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I'm Neat, He's Messy--What Can I Do?

By Dr. Margaret Paul
August 13, 2012

Is your partner's messiness driving you crazy? Discover how to resolve this issue in your relationship.

When we meet and fall in love with someone, we often don't think about what might seem like minor differences, which can later turn into major conflicts. One of these differences that frequently occurs with my clients is neatness vs. messiness.

Vanessa, in one of our Skype sessions, said:

"I'm a naturally neat person and my husband, Derek, is very messy. I'm constantly picking up after him and I hate it. I've talked to him about it, letting him know that neatness is very important to me and that I feel crabby and overwhelmed when things are messy, but nothing changes. It makes me feel very uncared about, and I don't know what to do."

"Vanessa, when did you first notice Derek's messiness?"

"Oh, the first time he picked me up in his car. His car was a mess, and so was his apartment. I know that should have been a warning sign, but I was so attracted to him and we connected so deeply that I figured this would iron itself out."

"So you either thought this was no big deal or that it would change?"

"Yes. But it's turned out to be a really big deal and it's not changing at all."

I hear this over and over, not just around messiness, but around many other issues such as drinking, drug use, smoking, anger, withdrawal, lack of affection, lack of sexuality, lying, food, weight and health issues, lack of personal hygiene, money and debt issues and so on. Many people enter relationships with a big, often unconscious, false belief: "I can get this person to change."

I tell people over and over again, "You get what you see. If you are not okay with the way the person is right now, then end the relationship before getting more deeply involved. The person may or may not change, but you can't change them. And change is very unlikely unless the person is already on a path of personal growth and wants to heal the issue. If the issue is not perceived by them as a problem, then it is unlikely that change will occur, no matter how much the issue is a problem for you and no matter how much you love that person. So, either accept it or leave.

What if you are already in the relationship, like Vanessa? Let's go back to her issue of a messy husband.

"Vanessa, what if you stopped taking this personally? After all, you knew about this before you married Derek, so it really has nothing to do with you. I know you believed that if you loved each other enough, he would change, but this isn't true."

"That would help me not feel so uncared about, but I would still have the issue itself that drives me crazy. What can I do to take care of myself with his messiness?"

I gave Vanessa a couple of ideas, that were based in what she had shared with me over the time we had worked together:

  • She could let Derek know that if she picks up something he has left lying around—other than in his own space such as his office - she will hide it for a week and extend it for longer if it keeps happening. She can make a game of it for herself, enjoying finding hiding places.
  • She could find a way to earn enough money to pay for someone to come in every day to clean up.

The key is that both of these ideas are about what Vanessa could do for herself, rather than continuing to try to change Derek—which is never going to work. Each situation is going to require a unique, and sometimes very creative, approach.

Vanessa decided to try the first one, since earning more money was not currently available to her. Derek laughed at her when she first told him, not believing that she would actually do this. Then, the first time she did it, hiding his favorite jacket, he was furious. Vanessa stood her ground. The next day Derek tested her again, leaving his papers from work all over the table. Swallowing hard, since she knew he needed these papers, and she knew he knew this, she hid the papers. He was again very angry.

From that day on, Derek never left anything that was important to him lying around. Vanessa still had to hide socks and underwear and other articles of clothing, which she ended up doing for a month at a time. Eventually, Derek missed his clothing enough that he started to pick them up.

By taking loving care of herself, rather than trying to change Derek, Vanessa was able to solve the problem for herself. Even if Derek hadn't started to pick things up, Vanessa would have been okay, since she enjoyed finding hiding places!



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