I have a confession: I’m a recovering Neat Freak. Early in our marriage, my wife, Susan, helped me to understand that my neat freak tendencies made me more critical of her and our children who maybe weren’t so neat. Susan taught me the importance of valuing relationships more than making sure everything is “just right.” But it’s hard when I see things messy, when there should be “a place for everything and everything in its place.”
This is a tension we see popping up between couples. Sure, it can be on a spectrum. The Neat Freak might seem outright OCD, or just might be disciplined and gifted enough in tidiness and organization to have a naturally ordered environment. The non-Neat Freak might be a slob, or just someone who struggles to be organized where they live and work.
Regardless the degree to which the differences fall on the spectrum, it can cause a rub. If your spouse is a neat freak and you are not, here are some tips on how to cope, and keep the difference from causing division:
1. Appreciate their strengths, their positives. When I got married I thought Susan should be like me—all white shirts in a row, all slacks and jeans and ties organized, etc.. Such expectations create pressure, direct or indirect, from the Neat Freak. Attempting to understand and appreciate the strengths of a neat freak is vital and helpful: They have order, find things easily, and clear unnecessary clutter out of the home. These are the kinds of positives that can be appreciated.
2. Accept the frustrations, even weaknesses from your perspective, of your spouse…basically, accept them for who they are. Yes, your Neat Freak spouse has positives, but how they live that out can be super frustrating at times. If you stop trying to make them, or manipulate them, to be less “neat” you will find more peace. But this should go both ways. Both the Neat Freak and the not-so-neat spouse should both work on accepting the things that grate them the wrong way about the other regardless of a willingness or ability to adapt and change their behavior. We have to start with a basic commitment to their dignity and our love for them. If you see their Neat Freak tendencies negatively, check this post out for tips on dealing with those frustrations.
3. Accept yourself for who you are, for being different than your spouse. Stop beating yourself up for not being the Neat Freak. While being more patient and accepting of your Neat Freak spouse, you need to resist the temptation to label yourself as unacceptable or incompetent because you don’t have that Neat Freak tendency. Just because your spouse has that strength does not invalidate your own value and strengths. For example, as a Neat Freak I like to cut through the clutter in conversations with Susan, who excels at telling me details, thinking I need them to understand the issue. I’ve learned that she needs to know her tendency to details is not invalid or unimportant. I need to validate her input, in a way that doesn’t belittle her. One way I do this is to ask her to prioritize the issue on a scale of 1 to 10. Not everything can be a 10, and together we sort out the situation using our strengths, not focusing on the differences in a belittling way.
4. Avoid sarcastic reactions to the Neat Freak. Sarcasm, as noted in the prior blog, can be damaging and discouraging. Avoid using hyperbole and verbal barbs at each other that position their tendency as an issue to pick on, fight over, or “put up with.” For example, when the Neat Freak expresses frustration that a room isn’t picked up and organized, or suggests the kitchen should already be cleaned up, it doesn’t help to say “wow, I never thought of that,” or “I’m sure all our problems would be solved if only this room was neat and tidy,” or “Yes, your majesty…I’ll get on that right away.” It can be totally fair to push back or respond, but sarcasm isn’t constructive…it’s more like gas on a fire.
5. Encourage each other towards improvement. Over time, the differences in spouses can become less acute and painful when each spouse rubs off on the other. The less uptight spouse can help the Neat Freak spouse relax a bit. The Neat Freak spouse can help the other spouse become more tidy and organized. You might even ask the Neat Freak for help getting more organized.
6. Negotiate some personalized personal space that is Neat Freak free. If necessary, work with your Neat Freak spouse to allow for some space in the home that is yours to manage, without judgment. You may find that your Neat Freak spouse can be helpful with tips or ideas of how to use the space, but they should also allow you to manage that space without expectations to do it “their way.”
7. Negotiate a space that is kept extremely neat. With five children in the house, it was tough to keep every room tidy. So, Susan and I agreed that the dining room would be a place that would always be picked up and would be tidy and orderly.
Ultimately, grace and love must be more important than keeping perfect tidiness. I’m convinced that working on this very practical issue can be helpful to your marriage over time, giving you some wins together that help you tackle the even bigger issues bound to come. Share how you will work on this issue below.