How To Survive Living With A Neat Freak

After a few months of blissful cohabitation during which my husband, Leon, and I spent the better part of our days gazing longingly into one another’s eyes–paying each other incessant compliments verging on platitudes, and declaring that ours was the most perfect love ever–we had our first fight. Tears. Sighs. Pouting. Silent treatment. Glacial stares. The real deal.

Here’s what happened: I had spent the better part of an evening concocting an elaborate dinner of shrimp, tomato and garlic linguine, followed by a hearty salad and topped off with homemade lemon tarts. Instead of marveling at my state-of-the-art three-course meal, Leon innocently wondered why I couldn’t clean as I cooked.

And then it began. “But I just spent two hours cooking for you!” I sobbed. His terse reply: “It would taste better if the kitchen were clean.” It turns out we’d grown up with different philosophies of neatness. I came from clutter central and he from the land of spotlessness.

In my parents’ home, cleaning translates into piling objects as high as possible. Once things are in a pile, no matter how monumental, the house is deemed spotless. Part of growing up meant learning to step over whatever was in my way. I was raised to believe chaos was creative.

The first time I met my in-laws, I understood that neatness would be one of the biggest challenges of my marriage. My mother-in-law keeps her apartment virtually sterilized. I can smell Lysol and Windex as I walk through the door; they’ve become her close friends.

Over the years, roommates warned me that my room wasn’t exactly a paragon of cleanliness. But, according to my husband, I am the “messiest creature in the galaxy.” (He reads sci-fi.) Not only is dusting an incomprehensible concept to me (Why bother? It’ll be back tomorrow!), but it appears that I have a unique version of color blindness: I don’t actually see mess. I happily step over piles of clothes, arrange books one on top of the other, create mounds of paper–perfectly assured that we inhabit the cleanest home I’ve ever seen. Leon has the uncanny ability to notice each of my cleaning misdemeanors. In fact, mess disturbs his sense of inner order. It affects his karma. He’s the type who can’t leave a dirty dish in the sink and who’s addicted to doing laundry. Call it OCD or what have you, but it makes him happy. Genuinely at peace.

Our coping strategy? We’ve divided up the chores. My husband “snagged” laundry immediately, along with dusting duties and bathtub scrubbing.

I reluctantly took vacuuming and bathroom maintenance. I cook, he washes dishes. Leon learned that positive reinforcement goes a long way and began complimenting my modest cleaning endeavors. We’ve agreed that no more than five piles of “creative mess” can exist in the apartment at any given moment.

I send warning emails when I anticipate he will come home to a less-than-pristine environment: “Please approach the bathroom with caution, and for better mood results, hold it in until I get home.” As long as he receives the message on time, we’re both happy.

Image(s): Byron Eggenschwiler