Relationship Tips

8 Expert Tips for Living With Someone With a Completely Different Tolerance for Mess

Photo: Getty Images/StefaNikolic
Home is the one place where we can reliably expect to feel relaxed and comfortable, where we have the agency to create an environment that supports that need. So it's no surprise that living with someone who has a different tolerance for mess (and, in turn, a different definition of what a home should look or feel like) can spark so much conflict.

“Among people who live together, it doesn’t really matter if they’re both super clean or super messy, but what does matter is if their thresholds for disorder are similar or different,” says Sarah Riforgiate, PhD, associate professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee with a research focus on the division of domestic labor. “The bigger the difference between those thresholds in two people, the more conflict they’ll have.”

Dr. Riforgiate says the dynamic tends to play out like this: The neater person can’t help but see the ever-present mess as an encroachment on their would-be sanctuary. As they repeatedly encounter things like dishes in the sink or dust on the floor, they get frustrated, taking on the tasks of cleaning or organizing themselves and growing resentful of their roommate or partner as they do so—rocket fuel for a blowout fight.

It's also the case that these two people are having very different lived experiences in their home. While the person with the lower threshold is noticing and getting agitated by whatever disorder is happening and then acting on it, the person with the higher threshold likely doesn’t even realize that there’s a cleaning or organizational task that they could be doing because their threshold is never met.

“[Making] negative attributions about a messy partner or roommate just tends to worsen arguments and make it harder to change their behavior.” —Sarah Riforgiate, PhD, communication expert

As a result, it may seem like the messy person is just ignoring the issue, which can lead the neater person to make really negative attributions about them, says Dr. Riforgiate. (As in, “Wow, they didn’t take out the trash again? They must not care about or respect me at all.” )“These negative assumptions just tend to worsen arguments and make it harder to change the messier person’s behavior,” she says.

To avoid that downward spiral and learn to live with someone who has a different tolerance for mess, it's essential to understand that difference from the jump, and then craft a household system that takes it into account. Here are some tips to help you get started if you're in this situation yourself.

How to address organizational differences with a partner or roommate

1. Start by asking questions to understand the other person’s perspective

Typically, the neater person starts the conversation about organizational differences (because they’re the one whose tolerance for mess is being exceeded). If that’s you, you probably feel the need to advise your partner on how they can do a better job around the house, or even criticize their mess outright. But that’s precisely what you shouldn’t do, says clinical psychologist Abby Medcalf, PhD.

“The number-one problem that people face going into this conversation is that they see the situation as having a right and a wrong,” says Dr. Medcalf. “But if you're the neater person, you still have to see your organizational style as a preference and nothing more.” With that mindset, you’ll be more likely to start a conversation on your feelings about the mess without immediately putting your partner or roommate on the defensive.

Dr. Medcalf suggests starting with a few questions to show them that you’re just as eager to find a solution that works for them as you are one that works for you. For example, you might ask, “When you leave the kitchen at night, do you notice anything left out on the counters?” or “After you cleaned the bathroom, did you realize that the toilet was still dirty?” That way, you’re allowing them the space to say, “Actually, I didn’t see that” (remember, their threshold for mess is lower) or to articulate their version of the story.

From there, you might suggest that they ask you similar questions on your view of the home's cleanliness or organization. And that's when you can take the floor to describe how their lingering mess or failure to clean makes you feel and why.

In that scenario, you can expect them to be much more receptive to your points, says Dr. Medcalf. “When you go into the conversation trying to learn something, not prove something, it takes you both out of the power struggle that can otherwise lead to fights.”

2. Use your “threshold for disorder” to explain your differences

The idea of having different thresholds for disorder can serve as helpful language in a conversation about household tasks, says Dr. Riforgiate. It’s a way of talking about the situation without being accusatory. For instance, it’s not that you are neater (and therefore better) and they’re a slob, but rather that you simply have a lower threshold for disorder. And because it gets hit more quickly, you end up doing more of the work around the house—but wish that would change.

This way of viewing the problem also removes some potential for those negative attributions you might otherwise make about your partner or roommate. It’s not that this person disrespects you or is trying to make your life hell with their mess; they just aren’t noticing the mess accumulating because of their higher threshold for disorder. As a result, they also might not recognize that you’re swooping in to clean it periodically, says Dr. Riforgiate. “That’s where you might say, ‘I don’t know if you realize how often I’m doing this task, but going forward, I would like to take turns doing it.’”

3. Get specific on your preferences and expectations

Instead of simply noting the mess or asking a partner or roommate if they could “be cleaner” or “more organized,” figure out your non-negotiables on cleanliness and organization (and where you’re willing to give them some leeway). “Maybe you insist that the kitchen counters be clear of papers at the end of each day, or you just can’t stand when shoes pile up by the front door,” says Nicole Anzia, founder of organizing service Neatnik. “Your best bet is to create specific, attainable, and enforceable guidelines for spaces that you or your partner feel strongly about.”

4. Avoid the trap of “owning” a task you hate

Because a person with a low tolerance for mess tends to respond quickly to mess, they often end up becoming the designated person for tasks they dislike just because they’ve “always done them,” says Dr. Riforgiate.

For instance, if dishes in the sink really bother you, you might start washing dishes whenever you notice them hanging around. Over time, you begin doing this more and more often, so you get quick and efficient at it. “The better you get at a task, the more invisible the labor for that task becomes, leading the other person not to recognize the amount of effort that you’re putting into it,” says Dr. Riforgiate. Eventually, you’re taking care of it so often and so swiftly that they assume you like doing the dishes, leading them to volunteer less and less.

“This pattern creates a division of labor where we tend to specialize in particular tasks that bother us the most,” says Dr. Riforgiate. So, even if something like dirty dishes really bugs you, stop doing the task as often and discuss with your partner or roommate exactly how they can step up to fill the gap. That way, you won’t accidentally dig yourself into the hole of owning that chore for good.

5. Acknowledge the contributions that the other person is making (to the space or your relationship)

It might seem obvious, but recognizing that your messy roommate or partner isn’t just messy and likely contributes something positive to your home and/or relationship can help you to feel like things are more equitable. “When we think about equity, we’re not just talking about, ‘Okay, you're going to clean the bathroom this week, and I'm going to clean the bathroom next week,’” says Dr. Riforgiate. “We're talking about, when you look at your overall relationship, what are the benefits that you get from that relationship, and overall, do they outweigh the costs?”

In the case of a messy roommate, perhaps this person cooks more often or deals with the annoying neighbors or shops for communal decor. And if they’re your friend, too, they likely contribute much more to your relationship than that—all of which can offset some of the downsides of their messiness.

With a romantic partner, of course, those benefits could be just as great or greater. “Remember: You didn’t fall in love with your partner because, for example, they cleaned the sink well or really knew how to vacuum,” says Dr. Medcalf. Just because the other things that they contribute to your day-to-day life—say, positivity or creativity—may not take as much time as cleaning the house doesn’t mean they’re not as valuable, she says.

Simply considering all these non-organizational upsides of a messy roommate or partner could help reassure you that you’re getting your fair shake in the partnership, says Dr. Riforgiate, which might also help you feel like you can more comfortably share space with them.

3 organizing and cleaning tips for people who are living together, but have a different tolerance for mess

1. Simplify as much as possible

In an effort to control a chaotic situation, neat people often add unnecessary layers to an organizational system. Think: Color-coded boxes, drawer dividers, bins within bins. But, ironically, these tend to work better for the folks who are already neat than they do for the messy, says Kelly McMenamin, author of Organize Your Way. Instead, she suggests building one-step processes for as many household tasks as possible by continually asking yourself whether an extra component is absolutely necessary for a system to function (and eliminating it if not).

Consider, for example, a laundry hamper, which can exist with or without a lid. “A messier person may pile clothes on top of a hamper lid, but without the lid, the clothes will most often actually go in the hamper,” says McMenamin. The same principle applies for various containers and dividers within a fridge. “That’s probably a waste of time given that someone with a higher tolerance for mess is likely not to notice them or adhere to the system as closely as a tidier person would, anyway,” she says.

2. Create personal zones to contain clutter

Even if shared areas can’t be kept exactly how you’d keep them if you were living solo, designated personal zones certainly can be. These are areas that you carve out for each person—because your needs don’t outweigh your partner’s, and vice versa, says Brandie Larsen, co-founder of organizing service Home+Sort. This way, you can have areas that are guaranteed free from clutter, like the kitchen counter or the bathroom, and your partner can have zones for their clutter to live while remaining contained, she says.

This system also helps mitigate the would-be power struggle of home organization. “Everyone gets a space where they can be their ‘shoes-off’ self and adhere to absolutely nobody else’s organizational systems,” says McMenamin.

3. Set a schedule for key cleaning tasks and chores

Having a different tolerance for mess than your partner or roommate means that the two of you will recognize that something is dirty or disorganized at different points in time, says Dr. Riforgiate. And if you agree to just clean an area when it needs to be cleaned, the person with the lower tolerance for mess will always end up doing it first. So, rather than deciding to do chores as needed, set and stick to a schedule for key cleaning tasks.

To determine the cadence for each task, talk about how often you’d ideally like it done, and gauge how your partner or roommate can realistically contribute to that. Then, consider what level of “messiness” you might be able to handle for a particular task, so long as you know you’re not the only one who's going to be doing it, says Dr. Riforgiate. “If you can trust that your partner or roommate will take care of the dishes at least once a day, for instance, then you might be more okay with letting a few sit in the sink for a bit, and giving them some leeway.”

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