Behavior

Study reveals how a neat freak and a slob can live in peace

Aug. 3, 2012 at 2:49 PM ET

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She likes a stack of books and magazines scattered on and around the nightstand. He likes to keep his side of the bed clutter-free. She doesn't have any problem tucking into a dinner while the pots and pans sit on the stove. He can only make it through half his meal before jumping up to scrub them clean.

"We just have very different tolerance levels for messes," says Brangien Davis, a 44-year-old Seattle editor and self-confessed clutterbug who three years ago married a man who hates the phrase "neat freak" but seems to fit the bill. "He is definitely the housecleaner and it's because he just can't stand it. His tolerance for mess is low and it drives him insane to have dishes in the sink or stacks of books next to the bed. His instinct is to tidy up; mine is a little more carefree."

While past studies into the great housecleaning divide have theorized that women clean more often because of social or economic reasons (women are "socialized" to clean more, or the person who makes the most money "buys" themselves out of housework), a new theory has emerged that points to tolerance levels as the true culprit.

"There are a lot of theories as to why women do more, like the gendered role theory, but there are always exceptions -- men who are interested in making sure the house looks immaculate," says Sarah Riforgiate, associate professor of communications at Kansas State University. "We thought there was more to it, which would explain why men would sometimes take on more housework."

Riforgiate worked with professors of human communication at Arizona State University Jess Alberts and Paul Mongeau to test a theory that people may have different threshold levels for cleanliness in much the same way bees have different threshold levels for uncompleted tasks, such as honey production.

"Alberts was reading an article about ants and bees and they talked about threshold levels," she says. "If two insects with very different threshold levels are paired, one gets disturbed and will work and work and work and eventually work themselves to death when the honey level is low. We wondered if there was something to it."

To test their theory -- and hopefully help provide communication tools to resolve this age-old issue -- the researchers measured the threshold level of nearly 500 participants, using same-sex roommates in order to remove gender from the equation.

"What we found is that if you have two people who both have high threshold levels -- it takes an atomic bomb for [their place] to look disheveled enough for them to want to clean -- their satisfaction is good," she says. "They don't fight and they're happy with their roommate."

Similarly, two people who both have low thresholds for mess will both clean to their heart's content -- and get along famously.

"The problem is when you have a difference," she says. "Then people are a lot less happy."

Riforgiate is quick to point out that her research is not about commending people who constantly clean or vilifying those who don't. It's more about figuring out how college roommates -- and romantic couples -- can better get along.

"We're interested in identifying if this is a source of conflict and establish if this is part of the equation of why people clean or don't clean," she says, adding that if people are bothered enough, it may make them clean over and over and over again.

"They get really good at doing that task and then suddenly it becomes their job," she says. "And then people have conflict and resentment over that. Household labor is one of the leading causes of roommate conflict and it's the top three conflict among romantic couples."

Tina Tessina, a marriage and family therapist practicing in Long Beach, Calif., says one in three couples she sees has trouble in this area.

"It's a big issue especially with new couples," she says. "Older couples -- if they stay together -- pretty much get it worked out, but new couples struggle over this. Usually it either kills them or cures them."

Davis, who didn't live with her husband before they married, says they've managed to work out equitable compromises so far. She does all the cooking, for instance, while he does all the dishes. As for their mismatched nightstands, Davis says they've come up with a solution there, too.

"We've had discussions about it and I can pile my nightstand as high as I can pile it," she says. "That's my territory and that's okay."

What can you do if you're caught in the great housecleaning divide? Tessina and Riforgiate offer a few additional tips for maintaining peace between real-life Odd Couples.

Communicate and negotiate. "The key is not to insult, hurt or demean your partner by what you say," says Tessina. "But to communicate pleasantly." For instance, tell your partner that you're not comfortable with the division of labor and ask if you can talk about it and work out a different system. "This way, you're not accusing your life partner of being inconsiderate or lazy," she says. "You're just working out the logistics of a problem."

Establish 'neat' and 'messy' zones. Whether it's a nightstand -- as with Davis and her husband -- or another part of the house, Tessina recommends the messier person has their own space where he or she can pile stuff up until there's a chance to get to it. "The saving rule is, the mess can't last beyond a certain time limit," she says.

Let your smartphone be the nag. After establishing a time limit for a "messy" zone, program an alarm into a smartphone or computer. "This takes the nagging out of things," she says. "The person who's being nagged turns off and doesn't listen and the person who's nagging gets more and more frustrated." Tessina says gadgety reminders work especially well for guys. "They respond well to them," she says. "They can set the reminder for when it's take to take out the trash and set it for a time that works for them." 

Figure out what's behind the mess. According to Tessina, there can often be bigger issues behind someone who leaves a mess or is particularly bothered by one. "I had a couple who got into a knock-down-drag-out fight about making the bed," she says. "If the wife wouldn't make the bed, the husband would go ballistic." Tessina encouraged the husband to talk about why it bothered him so much and it came out that his reaction was directly related to his childhood with an alcoholic parent: on the days his bed was made, he was safe; on the days when it wasn't made, he'd have to hide. "The minute his wife heard this, her habits changed," says Tessina. "She got up early and they made the bed together every morning. It was a bonding moment for their relationship."

Don't take it personally. Riforgiate says that often a person will think their partner doesn't care about them because they're not maintaining the house at a certain level and that can be damaging to the relationship. "We make assumptions about why people do the things they do and in reality, they may not even see it," she says. "There's probably an internal tolerance level that's driving behavior." Reforgiate says small biological differences between men and women can also come into play with regard to housecleaning, such as the fact that women have a better sense of smell.

Spring for a housekeeper. If talking about it doesn't seem to help and there's money in the budget, Riforgiate also suggests hiring someone to come in and clean.

Remember why you're together.  Tessina says also it's key to keep the bigger picture in mind: that you live together because you find each other's traits refreshing and endearing.

Davis thoroughly agrees.

"When you're feeling frustrated or irritated by your roommate's cleaning habits (or lack thereof), try to think about why you decided to live with (or marry) this person in the first place," she says. "It very likely had nothing to do with their housekeeping. What's the old song? Accentuate the positive."

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