Dear Captain Awkward,
So, I live in a small home with my boyfriend and one of our mutual friends. Before we moved in with said friend, we thought she was far cleaner than she actually is, as she often complained about her parents’ cleanliness and messiness when she lived with them.
Turns out, that is not the case.
She doesn’t clean up after herself. Dirty dishes remain in the sink, or in her room, for days, and when she went away for a week on a trip, she dumped all the dirty dishes from her room into the sink before peacing on out, leaving us to deal with it. When she cleans up her cat’s poop on the carpet, she just picks it up and doesn’t spray anything on the carpet itself to actually deal with the bacteria left behind, saying “it’s okay, it was dry!” She leaves splatters all over the stove and counters, grit all over the floors, crumbs all over, and her hair all over the bathroom floor.
And now there are the bugs.
We got fruit flies everywhere one day. Upstairs where our rooms are, swarming in the bathroom, and downstairs in the kitchen. I cleaned like crazy and set up natural fruit fly traps to deal with the issue, but the flies just weren’t diminishing even after killing literally hundreds.
After dealing with them actually coming into mine and my boyfriend’s room, I had enough. I did investigating and followed the trail of flies…to my roommate’s room. (She never closes the door.) Her trashcan is overflowing, trash all over the floor, and full of fruit flies, and she has ants all over her bedside table swarming over left behind food. There is food in her bed.
The ants and food are STILL THERE. Days later. She has to have noticed. It’s right by her bed, where she sets everything.
Captain, how do I even broach this conversation? I don’t care what she does in her room, but this is affecting us all, the flies are already everywhere and I don’t want those ants to come our way next. Or for us to get roaches or rats or other pests.
That, and I feel like me and my boyfriend are constantly cleaning. It’s exhausting, since again, her one contribution is to maybe take out the trash every now and then. We do all the bathroom cleaning, mopping, vacuuming, cleaning the kitchen…everything. And most of it is cleaning up her messes, as both of us are kind of neat freaks who clean up after ourselves as we go. Just. What do. I love my friend, but her lack of cleanliness is driving me crazy.
I am not your maid.
Dear I Am Not Your Maid,
Thank you for your question. You are not alone, there are several “We are living together and it turns out we are really, really incompatible about this cleaning stuff” questions in the inbox.
From where I sit you have two main choices for conversations and strategies here:
Choice 1: A Series of Talks
Conversation 1a (Bug Triage!!!!):
“Friend, we’ve got an urgent bug problem, and it’s definitely originating from and concentrated in your room. I need you to get all garbage and anything with food residue out of there now, today, and going forward, please do not bring food into your room. Please also do not throw food away anywhere but the kitchen garbage can (which gets emptied every day), and please do all of your dishes within 24 hours of getting them dirty.”
When you have (especially preventable, source-traceable) bugs in your house, feelings take a back seat. Get the bugs out! Get them out now!
Conversation 1b (Overall Clean):
“I’ve noticed since living together that we have some pretty different ideas of what clean means and how to clean. For example, [RECENT BUG PROBLEM] and [CAT POOP PROBLEM]* are a really big deal to me. When it comes to everyday stuff, I need you to wipe off all kitchen surfaces every time you use them and make sure stuff like hair from your hairbrush and trash actually makes it into the trash can. We also need to make a rotating schedule for cleaning the bathroom, washing floors, and doing other household chores. What do you suggest?”
If you want someone to help you solve a problem, ask them for their assistance in solving the problem and give them a chance to step up.
Conversation 1c – Infinity (Reminders):
“Thanks for doing better at cleaning X and Y! Can you also please make sure to do Z today?”
It won’t come naturally and you’ll have to do some follow-up conversations.
After each of these conversations, brace yourself for a possible shame spiral from her. I say this because: If she complains about her family’s cleanliness standards but there is food in her bed when she’s out of there, it’s possible she does not know how to clean or know what it really means to live in a clean house or perhaps there is some lingering…emotional or executive function…stuff…going on. That stuff is a) VERY REAL and b) not diagnosable by us or solvable by you and c) not a reason for you to live with bugs and cat poop residue on the floor. If you want to keep trying to live with her and you want to live in a clean house where you are comfortable, it will help a lot if you can anticipate the shame spiral and keep gently setting boundaries about what you need in your living space:
“Hey, I know, this is a really, really awkward conversation to have and I definitely don’t want to hurt your feelings, but also, we cannot have bugs and it’s going to make me really upset if every time I want to use the kitchen I have to scrub it down first, so, what will help us get this done? Do you need help learning HOW to clean**? Do we need to budget for a weekly cleaning person that we all pay for as part of rent? Do we need to set a timer for 30 minutes every night, throw on some music, and wipe down/scrub up whatever we can? All of the above? I’m willing to help but I’m not willing to pick up after you and I’m not willing to keep living with this level of mess. Help me figure out how to make this work, please!”
This also means setting yourself up for a lot of emotional labor around this topic, so, before you make a choice think about how much of that you want to take on.
Conversation 2a (Bug Triage + Skip Directly ‘To Time To Move Out’):
You are allowed to want to live with someone who is more compatible with you around housekeeping, without taking on an enormous load of emotional labor and household labor. Script:
“Friend, I love you and I would like us to be friends forever, but I don’t think living together is working for us. It’s clear that we just have really different levels of how clean we’d like the apartment to be, and the way things are going right now is stressing me out a lot. I’d like you to look for a new place by [date].
Also, since we’ve got quite a bug problem going on, between now and then, I need you to get all garbage and anything with food residue out of your room today. Going forward, please do not throw food away anywhere but the kitchen garbage can (which gets emptied every day), and please do all of your dishes within 24 hours of getting them dirty so we can get this under control.”
Your friend will have feelings about all of this. Nobody wants to be told “You are making there be bugs in our house, FIX IT NOW!” or “Hey this thing we thought was going to be so great actually sucks, please leave” and whatever happens it will affect your friendship. Before you decide you can’t possibly begin any of these awkward conversations, ask yourself, how is it already affecting our friendship to have a house full of bugs and to not be able to talk about it with her? How is it already affecting your friendship to live with someone so incompatible?
I am not a naturally tidy person and I’m going to close out by talking (again) about the one roommate situation I have ever lived in that was both impeccably clean and 100% friction-and-upset-feelings free where cleaning was concerned despite at least two of the housemates having diagnosed mental health issues:
- We had a written agreement of house rules that we agreed to as part of the living situation. Roommate JL, the apartment’s anchor-tenant, was a tidy person who had lived with lots of roommates, and he designed the agreement so that he could be happy in his house.
- JL assumed nothing about what our cleanliness habits were like before we lived with him and did not need to know about any executive function issues or feelings about cleanliness or childhood history. There were no assumptions and no guess-work. Did we want to live there? Great, then this is what was expected, agree to it or find another situation.
- The agreement was detailed, with rules for having houseguests, expectations about noise levels, right down to which shelf in the fridge belonged to each person.
- “Keep your food on your own shelf in the fridge and in the assigned cabinet.”
- “Take a bag of trash or recycling downstairs each day when you leave.”
- “Mail, books, or other clutter on the kitchen table or coffee table need to go back to your room within 24 hours.”
- “Don’t leave dishes in the sink overnight.”
- “Wipe out the bathroom sink after you use it.”
- “If you buy something for the apartment, like toilet paper or trash bags, put the receipt in the envelope on the fridge and we’ll settle up so it’s all even at the end of the month.”
- There were clear steps and consequences spelled out in the agreement if a housemate didn’t respect the rules. JL emphatically did not want to spend his time policing this crap, so, if you made him have to have more than one awkward conversation about household stuff that made living there unpleasant for him or other people, he was within his rights to give you 30 day notice to move out.
- Best of all: A (well-paid, independent) cleaning person came 2x/month and scrubbed things down.
I know there are very, very good reasons people don’t want to hire cleaning services – from expense, strong potential for exploitation of the workers, “to my grandmother would roll over in her grave if she knew I was betraying my class origins this way,” and “But I know how to clean so why should I pay someone? My roommate should be able to clean already,” but I can honestly say that this was the best decision ever for this executive-function challenged human and for our little NYC walk-up family. Why?
- The $45/month it cost each of us was built into rent/utilities from the start. No scrounging up the money on an ad hoc basis, no “I can’t afford it,” no “why should we pay someone, I’ll just clean?” – it was a non-negotiable cost of living there, like the gas bill.
- “The whole house gets cleaned!” happened on a set schedule. Not “when we get around to it…” or “when we feel like it…” or “it’s your turn…” but “The ritual occurs every other Tuesday, without fail.” When something like this becomes automatic, you spend fewer executive function units on it.
- The night before the cleaner came, it was in the agreement that all of your personal crap needed to be out of the common areas and off any surfaces like counters or tables. This made the cleaning go faster the cleaner (and cheaper for us) and nothing could ever build up to a gross level.
- There are legit “This is my small business and I charge a fee that covers a decent wage” services to be found if you do your research. Housework is work!
- Our house was always pleasant, relaxed, and company-ready.
- The time we spent together as roommates was on fun stuff like watching kung-fu movies late at night and not arguing about household chores.
- NO ONE EVER HAD TO HAVE FEELINGS ABOUT CLEANING OR WHOSE TURN IT WAS, AT ALL, EVER.
With Mr. Awkward I’ve hopefully entered into the last roommate agreement I’ll need for a while, but if I could go back in time and populate every group housing situation I’ve ever had with a version Roommate JL’s Agreement For Peaceful Co-Habitation, I would.
*In my experience cats can sometimes rage-pee but they don’t generally poop on the carpet unless something is WRONG, litter-box-wise or medically. Is this an ancient cat that can’t climb into the box? Is your floor covered in sand? I am so sorry this is an ongoing problem in your home.
A “how do we live here together” agreement could include anything you want it to! Get together before you move into a place and hammer it out. For example (taking a glance at my inbox):
- “No, your boyfriend/girlfriend/ummfriend cannot live here,” i.e., “Overnight guests max 2x/week.”
- “We’re both kinda messy, so, let’s agree: Let’s each pick 3 things we care a lot about and those always have to be clean.”
- “Morning time is quiet time” (This was an unwritten rule in my last group-share situation and it was the greatest! I didn’t even notice how great it was until a friendly, morning-person houseguest would come to stay and we’d all be blearily staring at each other, like “WHY IS HAPPENING”).
- “This is your morning shower time window/That is my morning shower time window.”
- “Mustard is a communal house resource…My special favorite expensive coffee is not.”
- “How do we want to handle parties/alcohol/drugs/smoking in the house?”
- “Your cat = your cat box.” “Your dog = your dog-walking schedule.”
- “Here’s how we’re going to figure out what we record on the DVR and what nights each person gets to drive the TV choices.”
- “If she’s wearing her giant cap with a bow, that means Jo March is writing and doesn’t want to be disturbed.” “If my door is closed after 9pm, don’t knock unless it’s an emergency.”
- “If one of us wants to move out before the lease is up, here’s how we will handle money/the work of finding a new roommate.” (Figure this out while you are happy and you all like each other).
We all come from different backgrounds and have different needs and assumptions about what’s okay in a shared living space. If you want to live with other people, sometimes that means changing your habits and expectations for the sake of a harmonious situation, and it means spelling out some things that it might not be so comfortable to spell out. For example, if your prospective roommate smokes a lot of weed and you hate the smell of weed, maybe don’t live together? Or, figure out a system for managing the smoke and the smell before you live together (It will never magically work itself out). Assume nothing about what your roommates know or need or like, and work it out beforehand.
Can we agree that if the house is full of flies and ants and the roommate’s room is full of food-garbage that is attracting said bugs, that that’s gross and needs to be immediately fixed? Like, can this not be up for argument? Thank you.
Comment-wise, here’s what I’d be most interested in knowing about:
- Has anyone successfully managed a situation with a really messy housemate where it got better and stayed better? TELL US OF YOUR MAGICK!
- Has anyone successfully implemented a detailed roommate agreement after you’d already embarked on living together? TELL US OF YOUR MAGICK!
- Say you recognize yourself in the messy housemate here, either now, or once upon a time. Is there anything that a friend or fellow housemate could have done or said at the time that would have spurred you to clean up after yourself and make the living situation workable? TELL US OF THIS MAGICK!
- Do you have an example of an intentional roommate agreement that you made that really worked?