Wednesday, Mar. 26 — Q: My boyfriend of nine years is extremely messy, while I prefer things tidy and clean. Cajoling, asking, and flat-out begging him for consideration and help on this hasn’t worked, nor have tactics like establishing certain areas for clutter. He contends I’m too picky about how he cleans. He says this started when we moved in together, eight years ago, and I rewashed dishes he’d washed. He says he then stopped trying to do much cleaning up and hoped I’d tire of doing everything myself and learn a lesson. I was shocked and hurt by this attitude, especially since he’s otherwise a good and loving man who does many sweet things for me. Neither of us wants kids, and I love him dearly, so I’m contemplating something you’ve written about, being in a relationship but living separately. Could this possibly work after living together for so long?
A: You just have different styles of mess management. You can’t sleep if there’s an unwashed glass in the sink. He likes to let housecleaning wait until it’s a toss-up between tidying the place and trying to get away with arson.
Animals get it. The bunny does not shack up with the thing that tears small furry creatures apart with its teeth. And here we humans are, all top-of-the-food-chain snobby about our ability to reason. Yet no sooner do we fall in love than we start looking to sign a lease together, bright and optimistic about the dreamy home life the neat freak will have with the guy whose idea of housecleaning is picking up a 3-year-old magazine off the floor so he’ll have a “plate” for his pizza.
Because you happen to care about what we generally value — order over chaos — you made the assumption that a devotion to neatitude is The One True Path and should be as important to him as it is to you. It just isn’t. (Chances are, he doesn’t even notice the messes.) Your distress at his passive-aggressive withdrawing of effort is understandable — as is his feeling that if he can’t tidy up right, why bother tidying up at all? The thing is, people will often support their partner in goals they find meaningless or even dopey, but not when their ego is under attack — verbally or in the form of dish-rewashing. When a person realizes their partner doesn’t respect them, they tend to take one of two paths: chasing that person’s approval or retiring from seeking it.
Still, in the moments you aren’t running after your boyfriend with a wheelbarrow and a broom, you love the guy and he loves you, and you seem to have something together. You do need to repair the hard feelings between you, starting by admitting that you were both expecting the impossible in trying to live together. Next, pledge to discuss things that bother each of you instead of silently seething about them — for, oh, eight years. And yes, probably the best way for you to stay together is to live apart. After years of living together, it’s easy to see this as a failure. It’s actually anything but. You’re just making your relationship love-centered by removing all the subjects that cause perpetual disagreement — like why anyone would waste time cleaning until whatever’s growing on the coffee table starts hissing at you when you reach for the remote.
Q: I had to leave town when prospective buyers were coming to see a used water pump I was selling. My wonderful wife cheerfully agreed to sell it for me. I showed her exactly the parts that went with it. A guy bought the pump, but I saw that an extra box of parts, worth about $100, was also gone. Do I ask my wife where it went? Can I forgive her without an apology?
A: Prepare to get laughed out of marriage counseling after you grumble to the therapist that what’s missing from your marriage is $100 worth of junk from the garage. Tempting as it must be to spend the weekend waterboarding your wife for answers, a wiser approach when somebody tries to do something nice for you is to reward their intentions, even when the outcome is less than ideal. Your wife’s intention — to help you by standing in for you — tells you she’s a loving partner. The outcome -- an extra box of parts apparently growing legs and sneaking off into the buyer’s car — tells you she may not be the shrewdest salesperson and maybe takes too kindly a view of human nature. Sadly, all relationships come with trade-offs. You have a decision to make — whether to settle for cheery wonderfulness or dump your wife for a woman who can help you open a used-car lot or get rich swindling the elderly by telephone.
Advice Goddess Radio: Fortune 500 coach Olivia Fox Cabane on how to master the art and science of having charisma.
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