The Pandora’s Box of Cohabitation

So remember awhile back when I asked for your advice on sharing space with a partner and not losing your mind? Well, I’m happy to report that it’s been about three months of cohab-ing and things seem to be going along swimmingly. I think in my effort to make sure that my body wasn’t invaded by sexist body snatchers (laundry, dishes, dinner oh my!) the second he moved in, I forgot how much fun he is, how much I adore watching TV with him, and telling one another jokes while we try to fall asleep. We just make a lot of sense, which, it turns out, is one major protection against stupid gender role defaults.
Having said that, I do have to admit that, from time to time, I’m watching myself fall into what feels like a pretty common struggle. Case in point: the box.
Nikolai left a cardboard box filled with “the etcetera” of his move sitting on the floor of our bedroom for awhile. It was on the floor on his side of the bed, hidden from view. If I was careful about it, I could almost forget it existed, even in our 700 square foot one bedroom apartment. But instead, I thought about it frequently.
I had asked him, with all the nonchalance I could muster, if he wouldn’t mind cleaning it up. Sure, he said. Soon. We took the train to his mom’s house in Brooklyn for a meat-filled Thanksgiving and returned. It was still there. We went away and visited my parents in Santa Fe for Christmas and returned. It was still there.
I felt anger at Nikolai creep up. I felt the urge to unpack the box myself but quickly slapped the impulse away. I expended Herculean energy trying not to say anything, trying to ignore the box and pretend it didn’t matter. And, in fact, to him, it didn’t matter.
He eventually cleaned up the box in anticipation of a house guest. And like that–poof!–it was gone. But I can’t help feeling like I’m left with the first taste of a struggle I will be battling for years to come.
The box today is a baby tomorrow. He means to get up for the 2am feeding, but he’s just so exhausted from work. Next time, he tells me, I should shake him harder until he wakes up. But I don’t. He looks peaceful. I enjoy the time with the baby even if I’m catatonic. The baby tomorrow becomes a pimply tween in ten years. We were so determined to split parenting responsibilities 50/50, but his workplace is more traditional than mine; slowly my writing time gets eroded and we both shrug and fall asleep watching The Daily Show. I miss my work but I love the kid. I’m good at being a mom. The pimply tween in ten years becomes a know-it-all college kid in twenty. The empty nest is more like an echoing cavern. Twenty years of sacrificed sleep and shrugged-away work opportunities and lost autonomy wake me up in the night and I look over at him, sleeping soundly, and feel righteously angry. The kid is amazing–more dynamic and courageous than we ever could have imagined. But where did my–not ours, but my–life go?
I know. I know. It’s just a box. As Nikolai rightly pointed out, he would treat an unpacked box far different than a living, breathing baby. But it’s brought up new ideas for me about what I value vs. what he values and how we can negotiate common space and a common life when those contrasts get in the way. I want to learn how to let go when it doesn’t matter. And how to own my choices wholeheartedly when it does. I don’t want to resent him. And I don’t want him to resent me. Is that possible?

Join the Conversation

  • MikeT

    Maybe it’s because we got together in our 30s, but I find that the “here’s this thing you do that really bugs me, so please change” thing doesn’t work all that well.
    My wife knows it bugs me when she leaves a wet towel on the bed, the cap off the toothpaste, or a wadded up washcloth in the bottom of the sink.
    She has tried to change her behavior.
    It never works.
    So, I’m stuck with a choice. Do I divorce her? Nag her? Or sometimes clean up after her, sometimes ignore the thing that bugs me, while reminding myself of all the things I love about her?
    I pick option three. Living with other people is work, and the only way you can have total control of your lived environment is to live alone, with no pets, in a seismically stable area.
    Courtney, if I can psychoanalyze you a bit, it sounds like your mind is looking for things to worry about. Before you moved in together, you were anxious and stressed. When it turned out to be fine, you found the one thing that bugged you and made it into a symbol of future conflict, so that you know have something more to worry about.
    Trust me, if you have kids, there will be total chaos, and you will look back fondly on the days when there was a box on the floor.
    You’re sharing 700 square feet with another human being. There will be conflicts. There will probably even be screaming every now and again. It’s healthy and normal. Don’t sweat it.

  • Crashhooligan

    I’m with you. I think little things add up to and foreshadow big things.
    My sister and her husband frequently discuss whether or not to have kids when her husband can’t wash dishes that aren’t his without being resentful.
    And even my liberal boyfriend who has called himself a feminist said to me that men love their children less than women do…yeah..
    On the other hand, it is easy to over-think things when you are worried, but it’s good to know other people feel this way, even if it’s nothing.

  • Alix

    I haven’t read all the comments, so if someone else has already said this…please feel free to ignore.
    What bothers me in this is that he unpacked it for the houseguest but NOT for YOU.
    You are not as important as the houseguest.
    It’s not about your need for clean; it’s not about his need to be sloppy (he realized the importance of it, after all, when you were having a houseguest).

  • Lis

    I am a woman and I don’t clean unless there’s a houseguest. Yes, I’m a dirty person. It doesn’t mean my husband is any less important than the houseguest, I’m just more comfortable being a dirty slob around him than the guy who came to hook up the cable.

  • abby_wan_kenobi

    My SO and I usually start those types of conversations after the second occurance or second day of an annoyance. Sometimes those things are a one-off (dropped the trash next to the door then forgot to take it out) other times it is a habit that needs to be addressed. The “second time” rule is a little forgiving but doesn’t give things time to fester.
    Generally I start by asking if there is a method to the madness. When I moved in I realized the kitchen was arranged in a way that made no sense at all to me, so I asked if there was a reason he put things that way. Turns out he put every item in the closest cabinet on move-in day. He was happy to let me reorganize.
    Sometimes he does do things for a reason (which I only understand about half the time after explanation) and those are the areas where we compromise. We evaluate how important the habit is to each of us and then give way accordingly.
    I now do all the laundry, he does all the cooking, we sleep with the door open (his thing), and mute the TV when either of us is on the phone (my thing). We moved around the furniture in the bedroom so that he could sleep closer to the door and I could still have the right side of the bed.
    I think relationships work best when each of you thinks first of the other person’s comfort. If my SO does something maddening, I know it is because he has no idea that it makes me insane. And vice-versa.

  • Lis

    1. Talk: Say that piece of cardboard is driving me nuts. Don’t ask him to understand *why* it is driving you nuts, just say it is and it would be a lot better for you if it disappeared.
    2. Compromise: Maybe he doesn’t like cleaning the cardboard box. I hate cleaning. I will not clean. I will, however, cook. My spouse hates cooking.
    3. Learn to let it go: Sometimes it’s OK to let it go. A sock on the floor every once in a while is not the end of world with my husband anymore than a night of take-in Chinese is a write-off for him. Sometimes I don’t feel like cooking and he doesn’t feel like cooking.
    4. Look for solutions: My lack of desk tidiness would cause my husband to freak out. I took my desk area away from his prying eyes to stop the constant reminders that I needed to dust my desk and there was a dirty coffee mug sitting on top of the computer. He also has his own laptop now. I’ll never keep my desk tidy and I know it. He can beg all he wants for me to clean it. I will not. Furthermore, it annoys the crap out of me to have him repeating my area is dirty. I found another solution.
    5. Appreciate the good stuff: OK, so I’m a slob. But I have a good sense of humor and I like to leave little love notes even though I’ve been married for years. Sometimes it’s good to see the stuff surrounding the cardboard box.
    Finally, these are problems that will not only rear its head up only with a SO, but also with children (ever tried to negotiate for a child to pick up her toys?), a roommate or even a parent.
    Good luck to you. :)

  • AnatomyFightSong

    I really hate the idea of calling a woman “shrill.” Just sayin’.

  • MaggieF

    “I felt anger at Nikolai creep up. I felt the urge to unpack the box myself but quickly slapped the impulse away. I expended Herculean energy trying not to say anything, trying to ignore the box and pretend it didn’t matter. And, in fact, to him, it didn’t matter.”
    Please, please, please don’t stop at that. It isn’t the box that’s the point. The point is learning one another’s expectations and how to negotiate them. If you don’t tell him the box is bothering you, he’ll never know. And if you don’t tell him why his not cleaning up the box bothers you, he’ll never know. You don’t have to control his behavior and you will have to compromise, but in order to compromise you have to lay all the cards on the table first. Why do you want him to clean up the box? Why hasn’t he done it (maybe there’s a reason, like abby_wan_kenobi mentioned)?
    Plug anything in here. Box, baby, taxes, sex, whatever. The point is, communicate.
    I like the way abby_wan phrased it: “If my SO does something maddening, I know it is because he has no idea that it makes me insane. And vice-versa.” Believe me when I say that letting things stew because you don’t want to start a fight or “nag” isn’t going to bring you any closer together, and will probably have the opposite effect. My therapist told me that when people tell her, “Oh, my SO and I don’t fight at all,” that’s a red flag. (“Fight” may not be a good word; “argue” is maybe a little less alarming.)
    And contrary to a few of the commenters, I think box and baby are a good comparison. Because if you get used to asking for his help and not getting it, you’ll stop asking altogether.

  • Anonymous

    I remember when I was a teen, my mom did something very effective when I did something that annoyed her. I didn’t take my laundry out of the dryer so she dumped it in a pile on my bed. I had to sort it and put it away (might as well, as long as I have to move it). I would do the same thing to a man – but on something of his which is only his, of course, unless I was prepared to sleep elsewhere. In terms of the box, I would have put it on the bed to make it visible as hell. But that’s my reflex. Dirty dishes? On his computer desk. Or his chair. Of course you must only use this tactic if the issue has been discussed, clean-up was agreed upon, and there was a breach of contract (no follow through).

  • YouCan2

    Courtney’s hypothetical scenarios about raising a baby, and then a kid, and so on, reminded me of a really great feminist book by Sandra Lipsitz Bem called “An Unconventional Family” in which she details the raising of her two children with her husband and how they decided to raise them in a “gender-liberated, anti-homophobic, feminist” way.
    Courtney’s post specifically reminded me of this book because in it Bem argues that women need to be firm in sticking to having an equal partnership and not give in to be the ones to automatically stay home with the kids or make job concessions just because their jobs are more flexible or the lesser paying of the two. Their jobs usually being the lesser of the two is a result of the fact that we still live in a gender-role reinforcing society, and making concessions because of that just reinforces those negative aspects of our society.

  • LongHairedWeirdo

    One thing about boxes… for me, a box of moved-stuff can seem like a horrible, horrible burden, because I not only have to do work, but I have to make a lot of decisions. And, see, if I put something in the wrong place, it’s *gone*.
    e.g., I’m sure I have a spare packet of Urnex CleanCaf. Somewhere.
    Now, if it becomes important to empty that box, I can do it. But if it’s not important to me, I won’t.
    And, this is important: it can be very hard to go into that headspace where I can say “Oh, someone I care about *really* gets annoyed by this; it’s just one of those things. It would be a grand and wonderful thing to unpack this box, and assuage those feelings.”
    And it can be very easy to go into the headspace of “why the hell won’t (she, in this case) just ignore it?”
    (And, I have to confess, I have a contrary streak in me. If I feel I’m pressured to do something, it gets my back up.)
    So, if it had been me, the conflict could have arisen. I suppose if you’d told me that “you know, it matters to me. It’s silly, but it’s really important,” it would have gotten me to unpack the box sooner. Because, internally, to me, it’s just a box, it’s not in your way, it’s not dirty, so it doesn’t press on my consciousness.
    Taking care of a kid, or cleaning up a spill, etc., those would be very different for me.

  • TheFlash

    Why aren’t people more self-concious about becoming a cliche? Because this is totally cliched. Aren’t you a little embarassed about playing into a classic stereotype? You’re, like, a smart, accomplished person. Aren’t you above this?

  • birch

    I wholeheartedly agree. Communication is key! My partner and I are committed to explaining frustrations and expectations, and it has made life together wonderful. I find that not moving a box (or not cleaning a certain way, or whatever it is) is often tied to something larger and more important – for example, maybe my partner didn’t wash the dishes, but then after talking about it, I find out that he’s really stressed about his work, or he wasn’t feeling well last night and didn’t sleep well. Same goes for me; the point is, it’s helpful for both the offended and the offender to discuss the issue in a loving way that expresses genuine concern for the other. If I’ve left a big pile of laundry because I’m busy with work, or because I need relax time after a disappointing phone call, my partner is ultimately more concerned with my underlying wellness and happiness than with a pile of dirty clothes.

  • Courtroom Mama

    Seriously? An unpacked box throws you into rumination about a feminist dystopia of becoming (gasp!) a full-time parent?
    There is a way to negotiate the difference between your values: Stop being pass/ag and just tell him that the box bothers you. The quietly-suffering wifey is a sexist stereotype too, you know.
    You hit it on the head when you said that, to him, it doesn’t matter. Standards of neatness don’t have to be gendered, so I’d slow down before you start imagining how much you’ll resent your SO in 20 years.
    My husband (the neater one in our family) adds: That’s beyond gender, that’s about learning to live with another person.

  • fatima

    that sounds like something i would have done just a few months ago. its hugely passive aggressive. its like you want something done for you, but you don’t want to ask for it because then the act seems less genuine.
    just be honest about what you want/feel when you want/feel it. it will only turn into resentment if you let it. and its a BOX. i can understand how that can be catastrophized in your mind because i have done the same thing. but if you address it right away, then it won’t turn into a huge deal.

  • fatima

    also, after thinking about this more, it kind of frustrates me that this has turned into a gendered sort of issue. is there an assumption that same-sex couples don’t experience this same issue when they decide to move in together?

  • Mel

    2. It really depends on the therapist. The one I and my boyfriend see is not a “relationship therapist”, and we’ve both seen her separately for other issues. For the couples work, she’s focused on concrete actions we can both take in addition to the reasons behind our bad habits, and everything’s reciprocal–e.g. I agree to not leave crap lying around for more than 15 minutes, he agrees not to nag me about it. We both have consequences if we slip up, but they’re positive consequences that contribute to our quality of life. (And I do have childhood issues I’ve worked on in therapy, but they’re not responsible for my messiness, although they do contribute to my issues with nagging.)
    I wouldn’t write off therapists entirely–they can be extremely helpful. The trick is finding a good, feminist therapist.
    And yes, I’m the messier one in the relationship despite being female. I’m also the one who’s more bugged by dirty dishes and showers (although my standards are relatively low, and I am screening all future roommates for passive-aggressive compulsive cleanliness tendencies after my last roommate). It’s not strictly a gendered issue–and frankly, both of us would be happier if he were cleaner and I were tidier, which is why we’re working on changing habits. But it only works because we’re both trying.

  • Mel

    I don’t totally disagree with your comment, but it is possible for many to consciously change habits. I learned to hang my coat up instead of leaving it draped over a chair after 20+ years of the chair habit. I’m slowly getting better about not just leaving stuff lying around, although I backslide when I’m sick or stressed.
    The question is when the habits are frustrating enough to the other person–and/or undesired enough by ourselves–to put in that effort. And I think freaking out this early is probably premature.
    We avoid a certain number of these issues by having separate bedrooms; his is fulled of packed boxes, mine looks like a hurricane went through it. The living room is a compromise of unpacked semi-tidiness.

  • Ayla

    This makes me so glad that the SO and I are both total slobs and that we won’t be having children. It makes it sooo much easier to be egalitarian.

  • maja_dren

    Sublte doesn’t work with a lot of men, I’ve found. What you need to do is, sit down and talk to your man. Do it when he’s not busy, make sure you get his full attention and talk to him about it. Tell him you want him to clean out the garage, plain and simple. Offer your help if you are willing. But don’t mix words about it driving you nuts and you wanting it down now. I’ve confused my man more than once trying not to ‘pressure’ him. Just tell him what you want. Let him tell you what his timeline is like.

  • idealcamel

    I’m with Linda Hirshmann on this one
    “The home-economics trap involves superior female knowledge and superior female sanitation. The solutions are ignorance and dust. Never figure out where the butter is. “Where’s the butter?” Nora Ephron’s legendary riff on marriage begins. In it, a man asks the question when looking directly at the butter container in the refrigerator. “Where’s the butter?” actually means butter my toast, buy the butter, remember when we’re out of butter. Next thing you know you’re quitting your job at the law firm because you’re so busy managing the butter. If women never start playing the household-manager role, the house will be dirty, but the realities of the physical world will trump the pull of gender ideology. Either the other adult in the family will take a hand or the children will grow up with robust immune systems.”
    Sadly, I can’t help but think that housework is and remains a gendered issue – as evinced by half these comments. It is traditionally feminine, cleaning up and “hiding” the unspeakable byproducts of physical life – the dirt of the body, as opposed to the cleanliness of the mind.
    The power dynamics of cohabitation are constantly problematic. I’m just glad that I’m not the only one to be frustrated by them.

  • sangetencre

    Sadly, I can’t help but think that housework is and remains a gendered issue – as evinced by half these comments. It is traditionally feminine, cleaning up and “hiding” the unspeakable byproducts of physical life – the dirt of the body, as opposed to the cleanliness of the mind.
    And I don’t think these comments are implying at all that same sex couples don’t experience the same issues or that in a heterosexual partnership the man may be the neat one and the woman the messy one.
    But this shit does still get gendered in het relationships. It can start off egalitarian and then, slowly, the woman ends up doing more of the housework–maybe because it bothers her more. Or because she feels she’ll be judged if people come over and see socks strewn across the living room and dirty dishes in the sink. Or because she can’t relax in a cluttered environment.
    Some of this is individual personality and preference, sure. But we don’t live in a vacuum. Women are still “the keepers of the home.” How many women had house and home toys growing up? From fake kitchens to mops and brooms?
    I recall a commenter saying in some post a while back that she and her husband were living apart (in different countries, actually) and when someone visited his apartment–and found it messy–they made some remark about his wife not cleaning.
    She’d never set foot in that apartment.
    So, until that kind of attitude is demolished, yes we still have to watch out for the sexist shit cropping up in domestic roles. And catching the little stuff and talking through it is where the watch starts.

  • Amanduh

    I have been living with my boyfriend for a year and a half, and I have struggled with exactly these things. I have learned it’s unreasonable to expect that our cleanliness standards will be exactly the same, and I’ve learned how to talk to him about the things that really get to me (he does it with me, too). I’ve learned to say, “Babe, you know how it drives you crazy when I do X? Well, it drives me crazy when you do Y. I’ll do X if you can do Y.” It works, cause he understands how I feel.
    The hardest part, though, is that I’ve recently gone from working full-time and commuting to working part-time at home and taking online courses. He works almost 12 hours a day outside installing cable, and my work and schoolwork is usually less than 3 hours a day. So all the cleaning and cooking falls to me. We’re trying to save money, so I cook everything from scratch–even bread. I gut, skin, and quarter the chickens. I grow our vegetables. I exercise the dogs. We’re kind of a little-apartment-on-the-prairie. I don’t mind doing the work, and he’s super-appreciative of it. Last year, when our situations were reversed, he did all the housework. But it doesn’t stop me from getting that nagging feeling when my mom praises me for learning “the lost art of housewifery.” (Retch!)

  • kave

    I am messier then my husband even though he works 60+ hours a week compared to my 40. Although I consider the housework to be my job (no kids so it takes 4 hours a week or so) when I work the late shift I come home to a clean house. My leaving dishes probably drives him nuts but it’s just one of those things he excepts in me.
    He needs time to decompose after his day. If it’s my day off (my days off are weekdays) I’m craving attention when he gets through the door. After the first few months of living together I came to the realization that he just wasn’t into cuddling and talking for that first hour, and have learned not to jump him at the door.
    My guy can get detached from fun and life outside of his business. For the first few years it really bothered me when he’d go into a slump, then I learned he’d snap out of it on a night out with our best friend. Now when he starts looking depressed I call the BF, make reservations, and line up a cab. Works every time without being something we need to talk about.
    There was a time when I was jealous the BF could get him out of his slumps, now I’m just grateful and have to say the BF gets me out of my slumps as well.
    Perhaps it’s because we’ve both been married unhappily before, and we’re older, but neither one of us sweats the small stuff. He sometimes cleans up after me, and I give him space at the end of his day etc, etc back and forth… small potatoes compared to living with someone who’s not right in large ways.

  • Alix

    This isn’t about being too messy or too neat, though. This is about a specific mess, made by the SO, which he said he would clean up, and then didn’t until there was a houseguest coming.
    I’ve lived with roommates, lovers, and a husband. There’s getting used to each other’s styles, and then there’s respecting each other’s needs (I am almost always the messy one, but I’ve been on both sides of this). Her specified need was not respected here, but the perceived need of the houseguest was.

  • GatsbysLover

    My boyfriend ALWAYS uses the hand towel in my bathroom to wipe his face at night. He then takes the hand towel (which I always fold neatly) and stuffs it back onto the towel rack in a messy wad that usually falls on the floor. It does not matter how often I tell him not to do this, he will continue as long as the towel is there. At first I let it annoy me, but finally, I just realized that of all the issues in the world, this is not one worth pursuing, and the fact that he wads up hand towels and throws them all over the floor isn’t a metaphor for how he treats me. I now give him a washcloth when he washed his face at night. Problem solved.

  • AnnaAnastasia

    I disagree entirely with the commenters who say this isn’t a gendered thing. It is totally a gendered thing. Courtney has now recognized what so many other women have recognized, even if they don’t verbalize it – that in a heterosexual relationship, a woman’s SO has the power to, say, leave a box on the floor despite her request to pick it up, because she’s a woman and he’s a man and it’s accepted. And he can keep letting things slip, even if it’s something as important as child care or supporting his wife’s career. And society will totally back him up in this endeavor.
    That doesn’t mean that Courtney’s SO did this because he expects her to clean it up, or that he feels entitled to be a slob and ignore Courtney’s feelings. It doesn’t even mean that he did anything intentional in this case.
    This is a gendered situation because our WORLD is a gendered situation.
    Don’t believe me? Watch all the cleaning product commercials, which almost exclusively feature women (and girls!). Pay attention to the division of labor at Thanksgiving, at least in most homes. Listen to your family & friends laugh about how irresponsible men are when it comes to housework. Hell, watch a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond! Or just check out “The Second Shift” from the library, if you want solid sociological data.
    Before somebody jumps all over me, I will stress that Courtney’s SO probably left the box there because it truly didn’t bother him, and/or he had other things on his mind. But Courtney is NOT crazy for feeling this way, given how our world takes forgranted women’s unpaid home labor.
    My advice, as a woman who’s lived with her husband for 15 years, is to let this go if he otherwise does at least 50% of running the home (without your direction and reminders), and if he’s inclined to let similar minor things go when you do them. That’s how good roommates treat each other, and this is no different. But if you’re having to orchestrate everything at home, have an honest discussion with him, not just about divving up housework, but taking responsibility for half your shared life together.
    In the future, if you’re heading toward having kids, I’d reevaluate whether everyone is doing their fair share, and I’d have a long talk about what he thinks it means to take equal care of children, including how you both plan to support each other’s work outside the home.

  • MikeT

    Wanting the box gone is wanting to control the lived environment.
    Wanting him to clean up the box is wanting to control his behavior.
    That being said, it’s not her apartment. It’s their apartment. So the lived environment will involve significant negotiation, and you can’t negotiate without communication.
    I’m not saying it’s her fault, or his. If he’d written a post about his girlfriend freaking out about a cardboard box, I’d tell him to just clean out the box already. But since she’s the one asking, I’m concentrating on what she can control, which is her own behavior.

  • TheFlash

    “Don’t believe me? Watch all the cleaning product commercials, which almost exclusively feature women (and girls!)”
    This isn’t true. What about the OrangeGlo guy? Billy whatsisface? He’s the face of half the cleaning products on television.

  • kave

    Why 50% or more?
    Work should be divided equally, this includes work outside of the home. My guy works 20 hours more then me on average outside of the home, equality means that I do more inside the home.

  • Pierce

    There have been studies conducted unrelated to domesticity that show women notice a lot more details in a room than men. Now this is going to sound sexist but it is generally true, in my experience: guys’ dorm rooms and single guys’ homes and apartments are generally messier than women’s. Guys care less about mess than women — even when they are forced to wallow in it and there’s no woman to pick up after them. Guys simply don’t notice mess as much as women.
    Instead of insisting that the guy to be neater because you are convinced neater is the way to go, perhaps women need to let go of their house-cleaning mentality a little bit, which strikes me as a most gendered mindset.

  • sangetencre

    My thoughts exactly.

  • Aconite

    Courtney, you are not crazy for wondering if this little thing is a sign of bigger things to come.
    I’ve been in both opposite-sex and same-sex relationships. No matter the gender of your partner, if you want a feminist relationship, you’re going to have to fight for it, sometimes in big ways and sometimes in little ways, because we live in a culture that perceives sexism as the norm and that peception surrounds you and your SO all the time.
    There are two main issues here. One is how things are done in your (plural) home–the standards that are kept, and by whom. The other is how your SO responded when there was a difference of opinion in how things are to be done.
    Yes, different people have different standards of order and cleanliness. However, at this point in this culture, in a heterosexual relationship, the maintainance of standards of order and cleanliness defaults to the woman unless both partners make a conscious effort to change that.
    While it’s true that there are some particular men who are neater than some particular women, concluding from that fact that this isn’t a gendered issue is overly optimistic. Women not only still do most of the housework, but have to take on the responsibility for making sure things get done, even when they themselves don’t do the work. So yes, if you are not very careful and aware, you will probably get sucked into a dynamic where you are the standard-keeper. Not because your SO is a bad guy, but because the message you’re both receiving from a lot of sources is that it’s your job.
    The other issue is the one that’s probably more personally painful. As Alix pointed out, your SO told you he’d do something, and then did not do it until outside events prompted him. Neither the fact that it bothered you nor the fact that he said he’d do it was important enough to motivate him to do it. That sends a big ol’ “I don’t care” message that really does need to be addressed.
    The advice about counseling is a good one, provided you find a feminist counselor who clicks with both of you. Most “relationship/marriage counselors” slant (consciously or unconsciously) the sessions to be very supportive towards the man in the relationship, because he’s usually the one more resistant to coming to counseling in the first place. They also often try to steer you towards dynamics that don’t really challenge the (sexist) norm in meaningful ways. “That’s the way it is and you’re just going to have to find a way to live with it” is a self-fulfilling prophesy.
    Hang in there and remember that relationships based on equality and mutual respect are worth fighting for–for both partners.

  • AnnaAnastasia

    Agreed, but taking on more of the domestic work because of a partner’s non-domestic work schedule can be a slippery slope. How is the amount of work at home measured? If a person uses all his/her (usually her) waking hours to maintain a home and care for children, is that really equal to her partner’s 8-10 hour day? I think it’s more accurate to look at the amount of leisure time each partner gets – if the 60-hour/week wage earner is getting more “time off” than the homemaker, there’s a problem there.
    It’s also easy in this arrangement for one partner, often a man in a hetero relationship, to take on extra work outside the home “because I have to.” While that may be true, this automatically increases his partner’s workload at home at the same time, often without consent or thanks, and certainly without a pay raise.

  • AnnaAnastasia

    “Now this is going to sound sexist but it is generally true”
    Oh, this is going to be good…

  • wax_ghost

    Yes! It was (and is) very freeing to be able to say to my husband things like, “I don’t know where the butter is.” And he never takes offense to it (as long as I’m not sneering!); he just finds it for himself.

  • wax_ghost

    I have to second what AnnaAnastasia said. And I actually think it is very helpful to read “The Second Shift” again, specifically looking at the ways that women may try to get men to clean and men may try to get out of it. If you can spot those behaviors, both in yourself and him, you can hopefully nip them in the bud.
    I’ve been married for 6 years now and have run into this repeatedly. It is definitely a gendered thing, but at the same time you also have to try not to lay all of that gendered baggage on your SO because he is an individual, not a sociological trend. :)
    I would also add that everyone is right that you shouldn’t worry about “nagging”. You need to say what you are feeling, no matter how ridiculous it might end up sounding to him; feelings aren’t always “logical” – I don’t think I’m the first feminist to say that “logic” and “objectivity” are often gendered male! To me your fears are perfectly logical because I’ve experienced them myself and know where they might come from. So tell him how you feel; the only thing that should hold you back is consideration for the fact that he may not have realized how important it was to you before and that’s okay too. In my experience, the best way to approach a fight is to remember that you both love each other but are different people with different opinions, neither of which is more important or more valid than the others. It takes some of the scariness (fear of being the nag) away and allows for a better compromise that takes both people’s concerns into consideration.
    Don’t worry if you have to repeatedly ask him to do something, either. I don’t buy that it means he doesn’t care or can’t change or anything. My SO and I are super busy people (I’m guessing the same is probably true for both of you) so we forget a lot of things while trying to remember others. If he doesn’t always do what I want him to do, I just figure he’s probably got something else on his mind and that I’ve probably forgotten something really important to him too.
    Plus, to me that’s another one of those gendered ways of thinking that we women can fall into (that society encourages us to do), overanalyzing the small things while missing the fact that he chooses to be with you. Men (and women) often say exactly what they are thinking or feeling but others miss it because they try to interpret it when it should simply be taken at face value.

  • Cheriot

    Thanks to Courtney for verbalizing some of my issues with cohabiting/relating as a feminist. And thanks to all the comment-ers above with their wonderful advice and musings.


    Not everybody likes their desk clean.
    For some folks, it’s a part of their work process to have stuff in piles on their desk.
    Maybe, it might be easier for you to just treat that area of the house as “his area” that he can keep as he sees fit.
    If he doesn’t feel like arranging his desktop to your satisfaction, it’ll just stay like that, and you can try and learn to ignore it.
    It’s obviously not bothering HIM, so perhaps you can adjust so it doesn’t bother you either.
    It beats spending the next 20 years bickering about it.


    It’s sad that you’d worry about what the cable installer thinks about the state of your house!
    I’m not trying to dis you – what I’m saying is women are so conditioned that they are going to be judged on house cleaning that they constantly have to overfocus on housecleaning in a way that men frankly do not.
    Even if it’s just the installer from Comcast coming over to hook up the new cable box
    And, honestly, the installer (or the carpenter, or the electrician, or the plumber, or the super, or the painter, or the plasterer, or the furniture delivery person) probably does NOT CARE about your homemaking skills – he/she is thinking about how many more installations he/she has to do before it’s time for lunch, and is he/she going to go to the Chinese place, or to McDonalds, or to the pizza place.
    It’s really unfortunate that so many women are so conditioned to be constantly walking on eggshells waiting to be judged about homemaking.


    That is because society expects men to be incompetent at housework, but expects every women to be Suzy Homemaker at all times.
    Women are also frequently trained by their parents to be ‘deputy mommies’ from early childhood – this means that they are drilled in housework tasks at an age where boys are out playing or in their rooms playing video games.
    Thus women are taught that housework is their job – and men are taught the same way.
    In other words, it’s all about the sexism.

  • wax_ghost

    If I can add to my already-really-long post, I meant to say too that it helps me and my husband that we each have a space or two that is basically our own. We each have our own bathroom, our own floor space, and our own desk. If I really start to feel like things need to be cleaned, I clean up my own little space and that makes me feel ten times better while not requiring him to do anything. For instance, I’ve been itching to clean lately, so I’m going to clean my own bathroom sometime soon.
    You may not have room for that – your apartment is smaller than ours – but I thought I might suggest it anyway.

  • Sarah the Kabocha

    This is an issue for every couple, I don’t care what their genders are. At the beginning of cohabitation there is always a power struggle shaping what the couple’s lifestyle is going to be. I have also had this situation with female roommates, though it’s different ’cause you’re not in love. My husband and I have passed this particular bump, but it took several years. The first most important thing is for you and your SO to let it all out: talk about your fears (nagging/ control freak), your ideal situation (equally cleanliness), and then listen to your SO’s. It’s okay and even healthy to get upset with each other, as long as you also cling to each other and continuously show love and admiration for each other. Talk about what sort of homes you were raised in and what the cleaning standards were.
    After that, I suggest focusing on one or two consistent habits of his at a time and also praising positive things about your SO. Be really really patient and use jokes and humor. Train him the way you want him to train you, because you will train each other. It took me about 3 years to get him to regularly hang up his wet towel instead of throwing it on the bed, but now I don’t have to mention it at all. He has also completely stopped throwing his clothes on the floor. Considering that both his parents still throw their clothes on the floor, that is quite an achievement. I praise his cooking so much that he cooks regularly. He is happy to do the laundry as long as I fold. It is not yet quite equal, but it keeps getting slowly more and more that way.
    Another useful tool is a schedule. Not a daily schedule, but a weekly or biweekly one. I’m Jewish, and my husband has come to really enjoy Shabbat on Fridays. We always have a really nice dinner and make enough so no cooking is required on Saturday. Frequently we have potlucks with our friends, so my husband and I gradually got ourselves into the habit of always having everything clean and all pressing matters taken care of by Friday night. Then Saturday we lay around all day and absolutely don’t make ourselves or each other do anything.
    The incentive for cleaning is the niceness of Shabbat, and the incentive for helping me out and being nice to me is that I help him out and am nice to him. If something someone does upsets the other, we have it out quickly in private and then it’s over. But it took about 4 years to get the housework situation really smooth. And sometimes you just have to wait several years, ask him if you can throw some of his stuff out, and do it then. Patience really is the key.

  • POAndrea

    In the name of all that is holy, talk to your SO NOW about the box (and any other incomplete tasks), and in the same thoughtful careful manner you’ve written about it. I’m going to assume that your SO is a thoughtful person who cares about you and your feelings and the reason he didn’t pick up the stinkin box is because he was unaware how much its continued presence was a blot on your new home. Don’t let it get to the point where you are resentful about the fact that you are doing more of the household and parenting. Don’t let it get to the point where you are so exhausted and irritated that you blow up over something you don’t really give a SHIT about and he’s never done before but he’s “ALWAYS doing this.” It’s not so much that what he is or isn’t doing is similar, but that they cause you to feel the same way. (Trust me on this one–been there and screamed about it myself.) I’d also imagine that your prediction of his future childrearing practices is probably something of an overstatement: a box of crap on the floor is much easier to overlook than a screaming toddler preparing to shove a jelly bean up his nose.

  • Anonymous

    That’s very cool. Except for the part about decomposing after work… yikes…

  • Vsolanas

    Your determination to see the problem as being with women even after you acknowledge that they aren’t to blame is a bit shocking.
    I personally find it tragic that so many men are programmed by society to be willing to live in total filth/clutter. It’s unhealthy and it makes your guests wanna hurl when they visit.

  • Lis

    “It’s really unfortunate that so many women are so conditioned to be constantly walking on eggshells waiting to be judged about homemaking.”
    I’m not walking on eggshells. But while normally I might let my panties hanging on top of the couch, along with leftover pizza, I have no desire to have the Comcast man take a look at my undies. So I tidy up when I don’t want people to look at my private shit.

  • MikeT

    We can change ourselves. We can’t (and shouldn’t try to) change other people.