Living with a Messy Spouse


Early our marriage it seems my husband and I would do cycles of being messy than cleaning up then leaving things messy.

Now dishes almost always get done right after dinner. In certain messy spots like the desk or dresser piles are taken care of within a few days instead of a few weeks.

When an college friend wrote asking about living with a messy spouse, at first I felt bad because often I was the messy spouse.

Usually a messy spouse is not trying to frustrate you. Many times they don’t even see the mess.

How NOT to do it

When one person is neat and one person isn’t often a power struggle is created in the marriage. And someone becomes the martyr who does everything and complains that no one else does anything. And the other one discovers if they don’t do anything with the house, it will get done without them having to work at it.

And if one of the members of the family is a control freak and everything has to be done "their way" then they aren’t going to get the help they want. Criticizing how things are done, nagging and being generally annoying about the house is a sure way to have people run when you mention cleaning.

It really doesn’t matter whose "to blame." If how you have been approaching your spouse in the past hasn’t worked, try other options until you find something that does. Or learn to appreciate your differences. Resentment doesn’t make for a lovely marriage.

Get them in on the plan

If they haven’t been involved up to now in daily household maintenance get a meeting together. Tell them how you have been feeling, "I’ve been feeling extra stressed and tired lately because it seems all I do is pick up after the family. I would really love to spend some more fun time with you and the kids. I also notice I start to feel angry and resentful if I’m cleaning and you are on the couch watching TV. Do you have any suggestions?"

Listen. Give approving nods to the suggestions. Stay calm. If they don’t come up with a solution that involves them doing any work, kindly ask if there was one of your chores they’d like to take off your hand. If they are still reluctant, schedule another meeting where you write down everything you are in charge of – include bills, holiday planning, chauffering kids and anything else you may do. Many times the spouse doesn’t really know what it all entails to keep a household running.

Give them tons of praise when they do help out. That works wonders.

Be specific

Think about what you want. Specifically. Do you want them to pick up their clothes? Take out the garbage? Not leave papers on the kitchen table?

If you aren’t specific they aren’t going to read your mind. Let them know exactly what you want and by when without a snotty, huffy, condescending or nagging voice.

Get them their own space

I usually suggest that if the spouse won’t pick up after themselves,  then they get a spot all their own – whether it’s an office, basement section or dresser top. They can make that as much of a mess as they want, but anything laying around gets thrown into that room. (And not neatly, it helps if they have to search for stuff). Some happily continue that way forever, others realize it’s not much fun looking for their stuff all the time and will pick up.

Keep reminding yourself even if you are picking up after them – it’s probably only about 5 minutes a day total. Is it really worth the fight? I’m sure they have other good qualities.

And it’s helpful if you have your own area to keep as pristine as you want.

Label everything

If you like cabinets and things organized, they need to be labeled or no one knows where to put stuff away.

Cleaning Time

It also helps to have a specific cleaning time like right after dinner for 15-30 minutes when everyone in the house cleans. Put on some music and try to make it fun.

And write down the chores so you don’t nag.

Use humor

"That’s interesting. Those clothes seemed to have hopped out of the hamper to the floor." Or, "I’m really enjoying the art you created on the table with that pile of junk."

Hire someone else to clean

It’s less expensive than you think. Eat out less or cut cable TV. You have choices and having a housekeeper in a two income family can be a sanity saver. And it may be worth it if you have a never-ending argument over housework.


How clean do you really need the house? Can you have one clean room and the rest gets cleaned once a week? What mess drives you the most wacky? What can you be less picky about?

Keep thinking about your spouse’s good attributes. Maybe you can learn to be a little more carefree.

Be grateful you have a home and spouse. You may find down the line you will have wished you spent more time with your spouse and less time on the house. Remember what’s really important in your life.

and Breathe.


  • Jonathan says:

    Finally, I’m back to reading your blogs. I’ve not read any for too many months. I’m glad to be reading them again. I hope to keep up with reading your blogs because they consist of good reminders of what I should be focusing on in my life.

    So, I wonder if you and any of your readers have experienced sharing a home with a parent who is in your care and that parent happens to be the messy one.

    It’s driving me nuts, but I haven’t done anything to it because I’m not sure how to go about it.

  • Max says:

    Thanks for the post. On the world wide web it seems that all too often its the men that seem to be the messy ones, but in my relationship with my wife its the opposite. I similarly have the same situation, like you mentioned above, that the house seems to become in complete disarray and unless i am managing the efforts, along with doing most of the cleaning, it wont get clean. The tough part – keeping cool and trying to encourage the little things. When everything is a total mess and she does a tiny thing, i have a hard time realizing the value in it because it is such an entrenched habit that take no effort to me. Anyway your perspective helps alot.

  • JB says:

    Very true, having the right mindset is a good lesson for every area of life, things need done and there’s no way around it, so no need to make yourself miserable about it on top of it all!
    However, I feel like your “humor” advice can be interpreted more like passive aggressive sarcasm. I’d think just plain and non-judgemental comments would be more affective, if the clothes are on the floor next to the laundry basket I’d rather just say “Hey, you missed the basket.” And wait to see if they take initiative to fix it themselves before doing it myself, and if I end up picking it up, not saying anything. Making someone feel guilty or defensive by hearing you passively complain they didn’t do it and then turning around doing it yourself before giving someone the chance isn’t going to help change much, even if your intent is to lighten the mood. Of course that’s a case by case basis wether your partner had the same sense of humor, but it’s probably best to be safe than sorry.

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