Cleaning House


Dear Dharma,

Okay, so. I’ve been living with my boyfriend for just about a year now and I’m progressively finding that I pick fights with him about cleaning. We’ve been together a very long time and have almost never fought and we see eye to eye quite well beyond this.

He never cleans the house, or if he does, it’s small things that happen every so often. He’s not even in the habit of putting Kleenex in the garbage, or putting his dishes in the sink, or wiping off the stove when he spills. And I’ve tried to be nice about it, using “we should do this” statements, make it seem like an “us” problem, but I don’t think it is anymore. We live in a small space, and a little bit of mess seems like it’s even bigger because it’s so small.

Any time we talk about this, somehow I seem like the bad guy who’s “bumming him out” or causing more trouble than it might be worth. On the other hand of the problem, he also has a brain injury, so he’s not working currently and can’t do very much (like leave the house or see the sun or sleep properly). I’m actually worried it’s making him depressed.

I’m usually away all day at work, or volunteering and such, so I’m hardly home to even make the mess, but yet I find I’m the only person cleaning up. And when I get home, he’s just happy to see someone and have someone to talk with, and there I am being upset about how gross our house is. The cleaning has been a problem since before his injury, and it’s just never gotten better and I’ve never seen more effort being made.

So I’m at a bit of an impasse. Am I a bad girlfriend who’s unsupportive of her boyfriend dealing with medical issues and creating problems and tension out of nothing? Or am I in the right for at least expecting some kind of effort that I know he’s capable of even through his injury? I’m starting to feel very confused and a little unhappy about it all, and I’m not sure where to go. I’ve never had to deal with someone who is sick like this.

Please help.

Trapped Under a Pile of Kleenex

Dear Trapped,

Yuck.  Cleaning up other people’s used Kleenex.  That’s nasty.

Because of one specific thing you said – “(This) has been a problem since before his injury…” we are able to break this into two pieces.  The base problem, which is respect (ha, and you thought the problem was his cleanliness!) and then the injury.

In a healthy situation, there should always be ebb and flow in a relationship.  That’s not to say it’s going to be equal and balanced all the time.  It’s to say that each party contributes 100% of their strengths to the best of their ability at all times.  Sometimes the “best of their ability” will be compromised, as with a head injury.

But the injury is your secondary problem here, and I think you already know that – thus the confusion and unhappiness.  If everything was A-OK before the injury, then I’m guessing you’d have no problem stepping up and stepping in, doing more than your fair share of household chores while he recovered, right?

So in regards to the real problem…  It sounds to me like you’ve handled things very respectfully and tactfully when addressing him about this, but to no avail.  Now it’s time to change tactics.

The first thing you need to do is determine if this is a deal breaker.  Put aside the injury, because this is a circumstance that you are allowing to manipulate your emotions.  You said it yourself – this problem was already in existence.  This is not a by-product of his injury.  It’s a direct result of him not being willing to even strive for base cleanliness and hygiene.

Cleanliness is a bell curve, right?  Extreme neat freaks perched on one side and slobs wallowing in disgustingness on the other…  I don’t know if you’re on the far right, but it certainly doesn’t sound like that’s what you’re even asking of him!  How about just cleaning up your own snotty Kleenex??

Anyway – deal breaker or not.

If so, well… then this becomes an entirely different question, right?  And if so, I would say he deserves to be told that’s the case to see if that shakes out any different type of behaviour, and I wouldn’t be too generous with the timeline.

If you don’t want it to be a deal breaker, then you need to take a direct approach.  Some guys don’t pick up on subtleties, and let’s give the benefit of the doubt that he falls into that category.

Call a house meeting.  Stay calm and air your grievances.  Explain everything that bothers you about the situation, and why, in very clear terms.  And you might want to include this very important statement:

That you feel disrespected when you continue to ask him to step up and be an equal partner in this relationship and he continues to dismiss you.

Because that’s actually the crux of this whole issue, right?  Respect.  You’ve been asking for a certain something from him, and he’s disregarding it – and actually making you into the bad guy. That’s pretty disrespectful.  And through all this, I’d ask myself – is this the only place his disrespect has surfaced?  If so, that’s a hopeful sign.  If not, then I’d be asking you if you’re ignoring a whole bunch of other red flags.

Respect is huge in a relationship, non?  Without it, all the other good things erode with time. That’s not my opinion, it’s a fact.  Ask any couple you’ve ever known.  You guys are seriously running that risk.  He needs to know that.

It might also be interesting to point out that he is allowing this to become a parental relationship – as in, mom and child.  Not boyfriend and girlfriend, not potentially husband and wife, but mom and little, immature child.  Certainly not an equal partnership.

I’d straight up ask him which role he’d like you to see him in.  Phhht – how about which role he’d like to see himself in.

Grown up’s take care of themselves and they contribute to the life they live.  Full stop.

Don’t let him railroad you with the injury.  Acknowledge it, and your willingness to steer the ship while he recovers – but drive in the point that this goes much further back.  Which, by the way, he already knows.

Good luck, missy.  Hold your ground, and never settle for long term unhappiness where you don’t have to.


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  • Maid Service says:

    Holy smokers Dharma that was quite the response. But as usual, great advice. I once heard a Grandma give the best piece of advice for a relationship that I have always remembered. . She said get a cleaning service for your joint home because there’s lots of stuff to worry about and work through in a relationship you don’t need to add in the unswept floor and laundry piling up in the corner because it’s always the little things that matter the most. It will fester and then probably end the relationship.

    • Dharma says:

      Yeah, I even tried to cut this answer down to make it a more reasonable length, but… was feeling very passionate on the subject.

      Getting a cleaning service is a great suggestion, but I don’t know if that’s what is at the heart of this… Doesn’t that just enable the behaviour in this situation?

      Thanks for the comment!

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