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Reader question #67: My wonderful boyfriend has horrible hygiene and a disgusting house. How do I talk to him about it?

Matt Paxton from Hoarders

"Honey, don't make me call Matt Paxton, World's Sexiest Cleaning Guy!"

Dear Captain Awkward,

My boyfriend (late 30s) and I (early 30s) have been dating for about 2 years and pretty much everything is great. He’s kind, generous, supportive, and smart; he understands “privilege” and “the kyriarchy”; we have similar goals in life; and the sex is awesome. We’re talking about getting married and having kids. However, I have a problem: his personal hygeine and housekeeping skills are disgusting. 

He doesn’t shower daily, only brushes his teeth 3-4 times per week, and wears the same clothes for days on end. We live in an area notorious for being super-casual and laid back, and even here his employer has had to have a talk with him about his grooming habits. Yesterday I jokingly brought up the tooth-brushing thing, and he protested that he brushes “almost daily” and that his oral health is fine. He thinks his gums are healthy and is convinced he’s cavity-free, but he hasn’t been to the dentist in years, and his gums are visibly receding and discolored. It’s revolting.

His apartment is gross – it stinks of ammonia since he rarely cleans his cats’ litterbox. When they vomit or drag in dead rodents, he picks up the chunks off the carpet but doesn’t treat the stain. His toilet bowl is brown on the inside. There is a layer of dirt, hair and scum on practically every surface in the kitchen and bathroom. When he washes dishes, they don’t get clean – they just come out greasy from the filthy water he washes them in. 

I don’t know how to broach this topic with him. I love him and want to make a lifetime commitment to him, but I also want him to take care of his body and of the house we’re eventually going to share. When we live together, I don’t want to be solely responsible for keeping the house in habitable condition. I also don’t want his teeth to fall out before he’s 50. Am I a nagging harpy for wanting to change his habits regarding grooming and housekeeping? How can I discuss this with him in a way that won’t make him feel attacked? He sometimes tends to regard criticism as an attack on Who He Is as a Person, if you know what I mean. Help!

- Fastidious Girlfriend

Dear Fastidious Girlfriend:

I think you should not share a home with your boyfriend unless you see a noticeable, sustained improvement in his housekeeping and self-care skills.  And I think that you (gulp) need to talk to him very directly about it.  If you move in just hoping it will naturally get better, it will be a constant, draining source of conflict between you.

You can maybe get at some of it through asking questions.  What kind of a home does he want to live in? What kind of place did he grow up in? Who taught him to clean?  How does he feel about the state of his house now?  If you lived together, how would he want to handle the chores?  Does he wish he could be cleaner?  Is there a reason he doesn’t go to the dentist more often?

But as the great Apeman1976 said in the table manners thread (seriously, dude, you changed my life with this comment!): The least manipulative way to try to get someone to change their behavior is to be extremely honest about what you want them to do.

There’s no way to bring up something so personal without making the other person feel criticized – you ARE criticizing his housekeeping and hygiene!  So the kindest thing you can do is be direct.

Boyfriend, I love you and think you are amazing, and I think about getting married and being together forever and when we talk about getting married I get butterflies of excitement!. But your housekeeping and personal habits really gross me out and worry me.  I know this is hard to hear, but I worry that if we live together our house will be disgusting or that I will be totally responsible for keeping it clean and will end up resenting you, or that it will lead to problems if we have children.  And I worry that if you don’t take care of your teeth and gums better, it’s going to lead to major health problems and expense down the road. Can we talk about this?

He might get really defensive and upset – the story you shared about how he thinks his dental health is just fine, when clearly it is not fine – is illustrative, so get ready to have a good old-fashioned fight about it, of the:  “My housekeeping is fine!”  “I can smell the cat box from three rooms away, and there is still a bloodstain on the carpet from when your cat brought in a dead rat – is that okay with you?”

One thing you could say that would be both true and direct is this:

My nightmare is that we live together and I feel resentful and grossed out and you feel constantly judged – that’s NOT the dynamic I want, so I want to talk about this now, before we move in, and agree on some ground rules and talk about how we are going to handle it.”

And, off the topic of the future, but, is it okay with you that he smells? And doesn’t brush his teeth?  Have you asked him directly to take a shower and brush his teeth and wash his clothes and clean his house?  Not in some ‘down the road when we’re married’ kind of way, but in a ‘right now, go take a shower, you smell like a goat!’ kind of way?  Because there are a lot of guys who “understand what the kyriarchy is” who aren’t heavy with the tang of cat wee.  (Right?  Please god, I hope so). How does he react when you say that stuff?

I am not completely unsympathetic to your boyfriend. When I am in a depressive period, my housekeeping will not win any awards, and I have to really work at staying on top of it – therapy, medication, making lists for myself, literally giving myself gold stars for completing chores. When that “You can do that later!” voice kicks in I have to say to myself “Or, you could just do it now, so DO IT NOW!”  (I made my bed, took the trash out AND washed my breakfast dishes today, so three gold stars for me!) Even though I was raised by extremely tidy people who taught me to be tidy, I have a whole lot of emotional/cognitive issues that I wrestle with around stuff that other people find basic and routine.  Sometimes it’s a simple matter of “Writing is important (real) work that I must do now, where cleaning is unimportant (women’s?) work that I can do anytime” which is a bullshit fallacy in my head, obviously, because the way that people get clean houses is to treat cleaning as an important thing that you schedule and spend time on.

Also, I am a freelancer with a very shitty insurance plan and a high deductible, so I also sometimes put off dealing with health issues because of expense, and sometimes it has taken a significant other to shake me and say “GO TO A DOCTOR.”

And yet?  I think of myself as a worthwhile person who is deserving of love.

Even if I feel defensive and ashamed when stuff comes up, it has really helped me to have someone make me accountable and say “I love you and notice things about you, so take care of yourself, please.”   And I have also been in your shoes, the one who says “I really need a clean kitchen in order to feel okay about life, can you help me out by cleaning your share, please?”

So speak up about your needs.  You need him to bathe every day.  You need him to do laundry regularly and not smell.  You need him to clean up around his house more.  You need him to get on the dental hygiene.  If this leads to a bunch of emotional roadblocks from him (um, yeah, I suspect it will open up a big can of emotional worms, so get ready), you need him to maybe seek out some therapy to handle it.  And until you see some consistent effort around this stuff, you can’t contemplate sharing a home.  The message is “I love you, but this stuff is not okay. Will you work on it, for me? Can we work on it together?”

If you do get to the home-sharing stage, well, I’ve written about the Magic That Is A Hired Cleaning Person before.  My grandmothers would roll over in their graves if they ever knew I’d even contemplated this, and I can’t see my parents being too thrilled with it (they are both extremely tidy), but honestly:

  • I am not so good at staying on top of household chores.
  • I am much happier when my house is clean.
  • A cleaning person helps me have a clean house by a) cleaning stuff and b) forcing me to do a shame-cleaning before they come over.
  • When I’ve shared a house with others, the only time there was never any tension at all about cleaning was when we made “cleaning person, every 2 weeks” a mandatory part of living there.  You guys, our house was SO CLEAN AND NICE!  And we never fought about it and it was never weird!
  • Outsourcing that task takes all procrastination and weird emotional issues out of the picture.  You just get a clean house without the fighting, for probably <$100/month total.  (Which, confidential telegram to the Internet:  GOD I KNOW MONEY IS TIGHT MAYBE YOU CAN’T STOP I CAN’T RIGHT NOW EITHER STOP IF YOU POST HERE EXPLAINING WHY YOU CAN’T AFFORD A CLEANING PERSON AND WHY I AM BEING MEAN BY ASSUMING YOU CAN I WILL DELETE YOUR COMMENT STOP PRIVILEGE WHATEVER SHUT UP SHUT UP STOP)

So if you do end up moving in with your boyfriend, make a cleaning person mandatory, and make the night-before-the-cleaning-person-comes-shame-cleaning a ritual that you do together.  And if he resists that –  “But it’s such a waste of money!”  “Why are you alway criticizing me?”  “Why do we need to hire someone when we can just clean ourselves?” – then seriously rethink joining households, because he just made his need to never, ever, ever feel even a little bit criticized more important than your need to have a sanitary and functional home.  You can’t control how he will react, you can only be true to your own needs.

As usual, I’m sure the smart and awesome commenters will come up with great advice, so hopefully you can find some help for a really sticky and difficult conversation.

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41 comments
  1. CommanderLogic said:

    The Cap’n has covered the actual conversation you need to have and the steps you need to take brilliantly. But there may also be a perception gap at work. “But you can still walk through here! It’s not that bad!” “I washed those dishes!” It may be time to deploy the patented (pending) Commander Logic Scale of Home Cleanliness:

    Howard Hughes Level
    Moving In Level
    Parents Visiting Level
    Friends Visiting Level
    Generally Lived-In Level
    Cluttered Level
    Dusty Cluttered Level
    Low Lanes Through the Filth Level (aka “See? You can still walk through!”)
    Den of (insert pejorative here) Level (It’s smelly like feet)
    Sty Level (It’s smelly like rotting food)
    Walking on Squishy Things Level
    Severe Health Hazard Level
    You Can’t Enter or Leave Without a Back Hoe (HI HOARDERS!)

    I myself was once an avid Dusty Clutterer (“If it’s not food mess, it’s just clutter! :D!”), but when HusbandLogic and I were dating, he and I had a Serious Talk about what constitutes bathroom and kitchen cleanliness. The rest of the cleaning he was better about than I was, but for some reason, smooth counters always read as “clean enough” to him. For the record, we now maintain a fairly constant Generally Lived-In feel and have a once-monthly cleaning lady.

    It may be a relief for your fella to hear that you have no intention of maintaining Howard Hughes levels of cleanliness, but he needs to meet you in a place where you agree on what’s acceptable. He may be living in Severe Health Hazard (which with the cat pee, bad kitchen practices, and dead animal leavings it sounds like to me) but think he’s living in Low Lanes Through Filth. The key here is to acknowledge that he’s not The Worst nor you The Best at Clean, but seriously, he needs to climb a few levels, whatever they may be. At least get out of the smelly levels. Cat pee is the WORST.

    • JenniferP said:

      THANK YOU I was looking for the Levels of Clean and could not find them.

      • Sid said:

        I thought you might. I’m here to serve! ;D

      • Cap'n Fitness said:

        You forgot grandma clean :p
        Pulled from a wonderful comic that my mon has.

        Grandma clean takes significantly more time to accomplish than surgery scrub room clean. If I remember, I will post the entire list when I next visit my parents.

        (p.s. The handle was given to me by my friends and it’s the only thing remotely familiar to this lovely site, I hope I don’t step on toes by using it, that’s not the intent)

        In other news, my now ex (who is still living with me…) has this nasty habit of making a mess to clean a mess and ends up with more mess than when she started. If I want to live in a clean place, I have to clean up after her all day long. She doesn’t understand my golden rule of minimizing your mess by cleaning as you go. That way, actual cleaning can be limited to a hour a week or so. I prefer this method as I’m not usually home and my worst enemy in the fight for a clean house is dust.

        Anyways, the ex is moving out, down to calgary for school (I had a question about her some weeks ago. Things didn’t work out) and I can’t wait honestly.

    • Intern Paul said:

      I would just like to point out that Howard Hughes Level implies that you should really strive to keep jars of pee around. I AM RIGHT ON IT!

      • CommanderLogic said:

        PEE IS STERILE, OKAY?

        • Jason said:

          Is it necessary for me to drink my own urine?
          No, but I do it anyway because it’s sterile, and I like the taste!

          Dodgeball quotes are necessary sometimes.

          • Indeed. Though urine is not, in fact, sterile.

  2. Lesley said:

    Some of this might be about age. Until I was about 24, I was more worried about personal issues (cut off from my parents, no money etc) and I couldn’t care less about hygiene, dental, good food, etc. Since then I have done a TON of growing up. And a lot of that growing up had to do with people talking to me about issues that didn’t occur to me otherwise. Embarrassment about friends coming over because I literally had boxes all over my apartment and piles of clothes everywhere. Mold in my fridge. Mysterious smell in my bathroom closet. Fear of failure got my act in gear and then the cavities stopped being so frequent and I lost weight when my diet improved and suddenly I was 30, a neat freak, and a lover of dishwashing, with a savings account and a career and everything.

    Don’t tell my 19-year-old self what happened. She’d be upset at the sheer conformity of it all.

  3. monsterzero said:

    Once a place passes a certain level of dirtiness it can seem hopeless and pointless. The dirt feeds the depression which feeds the dirt.

    I finally broke down and got a one-time cleaning lady about three months ago and she was there for four hours just doing the kitchen. She was really nice and non-judgmental and she broke our cycle of squalor. Our house has gradually improved since then and may even qualify as Parents Visiting Level once we finish vacuuming.

    I have found this [ http://www.squalorsurvivors.com/squalor/measuring.shtml ] to be a handy scale. At the beginning of this year we were deep into 2nd degree squalor, just entering 3rd. Now we’re more more like mid-1st.

  4. Eli said:

    Ugh. DTMFA. Or maybe not, but the fact that this man is claiming his level of cleanliness is okay, & needn’t change, is troubling enough to warrant it. It might be worth your while to use the leverage you have (“I can’t be with you anymore unless things change drastically”) to get results. This isn’t a minor issue like the table manners column, & it isn’t a case of a person with bad habits who just isn’t working hard enough to correct them. Brushing your teeth twice a day is *easy*, & while I could sympathize with someone who’s too depressed or overwhelmed to clean their apartment, that doesn’t seem to be what this is about.

    I wouldn’t be okay with a boyfriend who had a smelly body & mouth, & an apartment too disgusting to enjoy spending time in. What if you want to go out to a party, or introduce him to family & friends and have them react enthusiastically? And you shouldn’t even consider moving in with him until the situation has greatly improved. That would mean he’s able to perceive what’s an acceptable level of hygiene & take action to keep it that way on his own, not just do cleaning tasks after being nagged. Cleaning person is a great suggestion, but even that requires a baseline level of cleanliness to work. A maid can’t put away all your shit b/c they don’t know where it goes, & they can’t get through 3 dishwasher loads of dirty dishes if that’s what’s in your sink.

    In conclusion, gross ppl are gross. This man probably won’t change anything about his behavior unless your words & actions give him strong incentive to do so.

    • Eli said:

      Addendum: I should point out that maybe he *is* too depressed and overwhelmed to address his hygiene issues, but when called on it he gets defensive & insists they’re fine. Even if so, he’s going to have to stop being denial-y and admit there’s a problem.

  5. Florence said:

    There’s this cleaning lady (who I’m too lazy to Google) who, when you’re overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin, advocates cleaning your kitchen sink until it’s sparkling. Like, get out the Comet and a sponge, scrub it down, and then pick the dirt out of all indentations with a knife edge, etc., until you have one thing that is DONE that will make you feel accomplished. My larger version of this is the bathroom. If I can get the bathroom clean, the rest of it feels less hopeless.

    • teresa said:

      Flylady! Also a proponent of the 15 minute timer, or whatever length of time it is.

    • Stephanie said:

      Flylady?

  6. Jason said:

    Dental hygiene is linked to cardiac health. I was going to say that I was not trying to scare you, and him, but that’s not true- I am trying to scare him. Bad teeth can lead to heart disease. He needs to get his shit together to be with you, no excuses.

    • piny said:

      True!

      But you know? I don’t know if I’m so satisfied with this strategy. It doesn’t need to be a life or death situation for him in order to be a justified complaint from her. You know what’s a better way to say it? “I don’t like it when you don’t brush your teeth. I don’t like the way your mouth smells, and I want your teeth to stay more or less the same color. I want you to brush your teeth every single day.”

      Because you, LW, are his girlfriend. A good boyfriend doesn’t say, “But my dental hygiene is not that bad!” A good boyfriend says, “Gee, that bothers you? Sure, I’ll brush my teeth every day, dollface. I’ll even floss.” Because you stick your tongue in that mouth. You lay your head on that greasy pillow. You walk on that vomit-encrusted carpet. You sit on that grimy toilet seat. You share his life and mingle your bodily fluids with his. You get to tell him what you need in order to enjoy his company. Or he can do without yours.

      • k said:

        YES, this! Bad hygiene is going to kill all his sex appeal, and frankly, I’m amazed it hasn’t already, or has it? She is describing body parts of his as “revolting”! Eventually the revolting is going to overcome her tender feelings, I think. This issue is urgent, she needs to be doing some relationship triage here. And she is entitled to a non-revolting boyfriend.
        .

      • Jason said:

        Couldn’t agree with you more. Poor dental hygiene to me is a total, permanent deal-breaker.

  7. piny said:

    Wow. I think that is too dirty for me. But I understand that you love him, and I support that. If he is willing to change, then he can probably change. If not, you need to leave him and date someone who is not filthy, because that’s what you want.

    I think Captain Awkward’s suggestions are great. Depending on conversations you have had regarding life plans, you might also want to bring up children. Your boyfriend’s standard of cleanliness is too dirty for children. And if he’s this bad now, you can’t expect him to keep it together with an infant in the house.

    Regarding the cleaning lady: I think that even if your anti-oppression boyfriend cannot employ a cleaner on a regular basis, you should push for it as a one-time thing. Then you have a starting point for negotiations. Have someone come and clean the apartment. Then show him the results and explain that it (or some slightly more relaxed version) is what his wife will need all of the time: it’s what everyone else and you mean when they say “clean enough.” Then sit him down with some proposals on how to get that level of cleanliness all the time.

    And, well, look: I think that putting you ahead of his ego is an important milestone, but at this level, you have every right to feel grossed out and judgmental. Very few people want to live in a house that can give them botulism. Your boyfriend should be more concerned about your discomfort as a general rule. So yes, be constructive and calm and mature. But don’t feel any guilt, and don’t budge. You’re not a nagging harpy. You’re a saint.

  8. k said:

    Dear LW, your boyfriend needs to get evaluated for depression. Like, yesterday.

    Aside from that, I would like to suggest that if he truly understands privilege and the kyriarchy etc, a good way to come at this might be “Listen, if we move in together, I expect you to do your 50% of cleaning and maintanance around the house. And right now, I really can’t imagine that happening. I am not going to be the person who scrubs the carpet and cleans out the litter box every single fucking time.” You can even couple this with how parents often don’t make an effort to teach boys how to keep house, so maybe he never really learned how to keep his place clean? I don’t know. But it could be an angle.

    Also, can we talk about the cats for a minute? If he isn’t cleaning their litter boxes daily or at least every two days, he is mistreating his cats in kind of a serious way. I assume he loves his cats. And I mean, he can choose to neglect his own body and it’s his very own personal decision and issue (until he expects someone else to want to touch that body regularly, that is)… but his cats are defenseless creatures who pretty much are suffering through his lack of motivation. Trying oh so hard not to be judgy here but I feel like that may be indicative of a character flaw or two.

    Basically what I’m saying here is that when two people come to share a household, all those formerly theoretical issues such as “women shouldn’t have to work a second shift cleaning up after their manfriends” and “small powerless dependent members of the household (OBVIOUS ALLUSION TO FUTUREBABIES) need to be provided with a safe, pleasant living environment” are suddenly concrete as fuck. Does this man seriously understand feminism? Because if he does, he should get it that in order to be a prospect as a live-in boyfriend he needs to step up his game 1000%.

    Or he is suffering from depression, in which case, he needs to be seeing a psych (try cognitive behavioral therapy, it did wonders for me!) and making noticable progress before you move in with him. Because you can’t fix that with love. He has to fix it with hard work on his brain and maybe some antidepressants.

    • k said:

      Also, you are not a nagging harpy. It’s been said, but it really can’t be said enough. You are incredibly tolerant and patient to put up with any of this.

      • JenniferP said:

        Good point, re: Feminist Arguments About Housecleaning and also Cat Abuse and Not Being A Harpy.

    • Emma said:

      *Thank you* for saying this about the cat. I read this last night and was seriously coming here to say the same thing.

      I have an ex who lived like this with his cat (really, our cat, which he gave away after we broke up without telling me or offering her to me), and I’m disgusted now that I let it go when we were dating. It seemed OK because, well, love is blind and the cat adored him. But it was unequivocally not OK.

      LW, your boyfriend already has someone he loves and yet won’t clean up for– his pets, who depend on him. If he won’t keep even a minimally safe environment for the dependent animals he’s supposed to care for, I’m not optimistic that he’ll do any better for what he probably sees as just your personal preference– certainly not long-term.

      His living conditions and personal hygiene definitely sound like they belong to someone who needs therapy. But if he honestly believes stuff like brushing “almost daily” is fine, you’ve probably got yourself a pretty dirty person, even if professional help can scrub off all those grimy layers of mental and emotional pathology. That could take years, if it happens at all, if you think the probably-still-dirty person who mistreats animals underneath is really worth all the work and the wait. Sorry, I don’t.

  9. Sadly I am one who cannot even be convinced to shame-clean and I have actually cancelled house visitors because I could not be motivated to clean (partially due to busyness, partially due to depression/anxiety), and professional cleaners can indeed be expensive. So my mom volunteered and now I pay her every month or so to come over and tidy. My mom is amazing and is one of those people who likes cleaning (because it is an easily achievable task that she can clearly see when she’s finished) and because she loves me and knows my mental issues, she does not judge. She would rather I seek assistance to live in a comfortable house than try to do it myself and never get it done. The family-member-as-cleaner route is probably not for everyone, but it can absolutely happen and there is no shame in it.

  10. There’s a lot going on here. I know! I’m this guy, but like, 15 years later. I’m fortunate I met my wife when I was 18, so I’ve come a long way by now (let’s call it my early thirties, though we won’t be able to honestly call it that much longer.)

    Almost everything people have mentioned is true, including, from a certain point of view, the person who told you to DTMFA. Everyone is (a little) different, of course, but think about it like this – after about 13 years of living with my wife I have become able to maintain the house at a basic minimum standard of cleanliness.

    That probably sounds good to you! But let me bold two bits for you: THIRTEEN YEARS and a BASIC, MINIMUM standard of cleanliness. My house is not as clean as my wife would like. It’s not even as clean as *I* would like, and my standards are very low. I am often embarrassed to invite friends over. I often feel anxiety around the state of the house. I know my wife does as well.

    If this sounds like a decent long-term goal for you and your BF, great! I’m here to tell you it CAN be achieved with patience, honesty and understanding. If this sounds like it’s not enough, then things may not work out. That’s the good news and the bad news all rolled into one.

    And yes, we have professional cleaners who dust and clean the bathrooms and floors twice a month. If we didn’t have that, I don’t THINK we’d get divorced. But until the money runs out, I sure as hell don’t plan on finding out.

    Good luck to you and your BF! I hope you make it. Also, thanks for the Fly Lady link. I’m starting today! I’ll let y’all know how it goes.

    APS

  11. A year ago I was that guy, and I’m female. The problem was multifaceted:
    1. What my parents modeled: A lot more feeling guilt and shame about not cleaning, than just cleaning already. I never really had to clean as a kid, and when I moved out on my own, I just plain didn’t have the skillz or necessary habits.
    2. Intractable, chronic, severe depression that no medication had yet managed to help. I had no energy, no motivation, no self-efficacy, and no hope. Also no personal hygeine because why bother.
    3. Living in squalor is depressing, and overwhelming to think about fixing even if you have cleaning/organizing skillz, which I didn’t. The guilt and shame over my squalor didn’t exactly help with the depression.

    So what changed?

    First there was a come-to-Jesus talk with the partner. Where he just laid it out, he wants to marry me and spend the rest of our lives together, but he can’t live in squalor, and he won’t be my maid. I cried a lot, but I knew he was right.

    At about the same time there was a visit to a new psychiatrist because my usual psychiatrist and psychologist were getting really worried about my declining mental health and non-response to treatment.

    The new shrink prescribed the first cocktail of psych meds to ever have worked for me and suddenly I could think about things other than the awfulness of everything and feel emotions other than despair. My partner worked with me to clean up my place to a point where it was livable to him. There was a lot of crying and some fighting there too, a lot of guilt and shame and family-of-origin issues to work through remembering he isn’t my mom or dad and won’t treat me like a failure and punish me for not doing what I don’t really know how to do.

    So then my partner moved in with me, and I’ve been motivated to keep things nice because I want him to be happy living with me and because actually I like my world orderly too, and he models good cleanliness/tidiness behaviours and it just seems natural to dry the dishes if he’s washing them, or join him at the sink to floss my teeth.

    We do still have friction about housework, I still have trouble seeing clutter if it’s not pointed out, and I often feel that the dishes can wait when he doesn’t for example, and every once in a while we’ll have a discussion where he’ll mention he feels like I’m not pulling my weight and then we’ll look at specifically where I’m shirking my responsibilities. At first these discussions were big crying i’m a failure please don’t leave me episodes, but they’re getting better and turning more into learning.

    TL/DR: It got better but I needed a lot of support and help to get there and it’s still not perfect and probably I’ll always need more help and support than average.

    • I feel for you, Intransigent One. If it gives you any light at the end of the tunnel, I almost NEVER have that dream anymore where I wake up and my mom has invaded my house and spite-cleaned it while I was sleeping. Almost never.

      It gets better, as they say.

      • Thanks, ApeMan! It has gotten better, and once I never believed it would.

        I don’t have the spite-cleaning nightmare because my mom is almost as much of a slob as I am. I have the nightmare where I have to leave to go somewhere desperately important – possibly fleeing the country? – and the things I can’t leave without are submerged in piles of who knows what and I’m digging and the clock is counting down.

        • forestperson said:

          I have that nightmare too. It decreased as over the years got rid of a LOT of the stuff I had hoarded; useless stuff that was only around because of my poor cleaning habits (induced by similar Reasons). But it still rears its ugly head because I’m not yet on top of the cleaning thing.

          This thread has helped a lot. :)

    • JenniferP said:

      Thanks for the really honest stories (both you and ApeMan) about how it could play out.

  12. maggie said:

    My now-husband was, when I met him, living in a slum. He’d been living there a long time, through a whole ex-relationship, and a lot of depression. The place was falling down around him, and it was all yellow from years of smoking (he quit a while back, or it would have been a non-starter). And it was generally disgusting, with crap all over and blah blah I hated it.

    But, we moved into a non-slum apartment! It’s a really very nice apartment! And so it’s much easier to keep clean. And husband is not actually a disgusting person, it turns out. We do have different standards, so I get annoyed about stuff sometimes and feel naggy, but he does want to know what I think needs to be done and he takes some initiative.

    Short version: not starting from a hopeless god-awful pit of despair is very very helpful, discussion is needed, and if he’s depressed getting that treated may also make a big difference. Cleanliness issue may be change-able.

  13. YellowValkyrie said:

    Hey everybody! It’s the LW here. Thank you, Captain Awkward, for your wonderful response – including a script! (which I was secretly hoping for). Thank you also, commenters, for your responses. Let me add a few points to clarify things:

    – he hasn’t gone to the dentist because he doesn’t have insurance (neither do I), and while he says he would/will go if/when he has it, I have my doubts. I think his unwillingness to look after his dental hygeine, and his general view that dentistry is as valid a practice as alchemy, stems from a very bad experience involving major facial/dental surgery he had as a teenager. It was horrible and NO WAY is he going there ever again. Nevermind the fact that he’s just making things worse by not getting regular checkups. He’s like a child who’d rather let a wound become infected than risk the pain of treatment.

    – He does seem to understand that it’s important to be clean when, for example, he’s staying over at my house. He does shower more now than when I met him. That sounds bad. Ugh. But it’s true. I have told him to get his ass in the shower before coming to bed many a time, and he does, cheerfully.

    – Boyfriend is an engineering student who also works. What little free time he has is usually spent with me, rather than cleaning his house.

    – My previous relationship was with a guy MUCH cleaner than I am (I’m on the Clutter/Dusty Clutter level), and with whom I still live, so I am used to having a very clean house and not doing much of the work to keep it that way (I do the cooking). I also grew up in a house with very clean parents, so I have very little experience talking to people about their filthy habits. Other than passive-agressive roommate squabbling.

    – His previous relationships were all fairly short, and his periods of singleness long, so I don’t think he’s used to considering someone else’s needs. Not that he’s a jerk when they’re brought up – he’s actually very thoughtful, if sometimes defensive at first. But as for automatically thinking “How will this affect girlfriend?” – it just hasn’t been on his radar for years, and I can imagine that’s a hard habit to break.

    So, I’m not ready to DTMFA yet, but if he digs his heels in and refuses to meet my needs around this stuff? Then yeah, that’s an option I will consider. And I’ll tell him that.

    • Jason said:

      I really wish you luck in dealing with this- remember, your needs on his issues of hygiene and cleanliness are completely, and totally valid. It is not an unreasonable request to have one’s partner dwell in squalor and fetid conditions. Also, the Apeman1976(tm) rule is in effect- be brutally honest with him about how this stuff makes you feel.

      Let us know how the conversations go, ok?

    • JenniferP said:

      Thanks for coming back and giving us more background. It’s good that you know where some of this stuff is coming from. Now forget about the whys, and bring it back to your needs. Whatever happened to him as a child, whatever his issues, you still need what you need – sounds like you understand that. Hold onto that when the talks/arguments start.

      As for the “He is busy and never has time to clean” this is one of my own fallacies as well. I’m always busy, or if I’m not busy right this second, I can make myself busy (or fake-internet-surfing-busy). I’m just too busy to clean! So yeah, I have to schedule it like anything else “important” I do and cross off each tiny task one by one. The awesome btothes has solved this with the concept of Wife Night – one night a week where you are your own wife and take care of Wife Stuff (paying bills, cleaning, home repair).

    • Quentin said:

      I married the man you’re describing. I loved him so much that the filth he lived in seemed trivial. Any discussion of division of labor felt like an attack to him, because he was shamed as a child, and he absolutely shut down any attempt I made to distinguish my needs from his parents’ judgment. After years of doing all the housework myself while he busied himself filling the vacuum with more filth, I finally gave up and accepted both the filth & full responsibility for all housework. Yet he still took my cheerful, uncomplaining periodic spring cleanings as a personal attack. Why? Because his need to never be criticized was more important than my need, met without his lifting a finger, for a sanitary and functional home. And after we had a baby, he became abusive, because his need to be constantly validated was more important than my autonomy. If he proves unwilling to see past his needs to thoughtfully consider yours, please be careful – it may generalize into other aspects of your relationship.

  14. Sara said:

    Thanks all for the links and suggestions-loads to read (love the Fly Lady already!). You could say I’m in recovery for this type of thing-having moved in with a partner, jettisoned bags of stuff, learned *how* to clean and budget, gone to therapy for depression/shame/anxiety. I still find myself furtively quite pleased with myself if I can get away with not brushing my teeth at night, and laundry/food waste is still not quite something I can deal with breezily- does anyone have any advice on keeping it up? I have a feeling that my sex life has suffered as a consequence of the reality of my household habits, and want to see this thru (if not for the bonking then for a general sense of accomplishment and the casting off of a certain ‘but I NEED TO SEE/CAN’T TOUCH this stuff’, fear of deathish feeling).

    • CommanderLogic said:

      WRT Food Waste

      My natural default is Dusty Clutter, but I never, EVER left out food waste, because I knew that that way leads to even GROSSER clean up problems. So, take it from me, even if you’re kind of a slob, food waste problems can be conquered!

      Step One: Accept that these are not things you can do breezily, and that is okay. Dishes are my least favorite of all chores (okay, my least favorite is clearing the food trap because EWEWEWEW!), and while you can’t do them breezily, you CAN do them daily, and that will be a triumph!

      Food Waste – TAKE NO PRISONERS:
      Every night, before dinner – whether you’re eating out, in, cooking or takeout – scan your living space.
      1 – Dishes not in active use DO NOT BELONG anywhere other than the sink, drying rack, dishwasher (if you have one), or cabinet. You see a dish outside those areas, remove it IMMEDIATELY to the sink. It takes, like, ten seconds. No big. GOLD STAR FOR YOU.
      2 – Dishes DO NOT go in the sink if there is scrape-able food on them. Scrape it off into the trash, then into the sink. This step may add another ten seconds. Do this even if you have a disposal, because we’re assuming here that you may not be able to actually GET to the dishes right away. But foodless dishes hit the sink? TWO GOLD STARS.
      3 – But hey, now that you’re here at the sink, why the hell not do those dishes? HOLY SHIT THREE GOLD STARS! FOUR if you dry and put them away.

      You can decide not to proceed to Step 3, but being maniacal about steps 1 and 2 will greatly decrease your food waste problem potential. You’ll also do better about food waste if you are:
      – Non-sentimental/hopeful about your ability/will to eat leftovers.
      Are you really going to eat that? Really? No. You’re not. Just throw it the fuck away. Now.
      – Taking out the trash as a part of your dishes routine.
      I know it’s cold/hot/raining/wevs outside. That trashbag has the rotting remains of week old food in it. TAKE IT OUTSIDE. It’ll take one minute.
      – Right before you take out the trash, scan the fridge for anything that’s past its prime and toss it.

      Good luck!

      • Sara said:

        Thanks! Will try this method – since reading all these comments I’ve been inspired, my house is cleaner and my plants aren’t dying – so thanks again people. (also, on reflection, slobs reading; a thorough cleansing of one’s living quarters may well lead to some adult intimate times, as well as gold stars. Booya!)

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