Dealing With A Messy Spouse

posted by Andrea | 10/13/2011

Dave and me on our wedding day {for better or worse… right!}

I work with lots of women to help them organize their homes and lives — and I speak for women’s events all over the state. And no matter who I’m working with or what type of group I’m speaking to, the two most common question I get time and time again are:

1. How can we help our kids to get/stay organized?

2. What can we do about our messy spouse?

I shared my thoughts about how to help your kids stay organized a week or so ago, and today… I’m going to talk about dealing with a messy spouse!

Before I get started though, I just want to point out that I am not complaining about Dave — he is beyond helpful around the house and is usually more than willing to do whatever I ask him to do. Yes, I know I’m blessed!

I also want to point out that there is NOT a “quick fix” or easy solution for a messy spouse, especially if you’ve been married for a long time and he/she is stuck in their messy ways. However, I’m convinced that change IS possible, so don’t give up!

Here are a few things to think about as you try to “teach” and encourage your spouse to be less messy.

1. MODEL good behavior for them.

Seriously, I shouldn’t even have to mention this, but if YOU aren’t willing to put your dishes away, hang up your clothes, make the bed, or pick up the house, then how on earth can you expect your spouse to do those things?

You’d be surprised how many people I work work who sit a complain about their spouse, but I know that they aren’t doing much to get organized or stay organized either.

2. ASK them to do it.

This was something I learned VERY early on in my marriage — if I didn’t ask, it probably was not going to get done. Like I mentioned earlier, Dave is super helpful around the house and is always more than willing to do almost anything I ask… but I do have to ask. 

If I don’t ask him to vacuum, he’s not just going to be watching TV and think, “hmmmm, I think the carpet could use a good vacuuming right about now!” And there are many times when he might walk past a clothes basket full of clean clothes without ever thinking to fold them. However if I simply ask him to do it, he almost always does it without any complaining or hesitation!

Dave even lets make him lists of things to do {like on a Saturday or if I’m going to be gone} and everything is usually crossed off by the time I get home 🙂

3. SHOW them how to do it.

If someone asked you to do something you’ve never done before, you’d have a pretty difficult time doing it without some instructions…right! Well, the same goes for your spouse — maybe they just need to be shown how to do something.

And please do NOT think that because they’ve witnessed you do it 101 times already, they should know how to do it themselves. You would think this should be the case, but it’s not. In my experience, men are very unperceptive and they could watch you do something buy not really pay attention to HOW you do it.

So if you want the bathrooms cleaned a certain way or the dishwasher loaded a certain way, SHOW them how.

4. LET them do it.

Once you’ve asked them to do something and showed them how to do it, then back off! Don’t be a “helicopter spouse” and hoover around watching to make sure they do it perfectly! That is super annoying — and I know this because Dave told me how annoying it was when I did it to him early on in our marriage!

He said that if I wanted him to help out, then I would have to relax and let him do it his way. Maybe it wasn’t exactly they way I would fold the clothes or load the dishwasher, but it was good enough!

Obviously, if they are really messing things up {like using bleach in the colored laundry} then you’ll want to correct them — but that’s it. Don’t correct them and then hoover around waiting for them to make another mistake!

5. COMPLIMENT and THANK them repeatedly.

Yes, I know we don’t always {or ever} get thanked each time we do a load of laundry, empty the dishwasher, pick up the newspaper for the 200th time, etc. etc. However, if you want your spouse to do more around the house and to be less messy, simple compliments, praises, and thanks go a long way.

My main “love language” is Acts of Service — which means I really DO appreciate it when Dave is willing to help out around the house {especially now that I’m 8+ month’s pregnant!} It’s the best gift he could give me — and he knows that too.

So every time he does anything like folding a load of laundry, washing the dishes, vacuuming, cleaning out the dishwasher, etc. I make sure to say thank you… and I try not to take it for granted.

I know some of you might be thinking these steps could never work — but would it hurt to at least give them a try?

Like I mentioned earlier, it will be much more difficult if you’ve been living with a messy spouse for 10, 20, or 45 years because they’ve been trained to believe that their messiness is OK. However, there really is still hope — especially if you can explain how important it is to you.

What are your best tips for dealing with a messy spouse?


Filed under: FamilyMarriage

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  1. Ingrid


    I would add here that if a wife asks her husband to do a task, and he does it, IGNORE any sulking that comes along with that, and sincerely THANK him after it’s done. Do not mention the sulking. We can’t control others’ attitudes or reactions, but I think the ignoring will solve any potential for a conflict, and the thanking will go a long way. Also maybe a public praising, such as at the dinner table “kids, dad did the kitchen floor today and it looks awesome!” or something. Be sure it is genuine ’ and doesn’t sound contrived.


  2. michelle


    I have a problem my husbands was raised with his mom doing everything for him an now he expects me to do everything for him while we makes a mess his mom died so now I can’t really bring that reason up and if I do all the cleaning he will just get used to it


  3. Stephanie


    Sounds to me that all us neat freaks are never going to change our spouses much. They may improve with the above brilliant tactics, all of which i have implemented with very small levels of change, but the problem is not the messy.spouse. This has been an ongoing battle from the beginning. My husband is amazing and does SO much for myself and our 2 children but he always falls short when it comes to my standards for organization and cleanliness. The mess literally destroys me. My brain shuts down and mundane tasks become difficult. I only wish i could just stop caring at all and be ok with it just like him and the kids. Any tips for how us perfectionists can learn to feel comfortable in chaos? It seems like there is no chance of getting the house clean and keeping it clean so why do we require that it be so? I think we are the problem! I need to be able to feel ok with the mess and do what i can to keep it livable and not like hoarders, then just enjoy my children and life a little. ….


    Andrea Reply:

    This is a great question Stephanie! And honestly, I haven’t really thought of it before!
    I am not a perfectionist or OCD… but I do like things neat and picked up, so I can totally relate to your frustration with messes.

    I’m also not sure I could ever feel “comfortable” in chaos… so I don’t know what to tell you. I’m wondering if maybe there could be one specific place in your house (or one room) that you could have for just yours — and then you could keep that room very neat and orderly. Also, it might work to continually remind yourself that you are sacrificing a clean house for a better relationship with your husband (which is obviously WAY more important). Do you think either of those ideas might work?


    Stephanie Reply:

    Very helpful! Thank you so much!


  4. Todd


    I have a generally sweet wife who does the dishes and laundry (I do my own laundry to avoid losing half my socks however) for which I am very grateful, but she is still just VERY MESSY. It’s as though she has this obsessive need to surround herself with clutter and chaos! The bigger problem is that she has passed it on to our daughters, and I desperately feel sorry for their future husbands.

    I’ve tried MANY approaches and techniques to help teach her a better way: family organizing/cleaning projects (when things have gotten way out of hand), cleaning myself of course, talking with her as gently as I can about my need for orderly surroundings, purchasing cleaning tools and products, etc., to the point where I exhausted. I work very hard to keep her at home with our four children, and then I come home just to work some more…

    I love her and want our marriage to succeed and provide a safe haven for our children, but it’s honestly very difficult to concieve of living like this for the rest of my life. Are there any other MEN out there who can relate? I know that men are generally the sloppier of the two genders, but occasionally there are matches of a tidy neat man with a woman not so strong in those areas. I would appreciate any positive feedback (from men or women) that could help me at least COPE with the situation.


    Harry Reply:

    Hey Todd,
    I can definitely relate. I grew up in a much cleaner house then I’m living in now with my wife and family. My wife is a stay at home mom and we live on a farm. My trouble is that she never picks up after herself or the kids and leaves clothes and various items spread out over the floor. Then there comes a clean-up occasionally and the pattern begins again. I would say that the house never stays clean for more than 2 days and it’s back to chaos. The other issue is that I’m not “allowed” to clean up certain areas I find messy because I may move something important. It’s unfair, because she seems to be happy with the mess and when I try to clean up, I’m the enemy rather than the good guy. I would say that I have a lot of stress about it some days. I sometimes joke to myself that someday I will build a house beside ours that I can live in and keep tidy. This is not the life I want when I feel embarrassed to invite friends to visit. If your situation has improved, please let me know.


  5. Brooke


    I have tried everything I know to do! I have tried all the suggestions above, asking, hamper w/no lid (Patty, I wanted to look @ him & say, “Really”), etc. if I were to show him he would think I am treating him like a baby. Asking him, he would do it, but sulk the whole time, I mean how old are we? I admit I have gone to doing it myself because otherwise it will not get done. He is a wonderful dad & very involved in our childrens lives & what they may have going. But Everything, I mean everything is always left out. Where ever he gets done w/something is where it stays. Everything from food wrappers, trash, dishes, tools, clothes, shoes, everything. I am constantly spending my days off picking up after everyone & I get very tired of it & end up like you said, angry. If I say something it only seems to make him upset. I asked him, “so you think I should pick up everybodys stuff” he says no but otherwise it won’t get done. If I ask our boys to do something they do cooperate. I have even gone to, if you leave your stuff out all over the house, your grounded the next day. I can’t very well ground my husband! Part of me feels like the kids probably think why should they pick up our stuff if daddy doesn’t. I don’t want them to think when they grow up & have a family their wife will do it all! Right now I am @ the point of, ok I will just pick up my own stuff & have the kids pick up theirs but nothing else. If there are dishes covering his nightstand, his clothes all over the bedroom floor, which won’t get washed, tools covering my dining room & table, etc., etc., so be it. We have a nice home & I am always trying to make sure it’s presentable but he acts like he could care less. This gets very tiring & there are other things I need to be doing. Help, help I need some advice if there is any light @ the end of my tunnel!


  6. mumspeak


    I love everything about what you’ve said and I’ve tried all of them with varying degrees of effort. The hardest thing I find is unfair it still feels. I love him to bits but it’s a two way street right?? If he knows it’s important to me to have clothes folded neatly so we don’t go out of the house looking like a disheveled mess, then why doesn’t he copy what I’ve patiently taught him – time and time again?! Aaagh. I guess that’s where the ‘for better or worse’ comes in…. I have to continually remind myself to be patient, kind and tolerate our differences. Hard work, but hopefully worth it in the long run.


  7. Patty Gardner


    You need to figure out why they’re doing certain things and try to solve the problem or make it easy to be neater. My husband was terrible about putting his dirty clothes in the hamper. He put them on the floor NEXT to the hamper. I finally asked him about it and he said it was too much trouble to open the hamper and put them in. So I replaced the hamper with one that didn’t have a lid. Problem solved. I think you would call that a “technical difficulty”.


  8. Kelekona


    I have trouble with the showing part, but there are some things that the hubby can do as well as or better than I. He’s actually taught me some things about our fancy European washer.

    I know that if I ask him to unload the dishwasher, he’ll do most of the work. There are some fiddly things that might remain, but at least I don’t have to unload the plates again. I don’t dare ask him to fill the dishwasher because he can’t get as much in and it’s a conceptual thing.

    He’s also better at cooking, but I’m teaching him how to give advice rather than step in. There are nights when I’ll go into mule mode and cut vegetables but refuse to use the stove. (It don’t matter if I did most of the work, at least I wasn’t the cook.)

    We both have issues with doing anything beyond keeping the kitchen usable. At least we both have our own offices.


  9. Livin In Duckville


    I finally decided that if I wanted an organized & decluttered house, I would have to do it myself with MY stuff, also, I help the kids with THEIR stuff. I leave King T’s stuff alone. If it happens to be amongst the stuff I’m working on, then I put it aside for HIM to make a decision about (or not).

    Also, we know each others pet peeves. Mine is dirty laundry, his is dirty dishes. I keep up on the laundry & he keeps up on the dishes. This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t help out with the laundry (with the help of the kids – who DO know how to run the new washer & dryer… lol) or me not helping with the dishes.

    One thing that I think I do need to do more is to 1. ASK and 2. THANK….. I do, do them, but not as often as I could…. then I end up feeling like a martyr, ‘Why do I have to do EVERYTHING?!!’ Not good.

    Thanks for the great post.


  10. sarah


    Ah spouses who sit on the messy side of the fence. Mine is one of them but in his defence he was much neater before we got married. I think I shot myself in the foot by not leaving certain cleaning/picking up tasks in his domain. But we are coming full circle. Like you said being clear about what you want done is vital, giving instructions when it is a new thing is helpful, and not hoovering is essential and I would add redoing it if it isn’t “done” the way you want it. I struggled with that one but some “discussions” and 2 kids later I’m over it and if it gets done that is all that counts.


    Andrea Reply:

    oh no Sarah! I do know lots of women who are in a similar situation as you are — where they basically took on all the household responsibilities themselves. Sometimes I worry that I’ll be the same way once we have kids {It’s often just easier and faster to “do it myself” right!}


    sarah Reply:

    I think that is the biggest trap thinking there is only one way to get something done. The only thing I hold onto these days is the laundry, mostly when it comes to my stuff, too many delicate, hand-wash only, do not put in dryer, items. And lets not forget the fact that I hang out our laundry. If laundry was up to my sweet hubby he would totally pay the extra $$$ per month, although he loves that I save us those $$$ by hanging out the laundry. While he won’t hang it out he will bring it in if he notices that it started raining.
    As far as the kids go, Daddys are pretty good at getting the kids to do stuff – utilize that. It will be done even worse than “daddy” but the smile of achievement from a little one who “did it all by myself” is priceless. What is that age old saying It goes by too quickly and will be over before you know it. When they leave home you’ll miss the mess/chaos etc…… 🙂