant’s mess — naturally, because babies can’t clean, right? So there’s a difference between “won’t” and “can’t” here.
Someone who won’t clean up lacks character and betrays a deal-breaking comfort with letting others do all the work. Someone who can’t clean up lacks skills and betrays a physical/mental/emotional limitation that prevents them from doing the work.
You say your partner is “wonderful,” “definitely” a keeper “as long as we both shall live.” That’s not a tribute to someone of poor character, so she doesn’t sound like a “won’t,” and that plus your 35 years of futility suggest your lovely partner is a “can’t.” She can’t, for whatever reason, clean up.
If you’re choking on this idea because she has opposable thumbs and working limbs and a cupboard full of cleaning products, then please broaden your definition of “can’t” beyond what is physically impossible to include what is pragmatically impossible. As in, for whatever reason, just not going to happen.
Again — she either leaves a mess out of some sense of entitlement or the expression of a certain kind of disability. She’s either a jerk or she’s not.
Either a won’t or a can’t.
This either/or construct can apply to partners who don’t hug, or don’t talk about their feelings, or don’t shut up, or whatever else. We all have excesses and deficits, optional or ingrained. And that means pairing off eventually brings us all to the same crossroads: Stay or go. Accept or insist upon changes.
You’ve stayed and insisted and insisted into decades of setting her up to fail. You won’t leave. “Accept” is all you’ve got left.
So please look to things your partner has, in abundance, that benefit you. Imagine you’re bartering — your cleanliness for these gifts of hers.
Fair enough? Good. Then do her stinkin’ dishes or jointly hire someone who will. Amen.