30

Situation

My long-term partner and I (mid-thirties) have apartments in different cities due to work reasons, we see each other on the weekends, always taking turns whose apartment we are staying in. While we generally enjoy each others company, there is something that is increasingly grating on my nerves when in "my" place.

SHE NEVER CLEANS UP!

For example, we both love good food and I happen to be a reasonably good cook. I also enjoy making her happy by offering new and exciting food. Her enjoyment of the meal is my main motivation to cook for her. We both eat our meal together, enjoy a glass of wine and chat. Food plays a major role in our relationship. However, cooking involves lots of effort and dirty dishes and I would like her to at least get involved when the time to clean up has come. That doesn't happen though. Over the course of a few years, at least I got her to carry her dishes back onto the kitchen counter, but it's still hit and miss for her to place those plates in the dish washer, let alone clean the pots. While I tend to enjoy offering her good food, I am starting to feel more like a restaurant than a partner (and she doesn't tip well!)

Another example that happened this morning: for the umpteenth time, she did not replace the toilet paper roll on its hanger*, instead just placing a new roll somewhere and leaving the empty cardboard roll for me to remove and throw away. I have asked her many times to just replace the toilet paper and be done with it, but it seems this simple action is too much to ask.

Or she will leave a q-tip just lying around on the sink because she forgot to put it into the trash under the sink.

When at her place, we eat out more often, leaving less dishes to be cleaned. While it is true that I don't usually clean her apartment, at least I do the basic stuff like putting dishes into the dishwasher or changing the toilet paper roll. I am really not extremely into cleanliness, I just feel like she could bear more of the common burden.

What I have tried

  • I have let everything stand around to motivate her to clean up herself. This just ends up with dirty dishes stacked in my apartment and her leaving for work (I have too many dishes obviously). By the next time it's her turn to come, I will have cleaned up because I can't bear the stench.
  • I have practically ordered her to clean up. This usually ends in fights, her reminding me of the one time I didn't clean up at her place two years ago and nothing gets done.
  • Put up ultimatums, like I won't cook if she doesn't do the dishes afterwards. This does not work because I tend to get hungry as well.

About her

She grew up in a single-parent household and was not materially well-off. I assume her parent compensated for that by cleaning up after her all time, so she never learned it herself. Also, I assume she just tends to forget things after using them.

Question

I am looking for methods to get her to join more in household duties, especially when cooking - ideally without having to force her. Alternatively, I would also take methods for me to get less angry about the skewed workload.

*I agree this example is extremely banal, but that's the kind of stuff that ruins marriages!

  • 1
    Is the "what have I tried" section chronological? As in first you tried letting everything stand and when that didn't work, moved to ordering clean up, etc...? If so what do the time periods look like for those? – scohe001 Jul 30 '18 at 16:12
  • 24
    Is that assumption about parental cleanup based on anything your girlfriend has said to you, or just your assumption? Some people simply aren't as tidy as others, and as a result live in messier homes. How neat is her apartment, and how much of that does she do versus you? – Upper_Case Jul 30 '18 at 17:39
  • 1
    How much do you help when you visit her? – carrizal Jul 30 '18 at 18:44
  • @carrizal: I do the basic stuff, like putting dishes away etc. Whatever courtesy dictates (in my eyes) – Cliff Jul 31 '18 at 6:30
  • 2
    @Upper_Case: it's my assumption. Her apartment is about the same neatness as mine, but the kitchen is messier. Maybe I'm just being too anal about my nice kitchen :) – Cliff Jul 31 '18 at 6:34
37

The problem isn't that she's not cleaning...

The real problem here is that you don't like the work you have to do.

It sounds like your partner doesn't realize how big a problem this is for you. As such, I'd opt for a straightforward conversation as a solution.

How to talk about it

Find a time you're both calm (maybe when you're at her place) and tell her about the situation from your perspective, emphasizing that this is how you feel. Don't talk about how unfair it is or how she should be putting in more work, simply tell her that given the way things are, you don't like doing all of the cleanup when she comes over since there's more cleanup to do.

"I feel" statements will help prevent this from turning into a full confrontation--which it shouldn't be. The problem here isn't that she's not cleaning up, it's the way you feel.

Thus, the solution might not be for her to clean more. Maybe it's for you to spend a bigger ratio of the time together at her place. Or maybe it's to eat out more when she comes over. But the key here is to find some balance where you're okay with the amount of work you need to do. And the way I recommend finding that balance is by opening up to your partner and letting them know how you feel about the current situation and then trying to work toward a solution together.


An aside about your first solution

It sounds like part of the problem here is that your first solution was to use passive aggressive behavior (letting "everything stand around to motivate her to clean up herself.").

In my experience, trying to solve problems where I'm upset in the relationship with passive aggressive means usually only aggravates the actual problem and makes it harder to solve in the end. It looks like the same has happened to you.

Your partner has become used to the relationship working a certain way when you're at your place and now when you try to be direct, you have a shorter temper since you feel you've been wronged this whole time (though they have no way of knowing how bad since you only tried to communicate passive aggressively) and you're getting pushed back from your partner since they're now used to the way things work.

In the future, I'd highly suggest being direct and speaking up about things that bother you in the relationship. Good communication is key and while being passive aggressive can be easier and feel better in the moment, taking the time to put your thoughts and feelings into words and try to come to an understanding with your partner will almost always lead to a healthier and better long term solution.

Best of luck!

76

While in general there is a huge spectrum of how people feel about tidying and cleaning, I have noticed that people who live alone tend towards the ends of that spectrum. A q-tip or a dirty dish will have to be carried from where you see it to the garbage or the dishwasher eventually. Doing it now or doing it later is the same. If you see it and it bothers you, you take care of it then. If it doesn't bother you then who cares? You can use toilet paper from a roll stood on its end as long as you want, and eventually put it on the holder. On the other hand, if it bothers you the minute you see it, you had better tidy it up now because nobody else is going to. This leads to people who are right-this-minute tidiers about everything or it-can-wait tidiers about everything, rather than being more in the middle about things. That appears to be the case with the two of you.

Another thing I've observed is that many people who live alone reuse things without washing them or putting them away, because they know the provenance - when a jar of something came out of the fridge, or what a knife was used to cut, or what was in a glass or mug. That, of course, doesn't work when you're not always the one who used the thing last.

So what's really happening here is that you two are experimenting with merging your lifestyles, and with having another person to think about. It probably feels to you like you're the only one doing that, because you're cooking for her and cleaning for her and she's not returning that. But how much are you changing your ways? Aren't you just doing what you always did, but cooking more food or putting more dishes in the dishwasher? If her lifestyle includes being free to put things down and then use them again later, or at least deal with them later, doesn't asking her to put everything away immediately and deal with everything immediately constitute a bigger change?

I have a regular visitor who tidies up if I don't. It's kind of exhausting. I feel this pressure to make decisions about things that I would rather ignore, things I don't think are hurting anyone, right on the spot while my mind is full of something else. Now, perhaps your girlfriend should be willing to put in this work in order to live with you, whether for a weekend or forever. But you don't seem to even be aware it is work.

I recommend you ask her for some time to talk about housework. Try to come at it from the position of "we have different styles of living" not "you need to do your share of the housework." Listen to what she tells you about her habits and her preferences, and how it makes her feel when you ask or expect her to do something faster than she would have done. The two of you will have to work this out. Perhaps you will end up tidying more than half, while she's still tidying a little more than she's comfortable. Perhaps you can't live together. But unless you know how she feels and why she does what she does, you can't work out a way forward together.

  • 2
    I'm not entirely sure it has to do with different lifestyles. I don't clean everything up immediately when I'm alone (and I don't cook as much for myself), and she doesn't leave her dishes standing around for weeks on end when she is alone. Rather, I think she uses the fact that there is someone else to clean up after her and treats her stays at my place as more of a vacation. In contrast, I see cooking as a team activity to enjoy a nice meal together, and in the end we clean up together. I'd be fine with doing more than half, but not everything. – Cliff Jul 31 '18 at 6:48
  • 6
    @Cliff how does she see cooking? You still need that talk with her. How would she feel about you being in vacation as you say when you're at her place? Could it be she would want things to be that way? You won't know before you ask her. – Pierre Arlaud Jul 31 '18 at 9:27
  • 3
    @Cliff LOL! My point exactly. Empathy is about putting yourself in someone else's shoes to understand why they feel the way they do. Here you are again being argumentative that your worldview is right rather than trying to understand her side. Do you know for a fact that dishes aren't traumatic for her? Have you asked, really asked with a non-judgemental open mind? – Mike Ounsworth Aug 1 '18 at 11:23
  • 7
    At home she chooses when to do it. She can do it right away if that's important, or before bed, or the next morning. It's up to her. She might do if differently on different days. Now there's someone in her life insisting on when it happens, when she is maybe trying to enjoy the small window of time the two of you have to spend together. To her it may feel like the tidiness of your apartment and the state of the dishes is more important than sitting and talking to her, or just spending time together. (Perhaps "I'll dry and put away if you wash" could kill two birds with one stone?) – Kate Gregory Aug 1 '18 at 12:00
  • 3
    You also sound super parental. "Clean up after yourself". "Do your share". "It's hardly traumatic". You clearly feel that you are the one who decides the tidiness level and schedule, and what you need to do here is enforce it and get her in line. You can't imagine that any other approach is ok, or that she has reasons other than habit and laziness for what she does. She may, you know. – Kate Gregory Aug 1 '18 at 12:02
17

Actually I think much of your situation is ancillary detail. You'd likely have the same issues if you lived together full time.

You're still talking about two common issues in relationships:

How to reconcile different systems of values

and

How to peaceably negotiate mutually acceptable resolutions.

Recognize that you and your partner have different priorities when it comes to housekeeping. You like a clean house; she's more indifferent and cleans when the level of mess passes a certain threshold. Neither of you is right or wrong. Both are equally acceptable ways to live.

Learn to let go of your preconceptions about how things should be. Would it really be so bad if you just left the dishes lying around until the next day, or even until you had no more clean dishes? At what point would it become equally intolerable to you both?

Moreover, consider whether this focus on cleanliness is simply a mask for some deeper values conflict. Suppose you had a robot servant who constantly cleaned for you. Would everything be peachy? Or would you still find things to get upset about?

Either let go of this need to find fault, or figure out the deeper issue that needs to be openly discussed. Professionals often say that relationship conflicts fundamentally come down to either sex or money, and whether you feel you have enough of each, or the power games you play to control access. If one (or both) of these is a problem, talk about that, instead of the peripheral distractions.

Resolving these things is how millions of marriage counselors keep the lights on, so it's difficult to come up with short, simple solutions. Every relationship has its own quirks. In the end, though, most of these come down to give-and-take negotiations -- what each is willing to offer to ensure the partner's peace of mind.

As you've found, ultimatums and other forms of coercion often have the opposite effect. When it comes to families, all most of us know about conflict resolution is how we were treated by our parents. The default setting is to make demands, and back those up with some kind of threat, just as was done to us when we were young.

If you try this with an equal partner, you only create a power imbalance that generally leads to resentment and consequence. Again, give up all expectation of right and wrong, even in your own home. Approach it instead as a negotiation. Some possible steps:

  1. Explain how the situation makes you feel, and why it's important to you. This helps give your partner context to understand how her actions impact your emotional well-being. Your goal is to get her to put value on cleaning up, not for the reasons you value it, but because it's important to your relationship.

  2. If she continues to not care as much about cleanliness as you do, consider making that your job, in return for her doing something you don't want to do. Come to a mutual agreement, even write down the terms and post it on the refrigerator, so you both know and accept these division of responsibilities.

  3. If need be you can impose a fun and mutually agreed-on "penalty" for non-compliance, like each time putting some money in a box toward "date night". Be careful that this stays light-hearted, though, and doesn't turn into a series of accusations. Furthermore, be lenient when work or personal issues get in the way. It's a game, not a contract.

Remember that, in the end, this is more about you and what you can learn from the relationship, than what the other person is supposed to offer you. There's no external reason you couldn't shift your perspective to where you find joy in cleaning up after your partner, because it's nice to have someone to take care of. I'm not saying you have to do this, but it is a good idea to ask yourself what internal preconceptions and expectations exist that stop you from feeling this way. Perhaps those things are also holding you back in other parts of your life.

7

I met my wife when we were both in our late twenties. While meeting someone after you've established a stable home life gives a lot of advantages, one of the disadvantages is it's harder work to learn to compromise domestically. What you've been doing for years has worked for you - so it's tougher to learn to change eating/cleaning/laundry/etc habits than if you found someone in High School or College and are just starting out in the real world together.

This applies to both of you. She's lived the way she's lived for years - it obviously works for her (if it didn't, she'd have changed before she met you.) So you need to understand that what you're asking for is additional work for her that she doesn't want. Likewise, you need to understand that your natural instinct in the situation isn't to compromise, but to figure out a way to fold her into the life you were living before. And that's her instinct as well: to figure out a way of folding you into her life. Compromise in that situation is tough, because neither person naturally wants to break their habits.

So, the suggestions:

Be patient. Both of you are set in your patterns, and it's going to be harder to break out of them.

Be understanding. Realize that you're asking a lot more than it seems at first glance: you're asking her to change habits for a gain that she doesn't value. If she did, she'd already be doing it, after all.

Be compromising. Every time an issue like this comes up, reassess your priorities. You've got a belief that the dishes have to be done as soon as dinner is done. Reevaluate it. How important is that belief to you? Figure out which beliefs are important to you, because some things you're just going to have to let slide.

Don't keep score. You mentioned about being angry about a skewed workload. Not, "I feel overwhelmed with housework", or "I don't have any freetime" - but simply, "I'm upset that I do more than her." That's the surest way to get a relationship to fail: keeping track of who does how much like an accounting ledger. Because I can guarantee you, there are all sorts of things she does more of in the relationship (empathy, support, cheerfulness, smiles, physical affection, etc - it's doubtful you're giving more than her in every facet of things.)

  • 4
    "if it didn't, she'd have changed before she met you" Not true. My partner was a slob, to the extent of leaving multiple dirty plates in the bed. She's not that bad now, but she's still pretty bad. I'm not the tidiest person, but it's still annoying when she says "we both need to improve" when I've left a couple of books on the table and she's literally covered it with her stuff. The gaslighting of "you do it too" when there's orders of magnitude difference in scale is unfair, but it's a classic avoidance tactic. – Graham Jul 30 '18 at 22:05
  • 1
    Yes, one shouldn't "keep score" (you had 5 potato chips, I get the next 5) but there does need to be a basic equality in a relationship. When one person is doing all the work and the other one is along for a free ride, it's inevitably going to generate anger. I'm not saying that that's the case here, but to say "don't keep score" is overly simplistic. – DaveG Jul 31 '18 at 1:40
  • 2
    I have to agree with Graham and DaveG here, it's not about different lifestyles, but doing practically nothing. I think the main issue here is that all my effort has led to the fact that she expects a fine meal without a trade-off in terms of a little (not even 50/50) help on her side. And this makes me less interested in making these meals! – Cliff Jul 31 '18 at 6:40
  • 2
    That "don't keep score" point hits on something I take very close to heart. I share my flat with a friend, we're both frankly awful about keeping things clean and tidy, hence what generally happens is that we team up to tidy the place periodically when it's getting too much. Generally the attitude is that while he's substantially more likely than me to clean the kitchen, I'm more likely to cook a hearty meal for the both of us, or pay for takeout. There's no expectation of equality but we aren't trying to take advantage of each other, which makes all the difference. – Ruadhan2300 Jul 31 '18 at 14:02
5

Adding another answer because the answers so far concentrate on how without first considering why she may be exhibiting this behaviour.

She probably still feels like she is a guest in your flat. As such, she may not want to presume to initiate cleaning herself. She may feel she lacks agency or incentive to clean. I know I've slipped into the routine of "I'm the guest, I should be looked after" (especially at a parents house!).

So the way I would address solving this is to take steps to make her feel less like a guest and more like a partner. Make it less a vacation and more a home away from home. Put some pictures of the two of you up. Clear some drawer/wardrobe space for her. Involve her in some decorating discussions/decisions. Go out and choose some new towels. Cook together! If it's something "you like to do", try and share it together, and then you can share cleaning up together.

To me the issue is ownership - so anything you can do to help her feel more ownership will lead to her taking more responsibility of the space.

  • It sounds like a pretty long-term relationship so I doubt she feels exactly like a guest. The stuff that the OP mentions is pretty basic (moving dishes over to the sink / dishwasher, throwing away trash, replacing toilet paper rolls). That's the stuff you do the first time you are invited to someone's house. – DaveG Jul 31 '18 at 15:42
  • I think this is a very interesting approach - I hadn't seen it this way. I will try and see how I can make the apartment her home too. – Cliff Aug 1 '18 at 6:03
2

As far as cooking, my fiance and I have evolved a pretty simple system: one person cooks, the other person cleans up. Sometimes we cook together but even then it's pretty clear who did the lion's share of the work. It works out really nicely because whoever is a little tired from work and cooking sits back and reads or whatever while the other person cleans.

This system between myself and my fiance happened without verbal communication. You would have to be more explicit and ask your girlfriend if she is willing to have one person cook, and the person who doesn't cook clean up. You might saying something like "I'd like to balance out the chores. How about when we eat in, one of us cooks, and whoever doesn't cook cleans up?"

This system has the advantage that it gets rid of all ambiguity. The OP and his girlfriend no longer have different expectations about who is going to do what. It's crystal clear.

As far as other stuff like toilet paper rolls: some things you just have to ask yourself if it's worth getting stressed about. Sometimes I'll find a load of wet laundry in the washer where my fiance started a load and got busy and never dried it. I move it to the dryer. It's ok.

2

There have been a decent number of really rational responses here and my take on this is a little different.

You're trying to "fix" her. You can't. I have my doubts that's it's even possible for one person to fix another. It sounds like you've tried a range of approaches and all have failed. To me, this only strengthens my opinion that you can't fix people.

She will change if and when she decides to and that likely can't be influenced by you. I say that because you've been consistently trying and failing. Sorry if that sounds harsh, it's not meant to be.

It's hard to accept that people won't do certain things for their signifiant others, but it's reality. I'm old and I've seen a LOT of relationships. Even the best ones have odd sticky issues.

I empathize because I am in the same boat as you. My spouse seems very similar in behavior and responses to nudging to yours. I am 20+ years in this relationship and have done everything you have done.

For me I had to look at what things my spouse does that I don't do, and factor that in. When I could find that he provided lots of value in other things around the house that I don't do (or want to do) it was easy for me to "give up" on getting him to change his behavior. For example, I dislike yard work. My spouse is great at it. I hate shoveling snow. My spouse likes the snowblower more than me. There is give and take.

I think there is a serious imbalance where there isn't a give and take. If you are able to take a 1000ft view of things and see where your spouse does provide value and if you can find it's worth what you think the cleaning up is worth, you can likely get past this.

On the other hand some people are built to take and not give. Hopefully she's not like that.

Good luck!

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.