Messy + Clean = Opposites Attract?

"Oh, the humanity..."

Were you to divide the world’s population into two categories, messy people and clean people, I probably wouldn’t qualify as anyone’s definition of “neat.”  Not that I don’t value cleanliness and order, and not that I leave mountains of filth or mayhem in my wake, either; but I don’t enjoy or feel compelled to always have things “just so” (like some people do; you know the types).  And I certainly feel no burning desire to be the one making things that way.  It’s just not how I am wired.

Not that I don’t have my limits, either.  One particular incident comes to mind from my college days.  At the time, I was living with five roommates that, if only by stark contrast, made me look like a Type-A neat freak of the first order.  Coming home one evening (the third such consecutive evening, as it happens) to find every single dish and utensil in the entire apartment (still) sullied and festering in (and around) the sink, I decided that enough was enough.  I gathered each and every item into a big black trash bag, went out on our second-story balcony, and hurled the whole noxious and breakable mass of it, not gently, onto the frozen front lawn below.

“Not one of those dishes is coming back in here until it’s clean,” I proclaimed.  “If anyone’s got a problem with that, I would be more than happy to discuss it outside.”

From that point on, the dishes situation improved.  Somewhat.

My wife, I contend not coincidentally (more below), wouldn’t fall on the uber-clean side of the divide referenced above either.  She is, arguably (probably) cleaner than I am, as those things go.  But then, that’s really not saying much.

The other night she said to me: “You know, you are supposed to be the ‘clean’ one.”

“How’s that?”  I asked.

“Well, I’m not the clean one.  So you should be.”

“Who says there has to be a ‘clean one’?”

“Well, you can’t both be the ‘messy one.'”

“Says who?”

“If there’s no clean one, then everything is always a mess.”

“Well, everything is always a mess.  Still, you don’t really want me to be the clean one.  Not any more than I want you to be.”

“What do you mean?”

“The compulsion to be clean is not like some passive, volitional trait.  It is fundamental.  It’s not like I could be exactly me, only also possessing an intense desire to follow around behind every member of our family with a dust-buster and a bottle of Windex.  If I was driven to clean, I would be a completely, totally, fundamentally different person.”

It was a humorous exchange, but it made me think.  Basically she was saying, in at least semi-seriousness, that she wishes I was exactly as I am, only more clean.  Not like personally clean, mind you.  My personal cleanliness is impeccable, and like I said above, it’s not like I go around creating disasters.  But if I see some clothes on the floor or a book out of place, I certainly don’t break into a cold sweat until everything is just right.  I think that’s just who I am.  I don’t think I could change it, even if I wanted to.  And I don’t think I could be exactly me, with the only difference being I had a burning desire for order and cleanliness in my surroundings.

You know how in movies, with compulsively neat people, you move a vase a couple of inches or wrinkle a bedspread and they proceed to lose their minds until you return it to its proper state.  Are there really people like that?  I don’t get it.  For me, you could throw the vase in the trash, crumple the bedspread in the bathtub.  The most likely result is that I wouldn’t even notice anything was different.  Ever.  Are there other people like me?

Would I prefer to live in perfect cleanliness?  Do I enjoy a mess?  Here’s the crux of it: if it’s a choice between tidying up for 30 precious free minutes in an otherwise busy and exhausting evening or doing something else, like reading or exercising or…okay, I guess just about anything else, the cleaning up is just not going to happen.  Life is too short, and the mess will still be there in the morning.  And if not that mess, than another identically daunting one will have taken its place.  Trying to keep a house ever tidy with young kids at home is like trying to remove all the sand from the coast of California with a spork: i.e. frustrating and pointless.

Do I (yes, even I) prefer clean?  Yes, I think I do, if I’m honest.  But at what cost?

What do you think?  Is there always a “clean one”?  Can a relationship work when one person is really clean and the other is really messy?  Is it fundamental, or could I stay essentially myself, only driven to clean?  Can a messy one and a clean one live in harmony, or is it better to stay like-minded in this particular area?


9 thoughts on “Messy + Clean = Opposites Attract?

  1. This is a fun one! No, I don’t think there is always a clean one and yes, I think relationships happen all the time when two people are opposites on this matter. Whether they work or not, could be a different story. You could have a neat freak and a slob living together and that neat freak my get a real kick out of always cleaning up after the messy one. Or you could have a resentful neat freak. I am borderline. Borderline neat freak, but I have had to let A LOT of things slide since having young ones in the house. Because, you are right, as soon as you get one mess cleaned up, there is another one that was just made. On the other hand, when I was single and had roommates, I am sure you could ask anyone of them and they would tell you I was the chore nazi of the group. (chore charts, schedules, etc.)

    I’m not sure if it’s in my blood to be a neat freak, or if it was how I was raised (in our house growing up, it was my perception that doing chores, and doing them right, dangit-was even more important than school work. Not kidding. However, I am so glad I was taught how to clean, and really clean because I lived with some people who were not taught how and it drove me nuts). I have even cleaned other people’s homes for money 🙂 It is so satisfying.

    * When grandma bought my daughter a HUGE play-doh set for Christmas, I cringed and wanted to throw it away or hide it forever! I hate the stuff! *

    But I can say that I get very agitated if my surroundings are cluttered, dirty, unorganized. Ironically, I feel like that’s how my house looks all the time. I just figure that it’s going to be that way until our kids are out of the house, so why let it make me crazy. Still. I have my limits.

  2. Fascinating! So your saying you think it could work in a relationship between opposites, with a REALLY clean one and a REALLY messy one? Because there are degrees. My wife and I, both technically on the “messy” side of the 50/50 divide (which she maybe wouldn’t agree with), are probably closer to that center line than some. We are not slovenly, and she especially makes monumental efforts, but the kids have me tempted to just give up.

    Are you suggesting that neat freaks are not only willing to clean up after messy people, but they enjoy it? This I had never contemplated. I could have been making someone so happy all these years! I don’t know if I have ever met a clean-obsessed person that relished the opportunity to clean up other people’s messes. Do these exist? And where can I find one?

    Living with roommates got disgusting sometimes, let’s face it. Every apartment needs a chore enforcer.

    But this brings up something else interesting, and as a borderline neat freak, you might not know this. Messy people are just as annoyed by clean people’s compulsion for everything to be clean as clean people are by messy people’s tendency to try and impose their will for order upon everything around them. Also, I’ve found, clean people are often baffled by the possibility that everyone doesn’t see the world the way they do and wouldn’t prefer to be clean themselves, while messy people recognize that some people like things more clean and neat than they themselves like things, and they even respect it, but don’t adopt the philosophy themselves. In my experience.

    I do think there are definitely “way I was raised” components. I’ve seen it go two ways. For both my wife and I, we were raised in very “neat” homes, where chores were many and mandatory, and had to be done before any fun could be had. I think the way we are now is sort of a reaction against that. Then there are people like you, raised where chores were shown to be important, and you have adopted that mindset. Interesting.

    There is a difference between wanting to clean and knowing how to. I was taught how to clean, and I can do it very well. I do think that’s important. And I do clean, lest there be any confusion. We don’t live in squalor. I just don’t like it.

    Ah, Play-Doh. What mom doesn’t hate Play-Doh? My philosophy on Play-Doh is that the only people that would buy it for a young mom either (a) are so far removed from being young moms themselves that they have forgotten how annoying it is to clean up after being ground into carpet, or (b) they are perfectly well aware, and they hate you.

  3. Are you talking like a real OCD mental disorder type thing? It worked in that movie “As Good As it Gets” with Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson (which was a really disturbing couple, by the way). I don’t know about real life though.

    Oh and I completely realize (especially with my roommates who were 5 years younger than me) that others may get annoyed by my neat-freakish tendencies. And I do agree that knowing how to clean and not wanting to do it is different than actually never being taught. One of my best friends, who was one of the above mentioned roommates, and is now my sister in law has actually admitted that she was never taught how to clean, or work for anything for that matter. She never had to do work around the house. I don’t think it does kids any favors to not teach them how to work.

    I also realize that I need to be careful not to make other people feel bad by my cleaning nature. I really think that it is just within (and not only because I was raised by the ultimate chore Nazi) me to do it because I really do get a sick satisfaction out of a job well done. It’s actually therapeutic for me. When I visit my sister in law, (they have 3 kids, who are very messy kids as far as kids go) and a dog (Dogs should never live inside!) I have to hold myself back from doing random acts of cleaning, because I don’t want it to come across that I am disgusted by her housekeeping. And I’m not. I just. can’t. help myself!

    But in answer to your question, Yes! I actually enjoy cleaning up for other people. It is especially satisfying to me to clean someone elses home, because I can leave being utterly pleased with the job I have done and not be there to see when their child spills a bowl of cereal or whatever 5 minutes later. All I remember is that pristine, sparkling, fresh bathroom.

    I am not a major neat freak at all, really. Like I said before, I let a lot of things go…for a long time, but there always is a point where I just can’t take it anymore!

    I am almost embarrassed to share this, but what the heck: a post I did last year actually titled “clean freak” . haha! Can we still be friends?

    • I wasn’t talking full-blown diagnosable OCD. I think people are just generally more one way or the other. And there are degrees. And shades of grey. I guess hoarders would be on the opposite extreme. My scope was just general tendencies.

      As far as messy people being annoyed by clean people, I don’t think having clean people clean up after you is annoying. In fact, that would be awesome. I also don’t think it’s unreasonable for clean people to clean up some. Because a certain level of cleanliness is necessary, no matter who you are. I only really find annoying those who try to get me to think the way they do, and feel the way they do about neatness and order. I’ll put away my socks, take out the trash, do the dishes, and clean the bathroom when it’s my turn. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. And I’m not color coordinating my closet. Ever. You can’t make me!

      Not knowing how to clean or work is unacceptable. Period. You don’t have to love it, but you have to know how, and you have to do it. I think someone who just sat around helplessly “not knowing how to clean” would be more annoying than the most compulsive neat person in the world. Unacceptable!

      If you like cleaning, more power to you. I have absolutely no problem with that. And if you actually enjoy cleaning up after other people, even more power to you. That is AWESOME! Keep it up!

      I think, and I include myself in this, we all have kind of a skewed perspective of where we fall on the spectrum. Like me, I would put myself just barely on the messy side of the line, but a really neat person would probably think me a total slob. Likewise, I suspect it’s possible that a lot of “neat” people might be more compulsive and “major-neat-freaky” than they think. I guess it’s about perspective.

      We can still totally be friends. I think that’s funny. And like I said, I have no problem with people cleaning or people liking cleaning. Just don’t expect me to join the ranks any time soon.

  4. It’s a weird combination no matter what happens. Because “neatniks” really are unsettled in what they consider a messy environment, whereas I think it’s much harder to get riled up in a clean environment. This doesn’t mean you should go around disinfecting your light switches and floorboards every second day; but I think a cleaner home is more conducive to peace in general. It IS in fact possible to send someone completely over the edge with their stuff having to be “just so,” believe me, I worked with a few of them and it was always a joy to go in and move their books SLIGHTLY out of rank. Or move the chairs a few inches to the left. You get into OCD and things can get BIZARRE when it comes to cleaning.

    I was raised in a house that was total, complete, and utter chaos. It still is, only worse than I remember even as a child. Family legend still holds out the time my father was trying to negotiate the darkened living room after hours and stepped on something sharp, leapt into the air, and came back down on more sharp things. My mother had a basket of plastic vampire fangs sitting in the middle of the floor, for no discernable reason. Not on any of the coffee tables, even, of which there were two (and three sofas). Nope. She’d left them in the middle of the floor, not sorted. They are also packrats, and no amount of loud comparisons to their garage looking like the Joads’ or quietly sneaking up and yelling “Help! I’m a hoarder!” as my mother winds up plastic bags and insists that this is an adorable miniature spoon and she might need it for something someday does any good. We’re talking dog hair everywhere, slatterns’ wool sulking under endtables, perpetually dirty dishes in the sink, and piles of laundry.

    I used to think that this environment helped me be much more relaxed and able to deal with most of the roommates I’ve had; my sister and brother both went the opposite route. My sister, on her first kid, used to Lysol every surface at least three times a day. After the second kid she called to tell me she’d found half an eaten Oreo in a sofa cushion while vacuuming, and ate it. I think kids require people to unbend at least a little bit, or they will go smack out of their tiny minds trying to deal with whatever insanity children come up with. She still suffers heart palpitations if there is ANYTHING on the kitchen counters or dining room tables, but she can also laugh about going to a charity ball and pulling up to the valet, opening her car door, and a McDonald’s bag exploded all over his shoes.

    Their attitude is basically “When our parents die, get the photos out and then toss a match.” I have a regrettable tendency to packrat, too, and so does my fiance. No doubt this means we will be buried in the rubble of our own apartment, not the building, when the Big One hits; but I have noticed that both he and I sleep better with the room straightened up and the bed made. And it’s much easier to be inspired to cook something in a kitchen instead of staring at a sink of filthy dishes. But hey. If I can make it into my parents’ house before brother and sister, maybe I can fight my way to the corner in the kitchen and there, amid the grime and squalor and seventy-three empty plastic bottles of diet soda, I will remove the plaque that says “An immaculate house is the sign of a misspent life.”

    • Excellent points, Surly! It might surprise you, but I don’t disagree with you one bit. Neatness and order is great. Very soothing, and calming. And also invigorating, depending on the circumstances. I sleep better in a made bed, work better in a neat office (as opposed to the barely-controlled chaos my desk is usually in), I wish every part of my life was always ship-shape, neat and orderly. I just don’t want to be the one doing it. Or giving up things I care a lot more about than organizing my bookshelves by author to get there.

      You introduce some interesting elements with your parents. I don’t think I could take it. As I mentioned above, there are degrees, and even I could not tolerate much of that (although the vampire fangs sound exciting; I wish I had a reason to have a whole box of them in the middle of my living room).

      The plaque you reference, fictional or not, does sort of embody my “messy” philosophy, but they have taken it to the extreme. Though I appreciate where they are coming from, I couldn’t live like that.

      I am a total packrat myself. My car is a WRECK, inside and out (I have enough crumbs to survive a blizzard, several (not clean, necessarily, but full) changes of clothes, footwear for just about every occasion (sometimes you need the soccer cleats, other times the steel-toed boots), old Mapquest printoffs to everywhere I need to go, except where I am actually going)). I have eaten an Oreo (or, at least, I think it was an Oreo) out of the couch. Okay, I am disgusting.

  5. Good call; it’s funny, but it’s funnier because it’s true and it means that no matter what, I always have a basis for evaluating my own level of filth. Can I kick a path to the doorway? Can I lay hands on smoething that I swear I have JUST SEEN like a MINUTE ago, I was HOLDING it and put it DOWN somewhere? Do I need to check with a priest, a doctor, and a lawyer before embarking on a fridge expedition? No? Then I am a relatively awesome housekeeper!

    And like you said, it’s all about the spectrums of grey. Would I eat an Oreo I found in the sofa? Possibly. If I could remember that I had bought Oreos anytime recently and could be MORE assured that the other half had at least been eaten by a human. And having your car be a perambulating Dry Goods store can work out excellently to your advantage; I have managed to break into someone’s house (with their permission after they’d locked the keys inside) with a hammer, chisel, and coathook procured from my car, as well as be able to offer them a witches’ cauldron, six foot broadsword, and decapitated head. Or a hoop skirt.

    You never know when you’re gonna need a hoop skirt.

    Anyway, the plaque really exists and the delicious irony of it being so cluttered over that you can’t read it is kind of wonderful, in its own right.

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