Newlyweds George and Martha decided to start their marriage in a brand-new house. It was wonderful, of course. They had spent hours discussing what they wanted with their cleverest of architects, and he in turn delivered the best kitchen ever and the best floor plan ever, all with a view that takes your breath away.

Life in this jewel box promised to be problem-free. But soon the bloom on the rose began to fade, as Martha and George realized that they have a personality clash that no house could mask. She is messy and he is neat and all too often they are at each other’s throats.

How could what has become the defining difference between Martha and George have escaped notice during their long courtship? Like most couples today who spend days, weeks and even months in each other’s apartment before deciding to marry, George and Martha knew each other well. But much of their courtship was conducted on the other person’s turf where irritating habits can be politely or blithely ignored. Belatedly, they discovered that irritating behavior is not so easy to shake off when it happens in our house.

Could a different design have spared them? No. But if George and Martha had realized that neatness or the lack of it would become a big deal in their relationship while they were still working with their architect, he might have had a few tricks up his sleeve that could have ameliorated it.

But the truth is, design can only do so much. If George and Martha want to stay married, they have to learn to accept the foibles in the other person, said Elizabeth Cole Stirling, a clinical psychologist in Santa Fe, N.M., who has helped couples grapple with the neat-messy issue for more than 30 years.

The first step, and, Stirling observed, often the hardest, is having respect for the other person’s style and a willingness to compromise one’s own. The neat person needs to relax and the messy one needs to take more care. Equally important, both partners have to accept the fact that the messy person may become neater but is unlikely to ever be as neat as the neat one might wish. Likewise, the neat one can loosen up some, but neatness will always be a priority.

Each partner also needs to understand what the other one regards as “neat” and “messy” in quite specific terms, Stirling said. Is it no sock on the floor (a more extreme case), no wet towels on the bed (a common gripe, especially if the sheets are still damp at bedtime), or no clothes piled up in the bathroom? She always advises couples to sit down, make a detailed list, and then try to reach a compromise that both can accept.

This can be harder than it seems, however, as partners can set up a “roadblock” without realizing it. Stirling cited as an example, a case in which the wife was the messy one and the husband complained that she dropped clothes everywhere in their bedroom. The obvious solution was a large clothes hamper strategically placed so that it would be used. The husband, who hung up his own clothes protested, “my wife buys good clothes. I can’t just throw them in there.” As they talked it out, it became apparent that what he really wanted was for her to carefully put her garments back on hangers, just like he did. But the point was not to reform his spouse; it was to eliminate a problem he found irksome with a solution he could live with. Stuffing clothes into a hamper would get most of them out of the way, and it was perfectly acceptable to the wife.

The kitchen is another area where neat and messy need to be defined. The neat person often claims ownership, insisting that his/her standards are unassailable. But, Stirling points out, “you’re not at army boot camp, and it doesn’t have to be perfect.” Because health issues are involved, though, the kitchen is often easier to negotiate than the bedroom or a shared bathroom. If food is left out after a meal it will spoil. If the dishes are not washed for three days, mold will flourish and so will an unpleasant smell. The compromise comes in deciding how often to wash the dishes–after every meal or once a day? As long as the kitchen is clean by the end of the day, can you live with it? If the counters are clean and the dishes washed and put away, can you live with dirt on the floor?

Many couples divide the kitchen chores so that one cooks and the other cleans up. That works fine if each has a similar style in the kitchen. But if one is like the Galloping Gourmet and covers every counter and uses every pan, the clean up will take forever. If the other person is like Martha Stewart and cleans up while preparing the meal, there won’t be much left for the clean up. In this case, Stirling advised, “You’re better off to have each partner do start to finish one night and switch.”

If one partner hates to cook or the couple reaches an impasse on what is neat or messy in the kitchen, Stirling suggested trying the “mileage plus time” tradeoff that she uses with her own partner. “In exchange for the kitchen work, you will put in equal time doing something that the other person hates such as errands, grocery shipping, bill paying and taxes.”

While working out the details of communal spaces, Stirling stressed that each partner needs a space to call “his” or “hers” to keep as messy or neat as they wish. Having an entire room to keep a pigsty or “like-new” condition is optimal, but even his and hers closets will work. Stirling recalled that as a newlywed in a tiny house, she and her late husband divided a study with bookcases high enough to block the view of the other person’s space. Some of her patients have carried this one step further and painted each half on the room a different color.

While focusing on specifics, it’s also important to factor in your own foibles, Stirling concluded. For example, if you can’t go to bed at night without putting that last glass into the dishwasher, acknowledge that this is your issue and don’t be angry at your partner for not doing it. Even more important, don’t make hanging up a coat a test of moral character. If your partner doesn’t hang up his/her coat as soon as he/she comes in the house, it’s not a failure of will or sign of disaffection–it’s just a habit that can be changed.

Queries? Questions? Katherine Salant can be contacted at


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