Blog by Beebe Cline

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We Can Work It Out: Living (and Cleaning) Together

I had been married more than a decade when I mentioned to my sister, Torey, my regret that my husband, Paul, never cleaned.

Torey's jaw dropped. "Whaaaaaat?"

"I said he doesn't do any cleaning."

"You have got to be kidding me," she said. "He is always cleaning."

"Whaaaaaat?" It was my turn with the disbelief.

As if on cue, Paul appeared in the kitchen to throw something away in the trash. He didn't notice us and quietly loaded the dishwasher with what was piled in the sink as well as a couple of glasses left on the island by the children. Torey and I were on the far side of the living room but had a perfect view. Torey stared at me, her eyes bugging.

"See! He is constantly cleaning," she said in the soft tone — just above a whisper — that's employed on nature documentaries, to avoid startling the wildlife.

I was looking right at him but didn't really see it. Of course I knew Paul was neat, but honestly, he never cleaned; I was the one who swept, vacuumed and scrubbed our floors, carpets, counters, walls and bathrooms. I'm not saying I did it like clockwork, but if any of it got done it's because I did it.
Still, Torey usually knows what she's talking about, so I continued my surveillance and after a few weeks decided we were both right: Paul never cleaned, but he was constantly picking up and putting things away, and I couldn't believe I hadn't seen it before. Sure, I had noticed the house sort of fell apart when he traveled for work, and I always needed to do a cleaning blitz right before his return, but I chalked that up to being extra tired and just letting things go.

And then there was the fact that his idea of cleaning was limited. If it was the kitchen after dinner, he only cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher. Anything that needed to be washed by hand, he stacked in the sink. He never, ever wiped off the table and the counters. Who cares, right? I'm sad to say, because he didn't do the "whole" job, I entirely discounted what he did do.

I would be the one who swept the entire house but would get distracted and leave the pile of dirt and the broom, which Paul would find when he got home from work. He would dutifully sweep up and throw away the dirt pile, and then return the broom and dustpan to the closet. Or I would vacuum but leave it plugged in, and Paul would trip over the cord — a pet peeve.
He was the one who wrapped the cord carefully on the provided hooks — mind you, this was the only time he touched the vacuum — whereas I felt like I completed a triathlon if I managed, once I vacuumed, to gather the cord into a giant loop, throw it over the handle and put the vacuum away. Whew! Just typing that wore me out.

For years we both operated out of the belief that the other didn't really understand "How. Much. I. Do. For. This. Family!" It wasn't volatile, more of a quiet frustration that would sometimes flare on either side. Neither of us could fully see how much the other was doing, and the thing is we were both working so hard. We were doing the adult, working version of toddlers' parallel play.
Today we work together, our household runs smoothly-ish and we're strategically teaching our kids how to work with us, but that's another ideabook altogether. If you're reading this, I'm guessing you are the neatnik in the family, or at least the slightly less disorganized partner. Here are a few suggestions to work out how to work together:

1. Start with gratitude. If there is an imbalance in the workload at home — real or imagined — there is bound to be resentment. If you are the partner who seems to be doing everything, it's time to pull back and run a little surveillance. Observe your partner for a week or two and try to see what you might be missing. It's so easy to take each other for granted, and coming from a place of genuine thankfulness cannot be beat.

2. Trade your "but" for an "and." So you sit down to have a little chat; your heart is full of love and admiration, and yet your partner's stuff is still strewn all over the house. You decide to start with the positives, which you really and truly feel: "You're a wonderful person, a loving parent ... (insert all the great things you've been noticing about your him or her), but it's really frustrating to be only one who does all the work around here! Anytime we say "but," we negate everything we said before it, or discount it greatly. It's better to say "and" or just cut to the chase or, best of all, go to my next tip.

3. Take responsibility and ask forgiveness for where you have acted without kindness or respect. Have you been marching around cleaning up the house while seething with resentment and anger? Sure, things look great, but at what cost? You are probably tired and frustrated, and why oh why doesn't shame bring about change? It ought to! I know it's hard to choose to love and honor when the other person doesn't seem to be choosing them, but that's when powerful changes can happen, so take responsibility for your part.

4. Make a request. This is what I have trained my kids to say when they want someone to do something: "Would you please ... ?" Isn't that nice? This seems simple, but pay attention. How often when you think you're politely asking for help are you saying something else? Really listen for a few days. You'll probably catch yourself saying, "Do you want to _____?" Fill in the blank with a miscellaneous task: empty the dishwasher, do a load of laundry, pick up the living room or make the bed. Do I wanna? Heck no! Even worse is the flat-out command couched as a request. I've been on the receiving end of these from my elders, and they do not engender love and compliance.

Women, I'm mainly talking to you. We can go deep into history and explain exactly why, but who has time for that? I thought it was just women of a certain age, but it's prevalent across the spectrum. I discovered I do it too. "You want to get something to eat?" "Hey, get me that, would you?" Ugh. It's really annoying; would you please stop? I'm stopping.

5. Ask if your partner is willing to work with you to figure out a new way of doing things. You have to mean this, of course. If you're naturally organized, it can be tempting to lay out a plan, because you're the expert. But you're probably going to need to adapt things if you want new habits to take hold.
Do you have a success story of working things out? Please share it with us in the Comments section below!