I can't believe I am doing this, but,.... (famous last words?)
I love the Dear Prudence column in Slate Magazine. I like it so much that I even have it delivered to my inbox.
Some of her answers really highlight the differences between the US and the UK, but not in this case. This time, I just feel that Prudie has overlooked an option (the obvious one, to my mind). So here goes.
This is the original enquiry and Prudie's answer:
I am a longtime fan and now I find myself requiring your advice. I am madly in love with my boyfriend of two years. We've lived together for about seven months now. The problem is he is the worst housekeeper known to man. He will walk in the front door and distribute his work clothes like bread crumbs through the house. He thinks that the best way to wash dishes is rinsing them for a few seconds under cold water. His idea of "cleaning up" is to hide things … in closets, in locked rooms, on top of the fridge. His newest habit is grabbing a clean towel out of the cabinet, even if there's a clean one hanging on the towel rack. I love my man, but I am burned out being the only one to clean the house. Whenever I point out his shortcomings in the cleaning department, he gets huffy and pouts. Usually after the second or third time I tell him something, I'm forced to do it myself. Short of sitting him down like a pouting 3-year-old and showing him how to clean, what's the best way to deal with this? Hiring a housekeeper is completely out of the financial question.
Given the fact that you're in a two-year relationship with a swell guy, Prudie would advise you to pick your battles. Because the beloved is an inveterate slob and you've had no luck getting him to pitch in around the house, there are really only two options open to you. One is to sit him down … not like a 3-year-old, but like a partner to whom you're making a plea for help. Tell him you feel like the maid and that's not the way you want to feel. Lessons are not required to remember to take your clothes off in one place, use hot water instead of cold, or learn that the top of the fridge is not the proper place for whatever he's putting up there—merely a serious request. The other alternative is what Prudie's mother taught her: It is sometimes easier to pick up the guy's socks than to make continual "requests." Given that he is slothful and chaotic around the house (and may also have retro ideas about men and women), it might be easier on you to bear in mind what a great guy you have while you pick up his socks. Don't ask Prudie how she knows this.
WHAT A LOT OF TROUBLE! So here is my own suggestion, which is effectively a combination of the two above.
In the spirit of 'hate the sin but love the sinner' I would treat the man as a man and the habit as belonging to a child. I guess he is in his twenties, so for a typical male that's about right, he still has one foot in either camp. Treat him like a co-lodger - set lines of demarcation so that his business is his business, but shared areas stay clean and tidy. To do this:
Treat the man as a man: Trust him to know how things should get done and to know exactly what game he's playing - check with his mother or siblings because it's highly unlikely he got away with this at home. Is this his first time away from mummy? Is he enjoying being messy because he feels it is what students and people who leave home are allowed to do?
Treat the habit as a child's: Buy him toy boxes, large plastic containers (with lids in case of a smelly war of attrition), one per room where he offends, and simply tidy up directly into them. If this involves keeping your plate and cutlery separate from his and hiding the rest, so be it. The dirty greasy rinsed plate, the paperwork and items off the fridge like his keys or trash; all should go in one box together. If his unwashed socks and sweaty T-shirt go in the mix too, all the better. Don't wash a single item of clothing that you haven't pulled from the laundry basket.
If he doesn't mind the smell of his unwashed socks seeping from a box then buy mothballs and drop one in the container. That will cover his smell with one he won't be able to ignore. If the boxes fill up, empty them into a bin bag and store it all outside or in a designated cupboard, so you have room to keep picking up after him.
Be realistic: he is never going to tidy up if he has a skivvy to do it for him and give him back his stuff all sorted, clean, tidy and ready to use. Just like a four year old he knows he can pout and wrap you round his little finger - so you have do to two things:
- break him of his habits by ignoring the bad behaviour
- teach him that his responsibilities are his own and that good behaviour has its rewards (like a clean shirt.)
Being a victim about his behaviour (whining) will start him on the 'yes but' track as in 'I'm lazy but you're a whiner so we're even'. Taking control too blatantly and being smug, parental or predatory about boxing his stuff will elicit the same response except you might be called bitch, instead. He might even try to claim that your flaws are worse than his. Your best bet is to treat the challenge (and it is a conscious, willing challenge) with a sense of fun - warn him you will get him toy boxes, then do it and laugh about it. If he doesn't mind his things being messy, he is hardly in a position to complain about where they go to remain messy, although I am sure he'll try.
If he is particularly obstinate then I suggest being open about the set-up to visitors - don't tuck the boxes right out of sight, and if someone asks, say honestly that 'Johnny' has toy boxes until he is old enough to reach the coat hangers.
(Maybe I should start an advice column in the name of Auntie Whiplash; you reckon? ROFL.)