In The Grand Scheme Of Things, It's… Actually Pretty Relevant

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

A friend of mine emailed me because the girlfriend he just moved in with has turned out to be a slob. Not a Hoarders-style, dead-cats-piled-in-the-closet slob, but “Hey, I just opened this Amazon box and I tossed it on the table when I was done” kinda messy.
And it’s driving him nuts, all this clutter. He needs a made bed and a clean counter in order to feel comfortable, and his girlfriend is perfectly happy as long as she can scoop out a space somewhere to watch Doctor Who on her laptop. He’s stressed all the time, and snappish at her, and he feels bad because this is his problem, and he doesn’t know how to deal with it. So he asked me for some advice.
And I asked, “So why doesn’t she realize she’s doing something wrong?”
And he replied, “Because she isn’t actually doing anything wrong?”
No.
If she’s doing something that’s making you feel stressed and claustrophobic and unwelcome in your own home, then she is doing something wrong.
Now, the important thing is to remember is that cleanliness is not an objective wrong. If the girlfriend was living on her own, and she was happy nestling up in a big ol’ pile of crumpled McDonalds bags, then I say more power to her. But in this case, she’s chosen to live a tandem life with you, and acting as though you’re doing her some good by swallowing back all this stress is a perfect lie.
They tell you that in the grand scheme of things, the little stuff doesn’t matter. I’m here to tell you that quite often, the little stuff matters way more than the big things. Because, yes, maybe once a year on Valentine’s Day I can cover you in roses and bring you to a big dinner and tell you I love you… but if every morning you wake up to find I’ve pissed all over the toilet seat and I never even notice how disgusted that makes you, then you’re getting the wrong message three hundred and sixty-four days out of the year.
And it’s not just messiness. If you’re sensitive about your big ears and I think it’s cute to mock them, that’s gonna hurt you on a regular basis. If you get worried sick when I stay out late and don’t call, then you’re going to be worried when a single text could make you sleep better. If you really hate the way I leave the bedroom door open so the cat gets in and rubs her allergy-inducing fur all over your pillow, then you’re going to be sneezing wildly on a regular basis.
The little things matter.
Gini and I did a lot better as a couple when we acknowledged the concept of “silly.” As in, “Something can be silly, and trivial, and still hurt your feelings.” And if you’ve got a good partner, sharing that silliness will usually not get you the reaction of, “Oh, how silly! You’re silly!” but rather, “Crap, I don’t want to hurt your feelings!”
So the solution is not to eat your pain and push forward bravely, silly though your needs may be. The solution is to say to her, “Look, I know it’s silly, but all of this clutter makes it hard for me to be comfortable. I feel like this isn’t my home – and it isn’t, because my home wouldn’t have me kicking aside old shoeboxes to make my way to the bathroom. So I’ll pick up, because I recognize part of this is my quirk, but can you also show me you think about me by putting your dishes in the sink once in a while?”
And you negotiate. Because there’s a certain irony in my buddy asking me this – me, the guy with three empty Amazon boxes stacked on his table as I write this. I come from a family of hoarders, and it drives my wife nuts. And our house isn’t as clean as she’d like it, ever. That’s her compromise. But I pick up enough to make it not a hostile environment for her, and I do probably 400% more cleaning than I’d ever do if I lived alone, and every time she sees me cleaning out the pile of books in the bathroom, Gini knows that’s my way of showing love.
We meet in the middle.
Now, my buddy’s girlfriend doesn’t mean to do anything wrong! But “intent” is not a magic wand. A partner can hurt you or stress you out unintentionally. The trick is that if you’re still hurt by it, move that to the intentional zone. Habits die hard – I don’t mean to just toss the Amazon box to one side, I just don’t think not to because HEY, NEW BOOK! – so when Gini says, “Sweetie, I know you don’t mean to, but this really bothers me” in a kind tone of voice, it makes me remember how much I love her and oh shit I shouldn’t do that.
Even now, I put the Amazon box into the garbage unguided maybe one time out of three. But she recognizes that’s literally an infinite improvement from the “never” times I’d do it if I lived on my own. And I’ll sometimes get the “oh crap” realization when I see the box, and clean it up later unasked.
But the first step in my buddy solving his problem? Pushing past this harmful idea that the things that stress him out are trivial. It’s good that he waited a few weeks, sat on the idea, so as to not bug his girlfriend with every irritation. That’s awesome. But eventually, if you’ve sat on it and it’s still causing you enough stress that you feel like texting a friend to ask, then it’s time to open up.
There’s no shame in sharing. It’s not silly. It’s the first vital step in melding both of your lives together, and unless you can be honest you can’t start the long progress of compromising effectively.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some boxes to throw out.

2 Comments

  1. Lyn Belzer-Tonnessen
    Nov 14, 2013

    Yes! I am the girlfriend (er, wife, in my case, but anyhoo), and I really wish my husband would quit stuffing his discomfort down and let me know when things bother him. I try to remember, but it would help if he spoke up every once in a while.

  2. Jericka
    Nov 14, 2013

    It’s not trivial. Wow, so not trivial. Living with someone and sharing space can be hard, and some people never learn.
    I have a new roommate, and she notices when I clean things or cook, and says, “wow! Good job!” or ” That really looks good,” and it makes a huge difference to me. I have lived with people who seemed to see the cleaning that I did(had to do to function….), and assume that it happened by magic, or that I did it for fun….or…..I’m not sure? I felt taken for granted. It ended up being a bigger deal than it had to be.
    Living together with other people is a skill, and takes at least a little work. First you have to realize that something is a problem(it IS a problem. Don’t minimize it because you think that it should not bother you. It does. ) Then, you have to speak up and ask for what you need.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Three Silly Questions, Answered. | Ferrett Steinmetz - […] writing about my friend and the problems he was having with his messy girlfriend, I got a lot of angry…
  2. It Is Wrong To Feed The Dog Chocolate | Ferrett Steinmetz - […] I got a fair amount of pushback on my entry on the messy girlfriend and the boyfriend who had yet…

All Comments Will Be Moderated. Comments From Fake Or Throwaway Accounts Will Never Be approved.