Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Beauty of Mess: Can a Tidy Partner & a Messy Partner Make it Work?

In which Sarah Lang (a messy woman) contemplates her messiness.

When I was 19, living in my first flat (ah, the memories), one of my flatmates called me into the kitchen. He had arranged my half-drunken cups of tea, each with a tea bag still in it, on the bench in a sort of horse-shoe shape. I think there were six? Maybe more. The evidence had been presented. I was a messy person – more from being absent-minded than lazy, I think. As a student, I once went to an interview for a waitressing job without realising a hot chocolate had given me a milk moustache. (Nope, didn’t get that job.)

Fast forward to age 42 and I’m still that person who somehow manages to smear avocado into the cracks on fridge-door handles. When I cook, I sort of explode the kitchen. As in, I don’t clean up as I go, but instead leave the clean-up to the end, when I then sigh and/or swear over the mess. It’s a small kitchen, so sticky pans get other sticky things in them. I clean it up, but it’s arduous. Things get thumped.

I usually cook dinner because I finish paid work at 3pm. But when my husband cooks, he’s the opposite of me: tidying as he goes. When he sees the whirlpool that is my cooking process, sometimes he ‘suggests’ ways of keeping things cleaner, like reusing a bowl or hand-washing at junctures. He’s slowly learning to approach this tactically. Rather than saying ‘You’ve turned the kitchen into such a cesspool of filth that I can’t bear to even look in there,’ he might say ‘Hey, sometimes we get ants, so maybe put the honey lid back on’. Sometimes he wisely says nothing at all (just be glad you’re getting fed, sir!).

There’s more. I spill things on the couch and in the car, can’t get the stains out, and blame my eight-year-old. Also, I often irreparably stain my clothes with food. My husband suggests I don’t buy white clothing but I never learn my lesson (it looks so fresh and clean in the shop!). But what did he expect? He knew what he was getting into. On our first date, I got falafel in my hair.

When I’m eating out, I use three times as many napkins as other people. Writing this, I’m reprimanding myself for my environmental footprint, because I have an even-worse habit: wiping my face and hands with paper towels as I go about my day. You can retrace my steps by following a trail of paper towels. Perhaps worst of all, I often don’t wash my hands properly before I hop on my computer or phone. I know, I know.

My messiness isn’t much of an issue in our relationship – it’s more something that’s joked about. But having different ‘mess tolerances’ or ‘thresholds for disorder’ can cause issues in some relationships. From my (very non-academic reading) on this topic, one key thing is that the messy partner isn’t necessarily ‘in the wrong’. The messiness may not really register on their radar; they may be daydreaming or thinking about something else; they may be subconsciously rushing to get to the next task. They’re not ‘performing’ their messiness as a micro-aggression (in most cases).

However, the tidy person may see the orderliness they feel they need threatened, and sometimes bottle up their frustrations until they go off at their partner. A friend tells me that hers and her ex’s different mess tolerances didn’t exactly lead to the split, but didn’t help either. “He was so messy. Undies and laundry and piles of stuff everywhere. He even used to leave paper towels strewn around the house.” (Erm, no comment.) She saw his failure to change his messy ways as an insult to her. He called her a neat freak and told her to change her ways.

With some relationship issues, it’s good to ‘meet in the middle,’ so to speak. But can you really ask your tidy partner to become messier? Probably not. However, you could ask them to please make some concessions, and perhaps lower some expectations. At the same time, the messy person can try to be more aware and a little tidier.

The Messy Woman

I foolishly posted on Facebook to ask if anyone considered me to be a messy person. A former flatmate commented with a laughing emoji mere minutes later. “Oh god, I remember! One snapshot memory I have is watching you absentmindedly twiddle with your hair every day after a meal with avocado/teabags/honey/dinner still all over your fingers! Let’s just say the fridge-door handle was the least of my worries!”

Our then-flatmate Polly Newton – my close friend and a Marie Kondo fan – started laughing reading these comments and had something to add. “I remember being in the kitchen with a flatmate – I forget who exactly – who was complaining about the mess you made on the bench when you made cups of tea, and right then you walked in. The words ‘tell her’ were uttered!” Ironically, I choked on a cup of tea when reading Polly’s comment. Ye gods, people remember SPECIFIC things about my messiness?!

Can I reform? I mean, at my mum’s and stepfather’s house, where high tidiness and cleanliness standards reign, I actually appreciate that nudge. When preparing food, I tidy as I go, do the dishes right afterwards, and ensure no speck of food is left in the plughole. I tell myself I’ll do this at home too, and… I don’t.

But, a disclaimer: I get things done. Dinner, dishes, laundry, sweeping, it happens – it’s just a bit messy along the way. And, although I can make a hurricane of mess, I also go into ‘hurricane tidying mode’ sometimes.

I’m now wondering if being ‘messy’ in the house perhaps relates to being ‘messy’ as a woman’ – as in not putting on an oh-everything-is-great façade when it’s not? Maybe. But that’s another story.

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