tidy vs messy

Awkward Girl’s Guide to Staying Married When Your Partner Is So Messy It Makes You Want to Cry

Guysguysguuys, a question has flooded in! Or a suggestion, rather. Which is awesome, because it means I get to pretend that I, a) Actually know what I’m talking about on a particular subject, and, b) Am helping people, into the bargain. Of course, I’m going to take a wild guess that neither of these things are true, but, at the very least, suggestions like these mean I don’t have to come up with a post idea by myself, so thank you, Sasha, for posting this last week on my ‘16 Things I Do That My Husband Finds Weird‘ post:

I would love to see a post about how to make it work as a couple when the tolerance for mess/disorder is quite different! I’ve googled it and it seems to be a ‘thing’, as we rarely seem to pair up with someone with the exact same quirks and tidiness habits! If you have any tips for how to keep your sanity in this situation it would be so helpful!”

Now, as I commented to Sasha on that post, I’m actually not sure how much help I can be here, because this is my life, basically:

On the left, Terry’s desk; on the right, mine. Nothing was added or removed from either desk before this photo was taken: I literally just walked into the office one morning, and realised that our desks had managed to perfectly illustrate our respective personalities, and that it just HAD to be photographed.

(It’s worse now, btw. This is an old photo, and, to be totally honest, when I dug it out of the archive, my first thought was, “Hmmm, that actually looks quite neat to me now.” In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if all of that stuff is STILL there, just buried under a heap of MOAR STUFF. Send help – and also wine…)

I should probably say, before I go any further here, that there’s no value judgement implied in Terry being the “messy” one and me being the “neat” one: it’s not that I think I’m somehow better than him, or vice-versa – it’s just that we’re polar opposites in our approach to how we like to live, and I’m pretty sure that, at this point, neither of us is going to change. And, I mean, like most messy people I know, it’s not that Terry’s lazy, or that he doesn’t care (He might be untidy in many respects, but he can also be super-anal about some stuff. Like how to correctly load the dishwasher, say. Or making sure the recycling is correctly categorised…): it’s that he genuinely doesn’t seem to see the mess – it just doesn’t register with him. Like, if I go to put something into the laundry basket, and find that it’s already full, I’ll empty it and put on a wash: if Terry finds the laundry basket full, on the other hand, he’ll just cram something else into it, Tetris-style.

As for me, meanwhile, well, I’m probably not going to change all that much either, really. And, when I started writing this post, I was a little worried that it would encourage people to criticise Terry for his messiness, but I actually think it’s more likely to be the other way around. I’ve written about this before, but I get quite a bit of flack for being a so-called “neat freak” – I think being messy is often seen as the default, or “normal” way to be, so, when you like things neat, you get a lot of snide comments about how you don’t have your priorities straight, or must have too much time on your hands (I even had a reader Internet-diagnose me with Asperger’s Syndrome a few weeks ago, purely because I’m an introvert with a tidy house…), but, for me, I just feel more comfortable when my surroundings are relatively neat: always have, probably always will.

being messy is often seen as the default, or “normal” way to be, so, when you like things neat, you get a lot of snide comments about how you don’t have your priorities straight, or must have too much time on your hands

I don’t think that makes me better or worse than someone like Terry, who’s the complete opposite: we’re just different… and I’m sure those differences make life just as difficult for him as they do me, because they mean we both have to compromise, if we want to stay married. Terry has to be a little bit tidier than he would be on his own, and as for me… well, I have to choose my battles, basically. This, for instance?

This is not my battle. If it was, I’d be straight-up insane by now, because this is the very definition of a losing battle. I mean, he DOES occasionally tidy it, and once even managed to KEEP it tidy for an entire month, just to prove he could do it. Sooner or later, though, it always ends up like this again, and I’ve basically had to accept that this is the way things are going to be, and develop a kind of selective blindness to this corner of the room.

Honestly, I just try not to look at it. Sometimes I fail at that, and throw myself to the floor, fists flailing, as I scream, “WHHHY, GOD, WHHHHYYYY”?!” (And by, “sometimes,” I mean, “This very week, actually…”), but, well, I’m working on not doing that so much. Mostly because of Max, actually: since he’s been here, I’ve not only had to accept that there’s going to be a certain level of mess now, I’ve also found myself thinking more about my own behaviour, and how it could affect him. And, while I don’t particularly want him to grow up to be messy, or inconsiderate to the people he has to share space with, I also don’t want him to grow up feeling like he can’t ever relax and just, you know, live, without his mum having a nervous breakdown, you know?

you have to compromise, and you have to learn to pick your battles.

So, like I say, you have to compromise, and you have to learn to pick your battles. Terry’s desk is not my battle. (Well, not ALL of the time, anyway.) Neither is Terry’s cupboard (I offered to go through it and colour-code all his clothes. He said no.), his chest of drawers, or selected other corners of the house that I’ve long since ceded control over.

This, on the other hand?

box on the kitchen tableThis is my battle. Or it WAS my battle. For an entire week, in fact: because that’s how long this box, plus its contents, remained on the kitchen table, before I decided it was time to take action, and posted a photo of it on Instagram Stories. Honestly, I should have just left it – partly because I was genuinely curious to know how long it would have stayed there (Which was why I didn’t just move the damn thing myself…), but mostly because, the next morning, Terry hit back – and hit where he knew it would hurt:

kitchen table box

Yeah, he gave that box a face.


And then it got worse:

boxes have feelings tooBy the time that damn box left the building, I was the one begging for it to stay. And this, my friends, is why my next tip is this:




(Also, I know you’re all thinking, “FFS, Amber, it’s just a single box in an otherwise immaculate kitchen: would you just let the man live a little!” I mean, that’s certainly what I suspect TERRY was thinking. This is the kind of battle you run into when you’re a tidy person cohabiting with a messy person, though: some things are just the final straw, and while you COULD say it’s just a box on a table, you could ALSO say, “But how hard is it REALLY to just pick it up and take it to the shed?” I sense I’m losing my audience here, though, so, moving on…)

I try my best not to interfere with the areas of the house designated as “Terry’s domain,” but, when it comes to communal areas, like the kitchen and living room, I think the best thing you can do is to agree some basic ground rules, like picking things up before bed, say, or not leaving boxes on tables for so long that they start to develop their own personalities. (This works both ways, by the way: as I said, Terry is untidy, but he’s meticulous about things like recycling and kitchen hygiene, and I’m constantly falling foul of some rule or other about how the kitchen should be managed. So it’s not like I’m some kind of household dictator, joylessly sucking the fun out of life, while Terry cowers in the corner, afraid of incurring my wrath. Even although that whole “box” thing HAS totally made it sound like that, obviously…)

the best thing you can do is to agree some basic ground rules, like picking things up before bed, say, or not leaving boxes on tables for so long that they start to develop their own personalities

My other tip here is to make sure you have adequate storage in those communal areas, so it’s as easy as possible to keep them tidy. We, for instance, now have this in our living room:

Scandinavian style sideboard

Scandinavian style sideboard

Scandinavian style sideboardThis gorgeous Scandinavian-style sideboard was c/o Zurleys, and has so far proven to be the solution to our ever-growing “stuff” problem. Now that Max is here, you see, the kitchen and living room are in a near-constant state of chaos, with toys, bibs, burp clothes, and various other baby-related detritus littering every surface. I’ve been doing my best to try to tidy it all up every night before bed, but the problem was, we didn’t really have anywhere for it all to GO, so it would end up piled on the coffee table or stuffed into various kitchen cupboards.

When it comes to keeping things tidy, I’m a big believer in the, “a place for everything,” philosophy: it’s just not possible to keep a house tidy if you don’t have decent storage, and, until this arrived, we didn’t have any storage at all in the living room, so while I’m not saying it’s changed our lives, or saved our relationship, I also totally AM saying that, because lookit how much storage it gives us!

When it comes to keeping things tidy, I’m a big believer in the, “a place for everything,” philosophy: it’s just not possible to keep a house tidy if you don’t have decent storage

One of Terry’s main excuses for untidiness has always been lack of storage, so our latest acquisition solves that problem, and has also given me a really excellent excuse to buy a few new sets of my beloved IKEA Skubb boxes, so that’s good, too.

As for my final tip, meanwhile, it’s simply this:

Play to your strengths.

Because Terry and I have such different ideas about what constitutes a “tidy” house, we realised a long time ago that we’d have to divide the household labour in a way that worked for both of us. Terry might not be particularly tidy, for instance, but he’s a GREAT cook, AND he enjoys it. (Well, most of the time, anyway.) Me, on the other hand? Er, not so much, really. I mean, I CAN cook, obviously (Because if you can read, you can cook, right?), but I don’t enjoy it, and I’m just not enough of a foodie to be interested in it: seriously, if it was left to me, we’d basically eat Pot Noodle all the time – other than when we were eating toast, obviously. If I was feeling particularly fancy, we might have Pot Noodle AND toast, but, I mean, that would have to be for a very special occasion, because my philosophy here is that if it takes longer to cook it than it takes to eat it, I’m out.

(I will obviously not be applying this philosophy to food I prepare for Max, settle down…)

So, in our house, I do all the cleaning and laundry, Terry does all the cooking and DIY. A lot of people are absolutely horrified by this arrangement, and start clutching frantically at their pearls when they hear that I don’t cook a hearty meal for my man every night, but luckily it’s not 1941 any more, and while it might not work for everyone, this is the arrangement that works for us.

As well as making sure the house remains habitable, and we’re all fed, and wearing clean clothes, it also means that nobody has to feel guilty about not pulling their weight: seriously, though, all table-boxes aside, it would be pretty tricky for me to pull some kind of martyr act about the paintbrushes that sat in the kitchen sink for two weeks straight, when the reason they were there was because the poor guy was working his butt off in the garden every spare second, right? I mean, I could TRY, but it would make me a bit of an asshole, really, and I try to only be an asshole on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so, yeah.

You have to look at the bigger picture, is what I’m saying, rather than focusing on the paintbrushes in the sink, or the box on the table. (Or, OK, the hosepipe in the bath, but, in my defence, that one was REALLY freaking annoying…) Terry is probably never going to be tidy, but he makes up for it in a million and one other ways, and I for one could definitely do with trying to remember that a little more often.


01. Compromise.

02. Choose your battles.

03. Set basic groundrules.

04. Make tidying as easy as possible.

05. Play to your strengths with the division of labour.

06. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Anything else you’d like to add?

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  • Rebecca


    Okay, I’ve not gotten far in the post but just had to say this. I’m an extrovert with a messy house. And ohh, I have aspergers! That’s not how it work, wierd commenter! There, I just had to. Now back to reading another one of your excellent and entertaining posts!

    June 18, 2018
  • I am not as tidy as you are (I think), but way tidier than my husband or the Kids. I do have high hopes that the Kids will grow up to be less messy, but I am sure my husband won´t. He is amazing in many other ways, so like you said, I pick my battles.

    June 18, 2018
  • Extrovert with a tidy house here with a similar partner. A tidy home means i can find what i’m looking for first-time and can relax. Plus if an unexpected guest knocks on the door it’s just a matter of plumping some cushions up and putting a couple of mugs in the sink. I grew up with an uber-tidy mum. And although I’m not quite like her, I’m not too far off. I just can’t relax if there’s washing-up or laundry to put away (my jobs). And my partner is neat and tidy too. Right now the bane of our lives is the back room where we do our art. But we’re doing an overhaul soon (and then folk will say we can’t be serious artists because our studio isn’t a tip! ?).

    Luckily I’ve always picked tidy partners (most of them introverts as it happens). For me the bane is having with messy co-workers. When I was teaching English in Japan the office was spotless, as was the language school I worked in in London (no doubt because it was in the City). But last summer I had a management job in a summer language school and the office turned into a tip. Every meeting I would ask the teachers to keep their space tidy and I knew I was fighting a losing battle.

    June 18, 2018
  • Forwarding this to the boyfriend as I type 😀 Me being the messy one, I’m afraid. But it’s true – we have different strengths and so I cook and do the laundry and he does the cleaning mostly (I will occasionally do some, but I hate hate hate cleaning, sry 😀 ) and helps me whenever he can.

    June 18, 2018
  • Louisa


    It’s the other way round for me- I am an extremely messy person while my husband is a total neat freak. He can’t even tolerate the sight of my pen lying on my desk instead of being in the pen holder. But, the good thing about this is that he never minds cleaning up my desk, which I am waayyyy too lazy to do.

    June 18, 2018
  • Caitlin


    I consider myself to be a generally tidy person, but when my husband and I first moved in together, I learned that there are levels. My favorite story to illustrate this is one day early on, I was feeling guilty that he always seems to “beat” me to the chores, so I took advantage of him putting his son down for a nap and tackled my least favorite chore to prove my love: sweeping and mopping the kitchen floor. I proudly showed him that he wouldn’t have to do it and he gave my work a look that could only be described as thinly veiled horror before thanking me warmly. It took about an hour for him to finally say “I love you. Thank you so much. You’re bad at this and I’m going to do it from now on.”

    But, he can’t even cook the boxed mac and cheese, and I enjoy cooking, so we feel pretty good about the division of labor over here.

    June 18, 2018
  • Myra Boyle


    Good post with rational shared tasks. I have always done the majority of all household tasks, and since Raymond has become ill I now do even more. He is really messy and while I don’t seem to mind my mess, I hate anybody ekse’s mess in my house.
    Raymond does not have a practical bone in his body, but he used to love going on errands, and it is sad that he can’t even do that now. When I start to dust and hoover he goes to get washed and dressed and when I’m finished I call to him that he can come out now. He occasionally makes a meal, but asks me a million questions about what to put with what and how to cook it. He never sees anything that needs to be done, but when I am just finished something he will ask if he can help. What drives me mad though is that I can spend two hours cleaning and then he just dumps whatever he has been using wherever he likes. Somebody give me some patience please.

    June 18, 2018
  • Raquel


    OMG i freaking LOOVEE this post!!!
    1. I’m loving the whole clean vs. messy theme and debate lately
    2. I’m completely like Terry, actually, I think I’m worse than him or I just don’t have someone like you around ahah :p I just can’t keep things tidy, I can’t, I’ve actually given up a little and my room now is such a mess that not even I can be in there if it’s not for sleeping or getting dressed :/ I don’t really see the point in tidying stuff up if you’re gonna use it a few hours later or the next day again, but all of a sudden it’s all messy again after a “big” cleaning session and I HATE cleaning, so then I just give up… 🙁 Oh, and obviously I can’t stand when people touch my mess, because usually it’s an “organized” one and I know where everything is (more or less), so that just helps the whole thing, because I can’t let anyone else clean for me!
    3. There’s one problem though: although I’m not really bothered by some (quite a lot of) mess, I also reaaally love to see things pretty and organized and seeing your house makes me want to have my space like that too :'( So I might do some serious cleaning/organizing/remodeling this summer and you’re partially to blame for that :p Let’s see if I survive it though!
    4. I love the desks’ pic, it’s just completely perfect ?
    5. THE DISHWASHER THING!! That’s soooo my dad!! He has to be the one to load it, otherwise it won’t be done correctly… I, for one, don’t mind one bit, less house chores for me! My mum still tries though, I don’t know why… My brother apparently takes after my dad in this respect and so he already has his permission to do it too :p
    6. The box thing: very well done, Terry, very well done. Also very mean! But just… wow, I’m impressed!
    7. “if it takes longer to cook it than it takes to eat it, I’m out.” YEEES, so much yees!! I also don’t have much patience to cook, at least regularly. Actually, I think I don’t have patience for much…. damn, I’m gonna be living in a super messy apartment with tons of pizza boxes on the floor by this rate….

    June 18, 2018

    I love the tales of you and Terry. The pair of you just seem to work so well as a couple; it’s a delight to read about.

    Also, that clock is awesome!


    June 18, 2018
  • Amber, OMG. I felt like I was reading about my husband and I. Great post. Something similar happens to us on a weekly basis and my husband travels all week long! He left the iron and ironing board out last Saturday in the middle of our closet, so it was totally in the way and nearly impossible to get into the dresser. I bit my tongue for 3 solid days till he finally put it back. I find that your tip about picking your battles is the one that really saves us, because like you, I need to make sure it’s worth the argument or I risk the thing that is annoying me to never get put away. I’m super clean and need a tidy house…where he uses every utensil and pot in the kitchen to make one meal, which I have the honor of cleaning up later. DRIVES ME NUTS!!! But, picking your battles, letting your man have his own space (that you don’t have to look at every day) and playing to your own strengths are words to live by.

    June 19, 2018
  • Same!! I am the tidy one and husband is just not. He would happily climb over a mountain of dirty laundry to get into bed at night for weeks in a row. He once left a banana skin on his bedside table for a week! (I was conducting an experiment as to how long he could live with it…apparently longer than I could). I just don’t get it. He also doesn’t seem to care that we have tools and DIY stuff and bits of wood all over our half-renovated house (which has paused dramatically since we had our daughter 11 months ago) but we cannot live like this anymore now Emilia is mobile! So things have to change. I will take your advice and will make sure never to give any one of our millions of boxes a face! 🙂 x

    June 20, 2018
  • RPB


    I enjoyed the post, I wish it was that simple with my partner. He is messier than a 10 year old kid. It got to a point where I get upset and he doesn’t care, watches TV, I take care of it myself and I eventually calm down and he is still watching TV. Asking him to put something away is no use, one day I asked him (politely), to a box away that he laid it on the bed and left it there for 5 hours and I wanted to go to bed. His response was I own half the house too, I can make it messy if I wanted to. That was my end of the conversation with him about organizing or keeping things tidy at home. If he can’t understand he owns half of the house, then he is also responsible to keep it clean then I can’t say anything to change him.

    October 7, 2020