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When your spouse is a slob

  • Story Highlights
  • Broom battles when one spouse is neat, other is messy
  • Expert: Suggest neat freak take cleaning responsibility
  • Limit mess to his "man cave" or her refuge room
  • Last resort: Hire a cleaning lady
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By Diane Mapes
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(LifeWire) -- When Susie Toth's boyfriend told her a few months after she moved in that they "needed to talk," she was crestfallen.

Sean Gettings says he's fine as long as his wife Amy confines her junk to her "messy hideaway" on wheels.

"I thought he was going to break up with me," says the 23-year-old Milwaukee real estate agent. "I honestly thought it was going to be something horrible."

It was: Susie's housekeeping.

Her boyfriend -- Erik, 33, an engineer who's "kind of a neat freak," she says -- felt she wasn't dusting, vacuuming or picking up after herself nearly enough.

"I thought I was keeping the house pretty clean," she says, "but it didn't feel right to him. It wasn't meticulous."

Welcome to the dirty-dish divide. While some couples' biggest challenges have to do with money, sex or child-rearing, others get into huge, sweeping battles over the broom: Person A feels Person B isn't wielding it nearly enough; Person B feels Person A is unhealthily obsessed with cleanliness.

Sam R. Hamburg, a clinical psychologist and marital therapist in Chicago, says discussing housekeeping before moving in together can help couples avoid this kind of nitty-gritty grief.

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"The earlier you face up to differences like this and talk frankly about them, the better off you are," says Hamburg.

But what happens when you're already living with a Pigpen or a Swiffer-obsessed spouse? Is there such a thing as a moderately clean middle ground?

Do it yourself

One tack Hamburg takes when the neat-versus-messy motif comes up in therapy is to suggest that the neat freak take responsibility for the cleaning.

"My first line of defense is to say, 'Well, if you want the place up to a certain standard of neatness, you have to accept the fact that you're going to be the one who does it.'"

Toth's boyfriend started writing down her daily chores on a dry-erase board. Unfortunately, his expectations soon got out of hand.

"He wanted me to vacuum the living room once a week even though we never use it, plus dust all of his antiques. And he wanted me to scoop the litter boxes every day -- and there are three of them, one for each of his cats," she says.

"In the beginning, I was like, 'Yeah, no problem. I'm trying to make this relationship work,' but after a while I got resentful. So I talked to him and he agreed that he would do the things he was really nitpicky about."

Meet in the middle

For Sean Gettings, a 37-year-old stay-at-home dad from Portland, Oregon, communication and compromise saved the day.

"I feel like the living room is a mess if there are cups on the coffee table," he says. "And my wife (Amy, 37, a nonprofit director) is the opposite. She can go a couple of weeks without vacuuming and leave the laundry on the dresser for two, three, four days.

"But we're all about compromising. That's the key to a relationship."

The couple started writing down the chores they wanted done each week and had discussions (never fights) about their disparate styles. Little by little, each started to modify their behavior -- although Gettings admits his wife may have compromised a bit more than he.

"I'm not a very fun person to live with if the house is a mess," he says. "So I'm sure Amy came more to the middle than I did. ... She's become more clean and organized and I've become less anal."

'Messy Hideaway'

Also helpful was the fact that the couple owned two cars.

"Her car is the one place she can be as messy as she likes and I don't have to look at it," he says. "It's her messy hideaway."

Helen Flaws, a 66-year-old pet portrait artist from Freeport, Florida, says her messy husband's "man cave" has helped their marriage as well. Send us photos, videos of your man cave

"He has one room, just for himself and his projects," she says of Jack, 69, a retired machinist. "I don't clean it or vacuum it -- nothing. He can go in there and be as messy as he wants, and I can keep the rest of the house company-ready."

But the concept of a refuge works both ways, says Forrest Jackson, a 36-year-old contractor from Seattle.

"I'm a minimalist and my girlfriend is a collector," he says. "Hats, clothes, kitchen stuff, every sort of thing imaginable. I refer to her as Princess Periodical because of her magazines and newspapers. But I have an office downstairs where I can focus all of my manic energy.

"Whenever I'm tempted to bring a trash can into the house and start throwing things out, I just go downstairs and file."

For those who just can't make it work, Hamburg has one final solution: Call in reinforcements.

"Often, the one real effective solution for people with a little bit of means," he says, "is to just hire a cleaning lady." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Diane Mapes is the author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World." Her column, Single Shot, appears in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

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