By Esther Mann

Dear Esther,

How do I motivate my wife to become neat? Bracha and I have been married for close to five months. She’s really great in so many ways, and all the special reasons that brought me to propose to her are still there. However, how was I to know that she’s a slob? How does anyone know?

I like neat. I don’t think I’m fanatical about it, but I guess I’m more concerned with it than some other guys are. It’s not like I’m someone who will run his finger over tabletops to make sure that there isn’t any dust ever, but I do expect the beds to be made in the morning and that when I get home from work, the cereal bowls from the morning are not still sitting in the sink with crusted cereal on the rims. It almost makes me sick to look at that.

Countertops and tables are always covered with something. A book, magazines, a hairbrush — you name it. It drives me crazy! Yes, my mother runs a beautiful home. She works, but she manages to make the beds and straighten up before she leaves for work. If she sees something out of place, she’ll adjust it. Of course, we all pitch in. My father and the children know that everything has a place and a home should look nice and inviting.

Bracha is in school. I know she spends time there and studies or writes papers, but I do not believe that she doesn’t have a half-hour in her day to make our two-bedroom apartment look normal. How could that be? We’re just two people!

After a few months of marriage, I decided to hire a cleaning woman for Fridays. A part of me thought it was a crazy idea; how much work could there possibly be? But I figured it was a show of good faith toward Bracha — to let her know that I don’t want her to work too hard and also how important a clean home is to me. So, thank G-d, for Shabbos, our apartment looks nice and it’s a pleasure. But no sooner does Sunday roll around and we’re back to messiness.

I would say that this is the only area that we have fights over. Sometimes, I walk into our apartment after a long day at work, and before I even take off my coat, I’m struck by how “off” the place looks and feels to me. So, coat still on, I start washing breakfast dishes, straightening things up, and, in general, getting our place to look normal. This is so ridiculous to me and yet Bracha seems to think I’m the one behaving badly and that I’m the crazy one.

I really do start off trying to be calm and reasonable. I ask her nicely if she could just make a routine of some basic household jobs. But she doesn’t understand why I care so much about them and thinks I’m overreacting. When I try to explain to her that a neat home represents so much more, she starts getting defensive. Before you know it, we’re arguing, and sometimes the arguments get very heated.

What can I do to help Bracha understand that making the beds in the morning is a normal thing to do and that “normal” homes don’t have to be spotless, but there are certain basic requirements that people should adhere to? Am I the troublemaker here? Should Bracha be left to keep house any way she sees fit, or am I being reasonable and my needs should also come into play here and be respected? If the former is the case, I have to ask myself whether I can live a lifetime like this, in such a messy and sometimes even chaotic atmosphere.

A Neat Guy

Dear Neat Guy,

Of the hundreds of issues that young couples discuss before taking the plunge into marriage —  and these days there are more “meaningful conversations” taking place than ever before — I’m pretty sure that none of those discussions relate to whether or not someone thinks it’s important to make the beds in the morning or wash the breakfast dishes. Maybe because it just seems so obvious to most of us or we just assume that if a woman shows up on a date looking neat and clean, she takes the same care with her living environment as she does with her personal presentation.

Clearly, you’re here to tell us (though many of us already know the hard way) that how one presents in person and what is going on behind the scenes are not necessarily one and the same. First I would like to validate your need for basic neatness. Yes, there are some individuals who are absolutely obsessed with cleanliness and neatness — sometimes with OCD tendencies thrown into the mix. You, however, do not sound as though your desires are over the top or irrational in the slightest. The few things that you ask for (and I’m going on the belief that you are being upfront about what triggers you) are normal, and I would even go so far as to say they are necessary for comfortable living.

Most of us do not want to get into an unmade bed at the end of the day, nor do we want to look at dirty breakfast dishes while we’re getting ready for dinner. It’s definitely a sloppy and lazy way to live. I understand how this lifestyle is aggravating you to the point that it leads to arguments.

So what’s up with Bracha? On a simple level, maybe she grew up in such a home and to her it’s all good. Maybe she’s just lazy and doesn’t want to be bothered. But either way, one of the keys to a good marriage is following the mantra of “if it’s important to you, it’s important to me.” If every husband and wife took the time to consider whether their actions fall in line with pleasing their spouse or not, most marriages would be far less strife-ridden.

You’ve made it clear that certain things — like leaving a hairbrush on the table — are displeasing to you. Putting it away or just not leaving it there in the first place takes a few seconds. One has to wonder why Bracha is paying so little respect to your comfort level and simply ignoring your pleas for a higher level of neatness. Clearly, it doesn’t sound as though it’s an issue of having enough time. Yes, Bracha is in school and has work to do, but she’s not working; surely, there is a half-hour in her day that she could devote to maintaining the home that belongs to both of you.

I suspect that the issue goes deeper than just being a sloppy housekeeper. Anyone can make a bed, but someone has to want to make a bed in order to please her spouse if it means nothing to her personally. Bracha is clearly acting in a way that appears to me as selfish or minimally uncaring toward you. Could there be some passive-aggressive behavior going on? This is the area that I think needs to be explored — her lack of respect toward you.

First, I would suggest you look closely at your behavior toward Bracha. Have you created an environment in which she sees, during the early adjustment phase of your marriage, that you are invested in pleasing her? Is it a two-way street? Is what’s important to her important to you? Do you both need to up your game in terms of being more selfless in order to please the other, or can you honestly say you are trying your hardest and Bracha’s behavior is all about her?

If the latter possibility is the case, though it might seem silly to you to go to a couple’s therapist because of an unmade bed, I would still urge you to have this looked at on a deeper level and explore what lies beneath the crumpled sheets. Now is the time to do this kind of work. When small things are ignored in a marriage, they tend to fester and grow into big things. The arguments you are now experiencing can someday turn into major fights as issues continue to go unexplored and unresolved. You are so early into your marriage. Set the stage now for a wonderful future wherein everyone’s feelings do matter.

Esther

Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at mindbiz44@aol.com or 516-314-2295.

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