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

  • ElleStar

    One of the biggest things that I’ve learned cohab-ing (then marrying) my SO is that all of those little things I made myself let go of when we first moved in together DO keep popping up.
    For example: Wet towels on the bed. The first time or two I saw this, I thought to myself, “He’ll move it eventually. I don’t want to and don’t need to nag him.” He eventually DID move the towel. Knowing that he WOULD eventually move it did not mean, however, that I could ignore a wet towel on the bed. After those first few times, I started letting him know my displeasure that he leaves wet towels on the bed. He’s making an effort to move them faster or not put them on the bed in the first place.
    It’s like that with a lot of other little things that probably shouldn’t bug me, but do. I have just given in and shared my feelings about those things with him. I do it tactfully and respectfully, and he can respond however he wants (even with an occasional, “This is how I like to do X, and I’m not changing it.”). I’ve found that having him hear me, even if it’s not something he wants or intends to change, makes me feel better. Then, the how and when of something getting done doesn’t seem to matter as much.
    But this is me. This is what works in my relationship. So this is what I will continue to do.

  • Haley

    I hope you won’t be offended by this suggestion, but perhaps couple’s counseling early on may help you negotiate this specific life change. Sometimes, it just takes a third party for the a couple to really understand why one values one thing and the other values another. It is definitely something I wish I had done early on with my ex-fiance.

  • UntouchableFace

    To me, this reeks of attempted control.
    The reason you’re placing so much on this, to me, is because it seems you want to control his behaviors (that you don’t like) and make them into behaviors that you approve of.
    When he resists this, and continues doing certain things in a way he likes, you get angry and start overreacting.
    If there was something you did or didn’t do, and he started making endless demands that you change this or that aspect of yourself to accommodate him, how would you react?
    There is compromise involved in living together. Compromise, however, is not control. If I were the type to have a live-in SO (and I’m not, for reasons much like this), they would have to deal with the fact that I’ve spent a long time getting comfortable in the groove of the way I do things.
    I’m not about to rearrange my entire routine and manner of living my life, simply because it irritates another person.
    I say, pick your battles. You’re never going to get along 100% perfectly with someone, there will always be things they do that bother you.
    The sooner you accept that, and stop trying to change them to be more than they are, the better off you’ll be. Take them as-is, instead of trying to melt them down and pour them into a specific mold you want them to fit.

  • Scarlett.Speaks

    While you’re right and it is just a box, it’s a symptom of a bigger issue–namely, you’re used to things being done a certain way. And there’s certainly no shame in that.
    If I were you, I’d broach the subject over dinner or something. Just bring it up, like “okay, so we’ve been living together for a few months and I’m so happy we’re doing it. But it’s really hard for me when you do _______ because that’s one of my pet peeves. Is there anything I do that bugs you?”
    Like Ellestar said, as long as you feel like he’s actually hearing you and taking your feelings into consideration, you’ll probably feel loads better.
    But don’t assume that just because he hasn’t said anything he doesn’t have a gripe or two of his own, you know?

  • kendraj

    It’s hard! Behind me on my husband’s desk is a pile of CRAP and it drives me nuts. It’s the one part of the house that I seriously refuse to clean (Before you jump on me for doing all the cleaning: I’m a SAHM whose kid is in day care 3 days a week, so part of my ‘job’ is cleaning – I have the time. DH has a full time job, and if I clean during the week we have more family time on the weekends! I don’t love it, but I think it’s fair. Husband helps whenever I ask but I try not to.) If we’re having guests and it still looks like a tornado hit it, I shove everything in his drawers and let him sort it out later.
    He knows it drives me crazy, but still almost every week it piles up. I guess at least we don’t fight about it. But I do wish he would keep it tidy. It’s not that hard! Honestly, sometimes I use the same tactic I use with my kid when it comes to cleaning his stuff up: ‘Can I help you pick up your legos/desk so we can put them away?’ Etc. Is that awful?
    Also, putting a deadline and a good reason for things works for us. I’ll say something like ‘could you clean up your desk by this weekend? We’re having xyq over for dinner…’

  • kendraj

    I don’t think this is an offensive comment at all! Some people might think it’s silly to go to counseling over something like this, but it does really speak to a deeper communication issue. I know absolutely that couples counseling helped my husband and I communicate about not only the bigger things that were more serious issues, but also the small daily things people might not consider important enough to get counseling for. I honestly don’t think we’d be together if it wasn’t for the counseling we did, and I don’t regret it for a second.

  • kendraj

    Attempted control? Trying to control the state of your living quarters and trying to control someone’s behaviour are completely different things. It’s not ridiculous to expect a certain level of cleanliness from a partner.

  • Kristen

    Well, take what I’m about to say for what it’s worth…but….
    In our house we have a rule…who ever it bugs first has to clean it. But, if one person is cleaning the other person also has to be cleaning at the same time. [No sitting on your ass while your partner is working!]
    My husband leaves whiskers on the bathroom sink…it drives me INSANE. I used to ask him to clean them up and he’d either forget or do a poor job of it. For the first few years of our relationship I looked at those whiskers as some sort of “affront” or “insult” or at least a sign that he didn’t respect me.
    But the reality is for us they’re just whiskers. And after fuming about it for a few years, I noticed that if I got up and wiped off the sink, he’d get up and scrub the toilet or put in a load of laundry. So they weren’t a sign of anything other than whiskers in the sink didn’t bother him (sort of how leaving the box of tampons on the bathroom counter while I’m on my period doesn’t even register with me…but drives him insane).
    So, I don’t think the box is necessarily a sign of anything other than that he’s not as neat a person as you are. The real sign would be if you spent all day wondering around the house picking up his shit AND he sat on the sofa or took a nap completely ignoring the other work that needs to be done.

  • maja_dren

    The longer I live with my SO – it’s only been a few months for us as well – the more I realise just how important communication really is. Even about the small things.
    It may be just a box, but it’s a box that you felt took Herculean effort to not mention. Like ElleStar, I’ve found that talking to my SO about my feelings helps – whatever the outcome. I’ve tried subtle, I’ve tired tact, these usually go over badly for me. What works best for me is straight forward and honest. I catch him when he’s not busy with something else and I tell him how I feel. It works for us. I’m very lucky, and he’ll often try to fix things to make me happier, or we’ll come to a compromise we can both live with.
    I find as I get older, being happy and comfortable in life, is all about accepting your own quircks as well as your partners and working with them. For instance, the both of us are prone to dropping things, so the majority of our cookware, dinnerware, and cups are of non-shattering materials. After the 6th broken glass we knew glass glasses were not something we should own. lol.

  • kdumont

    Like many of the other people who commented, I think being forthright and letting him know upfront what bugs you is the best solution. I came to realize in my (now) 9-year relationship that the whole idea that you are “nagging” a man is the sexist ploy. My husband knows he’s lazy and forgetful sometimes, so when I gently remind him that something has been sitting there for months, he knows I’m not nagging; he knows he should have done that already.
    Also, I think doing the dishes, the laundry, or whatever is fine if you are doing it because you want it to get done. You could unpack the box if you wanted and then just tell him that he has to live with where you put the stuff. If the box being gone will make you feel better, I don’t think it’s anti-feminist to do it.

  • socbaker

    I agree with the counseling suggestion. My husband I and I had some similar types of issues initially (more about his asking me where stuff was or how to do things–as if a vagina imbued me with magical knowledge about the location of the groceries he had put away). We went to counseling shortly after marrying, and it really helped. We have been cohabiting for 20.5 years (since I was 19), married for almost 18. There has been tons of compromising from both of us, always based on circumstances, not gender. It really is worth working it through–don’t let this stuff fester!

  • Haley

    My life definitely improved when I made the choice to finally seek therapy. It’s something I thoroughly recommend to people, especially couples.

  • msmaddy

    I agree. It’s important to keep in mind that your reaction to the box (that when one has a box on the floor, one immediately unpacks and puts away box) is not the RIGHT or ONLY response to the issue. Just as he has spent time developing his behavior, your behavior was learned by your upbringing, other roommates you’ve had, your sensitivity to unclean spaces, etc. What your natural response is is clearly not his; he’s not doing it because he doesn’t care but, as you said, he just values a different sense of cleanliness.
    When in college, I used to get so annoyed by a roommate who left food in the sink for more than a day. I couldn’t fathom how she had never learned that this was wrong and I nagged her about it constantly. The next roommate I had, however, was blown away that I didn’t make my bed. Her acute OCD caused her to find it annoying and disturbing, but I thought making the bed was pointless and wasn’t about to change my actions, not just because I prefer rumpled sheets but also because I found it unnecessary to change what I saw as a perfectly reasonable behavior just because it annoyed her.
    Admittedly (and importantly), your living arrangement is different than a college roommate, especially when/if children enter the picture. I’m not saying this is a perfect analogy but whenever my current roommate’s behavior bothers me, I definitely pick my battles. Part of compromise is giving up your right to get annoyed at every little thing (this is part of his compromise too-please don’t read this as a note to be a quiet little woman who cleans up his messes without a word) and to accept and reevaluate his behaviors and yours.

  • shellybean99

    I think you are tying this issue into gender more than you have to.
    I live with my boyfriend and I know that I am the one who leaves the box on the floor in our relationship. I try very hard to be considerate and not too messy (dishes don’t usually pile up in the sink when its my turn to wash like they did when I lived alone), but ultimately, I am just not as detailed oriented as he is and sometimes stuff of mine that I need to clean up (b/c it was my mess in the first place) is left lying around.
    In general though, I think our levels of cleanliness are pretty similar and we split chores very well, so it hasn’t been a huge issue. Its been more of a case of my boyfriend pouting b/c he wanted to make breakfast using the pan that I’d dirtied but failed to wash the night before. Or if he needs to use the dryer but I left my clean clothes in there and he now has to move them.
    And actually when I think about it, part of the issue is also that I work all week and prefer to do all my chores on the weekend whereas he’s at home studying during the week (he’s a med student)and does his chores during the week- so the fight is that he doesn’t necessarily see the reason why I don’t want to deal with cleaning on a weeknight b/c its not such a big deal to him. Darn it, honey, I’m maximizing my couch time! And I seriously don’t notice all the little messes that he seems to see. I’m a total absent minded engineer type. :)
    What I’m saying is that just b/c your boyfriend wasn’t bothered by a mess that bothered you (which I guess falls into a stereotypical guy category- if you go for stereotypes) doesn’t mean that every possible stereotype that feminists are trying to avoid is going to apply to your relationship.
    Maybe reframe it in terms of personality or lifestyle. In my case that would be detail oriented versus not so much or works outside the home and wants to relax during free time versus works from home and has to stare at the mess all day long.
    Your attitudes toward the box are pretty different but its likely that your attitudes toward your baby will be a lot more in sync.
    Glad to hear that you are enjoying living together though. Congratulations!

  • Adena

    um…welcome to…reality? I hate to say it, but this is what married life is like. I know, you want to be different. You insist on being different. But every married woman I know complains about this type of thing. I don’t know the solution. I just know that it’s a problem, and we haven’t discovered the solution yet. Sorry to be a downer, but that’s the reality that I’ve discovered.
    P.S. I’m 47 and have been married for 12 years and in relationship for 17
    P.P.S. you might enjoy this site

  • Terabithia

    See, I hate that rule that both people have to clean at once. Maybe it works if you have a general schedule where you both tend to clean at the same time, but I think its a recipe for fights. If I’m exhausted and just want to sit and watch TV, or I’m studying, or whatever, and my boyfriend suddenly feels the urge to clean, why should I have to clean too? Similarly if I feel like cleaning that shouldn’t mess up what he was planning to do. As a kid I hated it that my parents would usually never clean, but then suddenly they’d announce Saturday was cleaning day and everyone had to help, even if we had other plans.
    Our general rule is that we each clean up our own mess. If I use dishes I wash them. If he uses dishes he washes them. If he leaves dirty dishes that I need to use, sometimes I wash them but usually I remind him to do it. There are a few exceptions– sweeping hurts his back so I tend to do it, plus the dirty floor bugs me more than him, but then he does other things like clean the shower that I can’t be bothered to do because I don’t notice the shower is dirty until its much more dirty than that (partly because I usually shower without my contact lenses).
    In general I like the rule that whoever is bothered by something should clean it, but that doesn’t apply when it ssomething specifically owned by one person, like their box of stuff they have to sort out.

  • Cory

    Now you know you’re both family! lol
    I wouldn’t worry too much about it… I do the same thing; leave my stuff out when it’s just me and the fam, but clean things up when I know people are coming over. It’s not exactly a sex-segregated problem.
    But when the baby comes… I’d have faith until he’s proven guilty. I have the feeling he’ll live up to his promise.

  • shellybean99

    My mother swears that the secret to marital harmony is separate bathrooms. :)

  • Destra

    You’re over-thinking things. Talk about things with your SO when they come up and bug you. Don’t make a box today 20 years of slight. Every partner, not just the women, run into this kind of situation. Keep your eyes open but don’t go looking for signs of unrest.
    I moved in with my partner several years ago now. It’s worked out for the best mostly because we took it easy with getting to know each other in our own spaces. Not stressing goes a long way towards equality and harmony.
    P.S. I’m the lady in the relationship, and I’m the one who always leaves the box on the ground. It bugs my partner, and I know it, and he knows I know it, and he also knows that if I have to pick it up according to his rules that it bugs me. So we meet in the middle time wise. ^__^

  • Perkyshai

    I know your writing, at least as far as this forum goes, and I think you are fairly self-aware, and vigilant in your own conduct. However, the erosion of resistance is just that…erosion. It is a slow process, over time. It takes more than just one person’s vigilance and concern to accomplish a fair exchange, in this case it takes at least two people’s awareness and cooperation.
    It’s easy to address big things in a relationship. The small, hard-to-define irritants are different, though, and can snowball into this hard crusty juggernaut of resentment unless you start working out how to deal with it now, which you are doing. For me, the hardest thing is talking to my partner about unformed issues, problems that have no established hard edges. I worry that my concerns are too militant, or not coherent enough to be taken seriously. I want to let my instinct to nurture give him a pass on things. I want to not nag or be a pain…but the truth is, I also want my needs and preferences known and respected in my space. Mutual accomodation is fine, but if you always at least communicate the problem, even when you don’t entirely want to rock the boat, then you give him the opportunity to step up and share the load, and establish a mutual safety in communicating without judging one another, which is very important.

  • Kensuke Nakamura

    I’ve been the guy leaving the box. For me it’s just not a priority (obviously it’s not always a box). I find it helps when my SO doesn’t approach it nonchalantly and wait while it gets under her skin. We’ve had confrontations a couple of times of this sort but it’s been better for a while. She now just lets me know calmly but firmly that I need to get my clothes out of the dryer or dishes out of the sink or whatever. It goes both ways, but I think in the past the nonchalance was counterproductive because i think it didn’t convey the sense of priority that was needed to switch the light on in my head.
    I think the important thing is to talk about it early on, have a discussion about it (no matter how small it is) and both sides should talk about what the thing is, what motivates one person to do it, how it might affect the other person and mutually come to an agreement on what action should be taken. What comes out of it usually helps other situations like it from happening in the future.

  • nilbog

    I know the feeling and I totally agree! My boyfriend and I have lived together for about a year and a half now and overall it’s really wonderful. He is a kind, sweet, generous, feminist man. Neither of us are the best housekeepers in the world, but we definitely have different thresholds about our spaces. I am struggling with how to communicate my frustrations to him without nagging. When we first moved into a new place about six months ago we were in a hurry and ended up just throwing a bunch of our crap in the garage to sort out later and at that time he promised me that he would do it. It’s been six months and he still hasn’t and it’s driving me nuts. I don’t feel that it is solely his responsibility, but it’s just that he said he would and hasn’t done it. Anyway, sorry for the digression, but my point is, I have come to realize that subtlety doesn’t really work with him. So, as a feminist how do I express my desires without being a nag?

  • Rachel

    My husband doesn’t mind a cluttered house; I like to keep our house at least company-decent at all times. Also, I work from home mostly and my personal quirk is that I cannot work and feel organized if my work environment is messy. I used to get aggravated at him for not cleaning up more and letting the brunt fall on me, but then I realized that he wasn’t not cleaning deliberately or maliciously — it really doesn’t even bleep on his radar. He grew up in an always-messy house and it doesn’t bother him. So, we compromised. Whenever the mess gets to be too much for my OCD sensibilities, I ask him to help me clean it up. And on the flip side, I’ve had to learn not to be so rigid. Now, only my personal office (not the whole house) must be clean for me to be able to work. It works for us.
    And part of any relationship is making decisions with eyes wide-open. When we met, both he and I were upfront in that we didn’t want children, for example, but I think if it were to accidentally happen, I’d be okay as a parent. He, on the other hand, would not be so great a parent. So, if I were to ever feel my defunct biological clock ticking, I’d have to reconcile this with the realization that it would be me who would probably bear the day-to-day brunt of child-rearing. You have to recognize each others strengths, weaknesses and desires and then learn to accept them for what they are.
    Hopefully some of this is just growing pains in a new phase in your relationship that will soon go away as you two get more used to each other and living together. Best of luck.

  • lauren

    um, yeah…this feels like less of a gender issue, more of a co-hab-ing, compromise issue. you share space, and expect a certain level of cleanliness, that is to say, the level you’ve always had. you haven’t shared your room with a messier lover before. this is an issue we struggled with in our lesbian marriage…whose values matter most?
    i guess i’m just trying to let you know that it’s ok to think about gender roles in the context of your new co-hab, but that these issues arise in relationships with less clear gender roles, too. it’s a constant negotiation, but it seems like it might be worth it. rage against falling into your fears, and make conscious decisions based on the future, not just what’s comfy right now, and maybe you’ll be able to keep these fears at bay.

  • Kaethe

    Before kids I also worried a lot about stuff like this, although the scariest bugaboo for me was that we mostly didn’t eat together. I took it personally that he would get hungry, fix himself something to eat, and never even ask if I was hungry.
    Fifteen years later, when he cooks supper every night for me, two kids, and my mother, I know that it was never about me. And I know that there are all kinds of things he wouldn’t think about doing for an able-bodied partner (like cook) that he understands to do for a child, without asking.

  • oxygengrrl

    I do think it’s very important not to gender this stuff, because that feeds into stereotypes that really aren’t about us. I mean, roommates create the same issues. It’s just that there’s a tendency to make it mean more than it does when it’s a relationship (If s/he loved me, s/he would wipe up the crumbs from the counter…)
    I’ve been on both sides. Lived with someone who got mad (for example) because when the trash bin was full, I pushed it down so more trash would fit, rather than taking it out. He accepted in principle that the person it bothers most does the work, but he hated that it left him with most of the work.
    So, now I’m living with a guy who’s generally on the same page as I for cleaning, but we have some different habits. I like the bed made. He doesn’t care. So, I make the bed. He notices the bathroom needs cleaning before I do, so he usually cleans the bathroom. I think we both get resentful sometimes, but I think that’s better than one of us being resentful all the time.
    If I had to make it into rules, they’d go like this:
    –Whoever is more bothered by the mess, cleans the mess
    –If one of you cooks, the other one cleans
    –If one of you has had a rough day, it’s nice if the other cooks and cleans and coddles the victim for a bit.
    –If you really have such different approaches that one of you is resentful A LOT, get counseling (which I agree isn’t a bad idea even well short of that point) and/or maintain separate households. Or break up. Some people shouldn’t live together.
    But isn’t it nice to know that (almost) everyone deals with this?

  • Beccai

    Thanks for writing about this, courtney!

  • baddesignhurts

    courtney, never forget, in a relationship, as in feminism, you have to know yourself well enough and be strong enough to ask for WHAT YOU NEED. (doesn’t mean he has to give it, but i’m guessing he would, since you seem pretty keen on the guy.) you NEEDED him to clean up the box, and you passive-aggressively avoided talking to him about it.
    you’re more likely to end up with the life you want if you lovingly, clearly and firmly communicate with those you love about what you really need. (and do some serious self-examination to figure out what you need versus what you want.) if you need cleanliness, then say so. odds are, he needs something from you, too, which i assume you’ll be happy to provide. and positive reinforcement is better in the long run, too. thank him for the other 99 boxes he moved in and unpacked, and i’d be willing to bet he’d be faster about unpacking the last one, yanno?
    and a sense of proportion is important here. it’s a box.

  • Kristen

    Eh, for us the cleaning at the same time thing evolved naturally. I can’t just sit there while he’s working and he can’t sit there while I’m working. Besides, if you’re both working then you can both sit down sooner…which results in more cuddling time.

  • Natasha

    Loved reading this as my own boyfriend moved in last August and I found myself struggling with the same issues for a while.
    It probably comes as no surprise to hear this, but I really think communication is key when it comes to being egalitarian about things like housework or child-rearing.
    Neat freak that I am, before my boyfriend even moved in, he told me upfront that while he had no problems pitching in around the house, he’s the type of person who has to be asked as he’s bad at taking initiative. True to his word, he’s always willing to happily lend a hand if I ask. When it comes to dishes, he’ll dry and put away if I wash. If I’m cleaning up the house, he’ll Windex the windows and countertops while I vacuum. Part of me really wishes he would take his own initiative sometimes, and it’s been a point of contention between us on more than one occasion, but…he is who he is, and frankly, if the worst thing I can say about him is that I have to remind him to turn off the bathroom light once in a while, then I think I’m doing pretty good. I guess it’s all a matter of deciding what’s important to you, and how you might be able to reach a compromise on a given issue. I get annoyed when he leaves wet towels on the bathroom floor, for example, but at the same time, it’s not worth getting into a fight over—especially since he does pitch in on other things around the house.
    I’m not sure how your boyfriend feels on the issue of housework (or child rearing, for that matter), but ask him and see what works for him. Obviously having a clean house is as important to you as it is to me, and he should understand that. At the same time, the pick-your-battles argument is valid here, too. Nobody is satisfied with their partner 100% of the time, after all. 80% is a more realistic number, and it’s a good one at that. You’ll BOTH do things that get on each other’s nerves as your relationship progresses, but if you love each other enough and you’re willing to communicate openly and honestly, it’ll work out.
    Good luck, and have fun! I’ve run into a few bumps in the road myself, but overall, my boyfriend has made a great roommate, and I hope it’s the same for you!

  • Terabithia

    The other problem is in a small apartment it physically doesn’t work that well to have both people cleaning at once. I much prefer to clean when he’s not home. Plus then I can put on my ipod shuffle and sing loudly and off key without being embarassed.

  • SJ

    I can totally relate – both from your perspective and as a sometimes-slobbier person’s. After we had been living together almost a year, my SO let me know that it really bugs him that I tend to basically leave my crap just strewn everywhere. He’s definitely not neater than I am in general, but this particular habit was really bugging him. From the other person’s perspective, I was REALLY glad that he let me know in a straightforward way. Yeah, it was a somewhat painful/awkward conversation, but not really all that bad. And then it gave me space to talk about his messy habits that get to me. Neither of us have totally mended our ways but we are both mindful of each other’s preferences and, however successful we are or aren’t at actually keeping the place clean, that alone helps a lot. And I can’t stress how much open communication helps! It’s a fine line between subtlety and being passive-aggressive sometimes.
    But I tend to disagree that gender has nothing to do with it – although it certainly is NOT the determining factor. Each person and relationship is unique, but why does it seem that so much more often than not in different-sex relationships it’s women who feel more responsible for the cleaning? For me, it’s not even the dirty dishes/bathtub/etc that bugs me, it’s that when I look at them, I see something I SHOULD do. My partner just cleans whenever he feels like it and doesn’t worry about it in between like I do.

  • AnatomyFightSong

    I agree its important to compromise and let a partner be himself… but things get a little tricky when it comes to “maintaining the home.” I find myself in the same situation sometimes. I understand that I have a lower tolerance for messiness than my husband does, and that doesn’t make one of us right or wrong — but it pushes my feminist buttons a bit because women have historically done most of the work around the house.
    I’m throwing race and class into the mix here, but it’s similar to how I feel when the assistant-level people at my last job — who were mostly women of color — cleaned up after the manager-level people, who were mostly white (men and women).

  • Lynne C.

    Please forgive my ignorance, but I have lived a somewhat sheltered life and haven’t really kept up with terms, and was wondering what SO stands for? I live with a guy who I’ve been in a relationship with for 3 years now, but we’re not married. Everytime I describe my living situation or mention him to other people, they always assume he’s my husband, and so I feel a tinge of shame or guilt mentioning that I live with him out of “wedlock”. I shouldn’t have to feel that way, but people have frowned upon me for it. Especially already having a child.

  • pheebs

    Thanks for posting about this-I can TOTALLY relate. Although some people have posted saying that they feel that the issue is less about gender than it is just the dynamics of cohabitation, I can’t help but feel that, for me at least, co-habitation as a feminist in a hetereosexual relationship is inextricably tied up with gender.
    Although my boyfriend and I do not live together, he is at my nice shiny new bachelor(ette) (weird that apartments are gendered like that….) 6 nights a week. When I moved in he promised not to mess it up and that he would make sure he would clean up after himself. 3 days later his pyjamas were still in a crumpled heap on the floor, shoes in the middle of the entranceway and plates and glasses of his scattered about the apartment, all of which I staunchly refused to clean up until I couldn’t stand it any longer.
    I know he doesn’t do it on purpose, but it’s like he just doesn’t see! Although I tried to resist it, I can’t help but turn it into this men vs women duality, not helped by the fact that my mother sympathized with me by saying ‘oh yes, well, that’s men for you. Get used to it.’ Even though I have expressed (some) of my frustrations to my boyfriend, and he is incredibly understanding and apologetic and wonderful, I still know that I will likely be the one who will always do the bulk of the cleaning/picking up/etc. This would likely be the other way round if my boyfriend were the neat freak, but it is not, and although I recognize that in any co-habitation situation there have got to be compromises and negotiations (I have lived with roomates for a long time) I still get irritated and feel like I am in a sense taking on the role of female as housekeeper.
    I love my boyfriend dearly, and I know that I could well spend the rest of my life with him, but I definitely do have that same worry as Courtenay that this minior annoyance that is easy to brush off now is just going to get worse over time!
    I wonder how this pans out in the dynamics of relationships between women? I didn’t notice any gay couples in the comments (might have missed it though, there are a lot!)

  • Daisy

    Courtney, here is what works for my boyfriend and I.
    We tell each other in a way that is clear and leaves no room for ambiguity exactly when something like this bugs us. Its a weird way to speak, but we both agreed we would be less angry with overall. Its an agreement we made with each other.
    I initiated that conversation with him when we moved in my saying something along the lines of: “You and I have both had roommates and we know what its like when you live with someone and you do things differently. I know that the things I do are informed by the way my mom did things at home and that is true for you as well, so lets just agree right now that we when one of those things comes up, where it is just going to drive us crazy otherwise, that we will tell each other straight up exactly what it is and why. I don’t need you to do everything the way I like and you don’t need me to do everything the way you like, but we both know we have those little things that can become to much and lets agree right now to not let them become a big deal and just be honest and not take them personally.”
    So how we actually practice this is he or I will notice one of these things and we treat it almost like an announcement: “OK, I have one.”
    We say that to start it and we both know what it means, and it usually leads to this: “I know it doesn’t matter to you, but I really need you to clear your dish into the garbage before putting it into the sink. The more food in the sink, the less I feel inclined to clean it because it is way messier than I would ever let it get, so please try to stop doing that.”
    He walked out of the bathroom once and said to me “Ok, I have one: Don’t put things on top of the toilet. It grosses me out. I know its silly and it doesn’t bother you and most of the time its just your own stuff anyway, but I find it it gross and I would feel better a lot if you didn’t do it.”
    To which the other will usually reply “Ok, cool. Got it.” And then we go back to speaking like normal humans.
    My boyfriend and I are goofballs, and we certainly don’t speak that way about everything, but we agreed when we moved in together to just be completely forthright about these things, on both sides, because we both understood it would keep us from getting upset about small stuff. 2 years. So far, so good.
    Only once did he ever start doing something I asked him not to again. I knew he was busy that week so I chose not to take it personally, give him a few days and see if he would notice it. When that didn’t happen, I just said “Hey, I have one. You did a really great job of not doing x for a while after I asked you not to, but lately its been happening again. I would appreciate it if you would try to be conscious of that again.”
    Worked out very well. Hope that helps.

  • pheebs

    SO stands for significant other. Don’t feel bad about not knowiong what it means, I come across acronyms all the time on the internet and have to spend a long time googling to figure out what the heck someone is saying.
    Knowing how to refer to your “SO” :) to whom you are not married really is a minefield eh? I find it really interesting that marriage instantly places this premium upon your relationship with a person, and places it ona pedestal above the relationship of two people who have been committed to each other for years-anf maybe have children together. A friend of mine’s parents are not married, but have been together for 25 years, and usually refer to each other as “husband” and “wife” because of the awkwardness and saying “partner” or “boyfriend/girlfriend”.

  • Shinobi

    I have to agree with others in this thread that this isn’t really about your gender, it is about your individual personalities.
    If you ask for something nonchalantly people are going to think you want it nonchalantly.
    You didn’t make a big deal out of it, therefore he does not know that it is a big deal to you. He’s not disregarding your needs because he didn’t think you really cared that much.
    The thing that IS about gender is you being uncomfortable telling your sweetie what you want and how much you want it. If it was really bothering you then you should have said so. This goes for everything. If you don’t SAY what you want then you aren’t going to get it.

  • kb

    I think both people cleaning at once is about the only way to make “whoever it bugs first has to clean it fair” otherwise, one person is going to end up doing all the work.

  • Heatherinspring

    Everyone’s given you such thoughtful advice. I feel like I don’t really have anything thoughtful to add!
    I’ve been living with my partner for 4+ years now. We’ve just recently become engaged, and I find myself revisiting similar questions to yours–which are also the same ones I had when we first moved in together.
    But then I take a look at how my life has evolved in the last 4 years, and how our habits have changed. My partner, Matt, may dump his work clothes the floor of the bedroom at the end of the day, and leave them there for a solid week–or, maybe he’ll forget to clean out the sink after he shaves (Ugh–my biggest pet peeve!). But in the interim, he’s sorted the recyclables, made us both lunches to take to work each morning, cleaned the cat’s litter box, and given the neighbors a hand shoveling.
    So I’ve learned to let things go. I’m proud of him, and his evolution into domesticity. And even though I sometimes feel like I’m constantly doing the laundry–or that if we have a kid, his “dead to the world” sleep style will ensure that I’m always the one up at 2am–I know that we’ll cross those bridges when the crossing becomes necessary.
    He wants to be a good partner–he wants to be a good dad someday–and I try and remind myself of that when I take the extra 2 seconds to wipe a glob of toothpaste from the rim of the sink.
    The little stuff will always be little stuff, and while it sometimes seems to represent the big stuff–it doesn’t. You’re with a good man who moved in with you for the right reasons. That’s the big picture–and that’s what will ultimately reassure you when doubt keeps asking “what if?”

  • kristen

    my SO has a lot of anoying habits like “the box” — he leaves bottle caps in piles as if he were collecting them, he hides dirty dishes in dark corners, etc. but they don’t bother me so much because i’ve realized that his contributions to household maintenance are far greater than his messes. so i don’t even mention the little messes, i just clean them up. the better topic for discussion is what kind of contribution your SO can make to cleaning. mine makes dinner, does dishes, and does laundry. since he helps with those chores, i give him more leeway when it comes to whiskers on the bathroom counter, etc.

  • FrumiousB

    Box vs baby is not a fair comparison. Of course DSO* is not going to treat a baby like a box. I think the comparison should be expectations about baby vs expectations about box. You clearly had expectations about the box, and it seems like you were unhappy with how your expectations were met (or not met). You will have expectations about a baby. He will have expectations about a baby. You are concerned that your expectations in that area will also come into conflict and leave you feeling unhappy. I really think that saying a baby is different from a box misses the point about conflicting expectations and being able to work them out.
    *(Dear Sig Other. riff on Dear Husband)

  • Rianne

    It was a box.
    That you didn’t see.
    That bothered you, simply because it existed.
    I’d be more worried about becoming a shrill, controlfreak than being a single parent in a two parent household.

  • Rianne

    It was a box.
    That you didn’t see.
    That bothered you, simply because it existed.
    I’d be more worried about becoming a shrill, controlfreak than being a single parent in a two parent household.

  • Terabithia

    I think whoever it bugs first only works for random things that don’t really need to be done all the time– like scrubbing the shower. It does not work for things like dishes that need to be kept up with in an ongoing way.

  • AlexMc

    There is an excellent “This American Life” episode (#88) that re-aired the first week of January 1/5/09 called “Numbers” that had a story about a couple who dealt with an issue very similar to yours in a pretty unique way. The husband worked at a marketing firm and decided to try to use all the tools of modern brand marketing to sell himself to his own wife. It turns out that the conversation he had with her revealed all the deeper symbolism behind tiny acts, like leaving a box on the floor for a month. The ‘brand marketing’ and ultimately resulted in his changing his behavior because he finally understood what each little action he took meant to his wife. A very interesting story, worth listening to and thinking about especially considering the issue at hand!

  • Kristen

    Ah…well…we tend to sing off key together when we clean…or talk about what annoying shit went on at work….but I’ll admit it was more interesting to straighten up the house when we lived in a 400sqft apartment. Small house = greater chance “accidental” groping! ;)

  • jonathan

    Me and my readfem SO have been living together for six years now (longer than most of our friends’ first marriages) in an apartment the size of a closet, and we have been ecstatic together (seriously!).
    Here’s what worked for us:
    1. Beware anyone who gives you the “Shrill controlfreak” BS and automatically sympathizes for your BF.
    You’re the female, so you’re the default homemaker in society’s eyes. There have been several times when incidents similar to your box story happened to us, and friends dumped hugely on my SO for confronting me. Hell, I had to defend HER from OUR friends regarding MY box! Beware any guy who capitalizes on friends’ automatic sympathy for him. It’s not a box; it’s a class war that most women don’t recognize until they’re 40, the years are already wasted, and they read Friedan for the first time.
    2. Beware relationship therapists.
    We went to one early on in the first month. She started us off with the “in a fight both people are to blame” speech, but followed it up by smiling sympathetically at me, asking me nothing (guys are never to blame apparently) and started asking if my SO had any childhood issues. We left after the first session. Avoid the Enforcers!
    3. Fight the femininity cleaning voices.
    You must lower your standards for cleanliness, else you will become the mother of the relationship. Easier said than done, as all female relatives on both sides of the family will give you the stink-eye for any messes. Get used to mess and stand your ground firmly on what you can’t give up, or else get used to having no time for your life.

  • Gopher

    Nag is ficticious.

  • sangetencre

    I do think it’s a matter of personalities and the way we’re raised and socialized…which means that sometimes I think gender does often come into play.
    The big key is, as others have said, communication. It’s letting your partner know that something bothers you–even if it’s something they don’t find important.
    Little stuff is just little stuff, but if you don’t talk about it, it can become something bigger. Irritation, frustration, etc., it eventually piles up on top of big stuff and then you have a problem.
    In addition to communication, it’s also figuring out what you can live with and picking which battles are most important.
    For instance, my SO when we first moved in together, would constantly leave his used dishes on the counter next to the sink.
    I can’t deal with that; it bugs me quite a lot. The sink’s right there. The dishwasher’s right next to it. Counter space is at a premium in our apartment.
    I finally told him that though it may not seem like much to him, I don’t like having to clean the countertops of used dishes before I can prepare food. (And being the better cook in the relationship, I’m usually the one in the kitchen.)
    He listened. He complied. He still backslides at times and I have to ask again.
    In other areas, I’ve relaxed since we moved in together. (Dining room table gets cluttered? Oh well, we don’t use it that much anyway; I’d still prefer it to be neat, but…).
    It was either that or drive myself nuts. Living with another person, you can never have things just so. (Some days I think apartments with a door joining them would be ideal.) But, again, you figure out what you can live with.
    And you remember why you decided to take this cohabiting venture in the first place.
    I do think it’s important to occasionally step back and examine the roles in the relationship. How things are falling, from housework to childcare (if and when applicable).
    Just to check.
    Because, from my personal observations, it can be easy to slide into gendered roles. Societal expectations start to edge their way in. (And from comments I’ve read on other feminist blogs it seems to happen much faster when kids come into the picture, whether you’re staying at home or working.)
    Balance is key and you have to check on it every now and again.