Dear Dr. Jory,
The biggest tension my girlfriend Callie and I have is over our apartment. I grew up with a rule in my family: The best time to clean up a mess is before you make it. Callie thinks that messes are signs of happiness. They’re like art to her. I have actually heard her look at dishes and clothes strewn around our apartment and say, “Wow, this was a great week—look at the mess.” Meanwhile, I’m cringing. I’m sure I’m not a typical guy, but I find myself picking up after her all the time. The resentment is building up and I’m thinking this might be a deal breaker for me. I didn’t see coming before we moved in together. I have to think it would get even worse if we ever have kids. Is this the deal breaker that I’m thinking it is?
Signed, Deal Breaker
Dear Deal Breaker,
If I’m reading you right, you’re not talking about cleanliness—you’re talking about orderliness. There’s a difference between straightening and cleaning. Time studies show that cleaning ranks at the bottom of just about everybody’s list—very few people enjoy scrubbing, mopping, and hauling out the trash. Cleaning is a health issue because who knows what bacteria lurk in those moldy bathroom corners, unchanged bed sheets, or food rotting next to the bed. We clean because we have to, not because we want to. Cleaning is essential.
Orderliness, on the other hand, is not essential—it’s a personal preference—and orderliness is probably more genetic than you would think. You may have learned to keep things orderly from your parents, but you and your parents share a fairly large number of genes. Of course, the same can be said about Callie—she’s programmed differently than you are. My guess is that your different preferences for orderliness show up in other aspects of your relationship: in how you handle time, how you approach a job, how you take care of your things. You’re probably a planner; she more likely makes it up as she goes along.
Whether this is a deal breaker or not depends on what you and Callie do with it. You probably won’t change Callie and she won’t change you. But you don’t have to change one another; you only have to respect and appreciate one another to have a great relationship. Every couple has differences like this and studies show that couples who learn to respect their differences deepen their love while those who choose to argue and bicker over them erode what they have. You can cherish Callie for her “free spirit” or you can move a little in her direction. Maybe she’s more calm and less anxious about life in general—if so, cherish it. Maybe she takes more time to enjoy daily moments and doesn’t worry about the future like some others. If so, appreciate it.
If this is a real deal breaker and you can’t find any redemption in her disorderliness, I hope you will face the fact that your relationship isn’t going to work sooner rather than later, before you bring kids into the picture.
— Dr. Jory
Do you have a burning question about intimacy, sex, or relationships?
Send Brian Jory, Ph.D. your question via Facebook Messenger or through this contact form for a chance to have it answered in the Dear Dr. Jory advice column series. Submissions will remain anonymous; your real name will not be used.
About Brian Jory, Ph.D.
Brian Jory is the Director of the Family Studies Program at Berry College, near Atlanta, Georgia, USA, and has dedicated his career to counseling couples, teaching about intimacy, researching relationships.
He is the author of “Cupid on Trial – What We Learn About Love When Loving Gets Tough,” and has been featured on numerous television shows, blogs, and podcasts including Bustle, Romper, Elite Daily, NBC, PBS, and Good Sex, Bad Sex.