It is so common for relationships to disintegrate over one partner being more disordered, messy or cluttered than the other.
This topic resonates with me a lot, for I am extremely messy.
By messy, I don’t mean unclean– I shower once a day (with shampoo), clean the toilet regularly, hoover the house meticulously, wash the dishes in the dishwasher and use gloves when cleaning out the cat’s litter tray.
I am just messy in the sense that my life is disorganised. I can still function, keep a job, pay my bills on time and meet deadlines. I just tend to pick up the bills from a wad of papers that I threw on the floor, for example, rather than from a neat folder with dividers. Or I tend to live out of a suitcase, rather than folding and organising my clothes in a cupboard.
There is an obvious distinction between cleanliness i.e hygiene, and mess i.e disorder, which I discuss in my previous article: “Am I too messy or is she too clean”. Commonly, the arguments amongst couples is not about cleanliness, but about mess.
So why am I so messy?
Some of it, I believe, is just due to differences in what I consider to be an acceptable level of disorder, compared to others. For example, I see no problem with a disorganised coffee table. I feel that the whole point of a wooden slab in the middle of a living room is to put items onto it, not to leave it bare. I don’t believe that the only use of a coffee table is to put a coffee mug on it. I tend to read my book in front of the television, so the best position for me to place my book is on the coffee table- it is a realistic, functional use of a piece of furniture which I consider to have a functional use. My partner has a problem with this, as she feels the table has its function solely as a mantelpiece, or to temporarily position a mug of coffee (on a coaster). In my opinion, it’s hardly a suitable mantlepiece- it is not an artistic piece worthy of such status- it is just a cheap, weathered down table from Ikea- if it has no functional use, I would prefer the extra space of having no coffee table.
Whilst our difference in opinion on what constitutes acceptable mess is part of the problem, I claim that there are other reasons as to why I and so many other people are so messy.
To understand this, I wish to bring us back to our childhoods, where our mums used to shout at us for having a messy room.
Most children clean their room at first out of fear of being grounded and losing their pocket money. Then, as they grow older, they recognise their room as their own territory and decide that they don’t want to live in mess. So they then organise their room not due to fear of punishment, but due to a desire to improve their own living standards and their own territory.
Congratulations to those children- they will live their lives as respectable, organised, clean adults.
For people like myself, this adaptation from a disorganised toddler to an organised adult failed somewhere. I claim that this occurs due to two main reasons:
1. The Battle For Territory
As a child, my mum used to shout at me every morning to clean my room. My dad would throw all my clothes from my cupboard and my items from my desk, shout “clean it up” and walk out.
At first, such parental tactics worked– I would clean my room.
But one day, I thought to myself….”what’s the best way to get back at my parents for messing up my room.” The lightbulb moment was that I wouldn’t bother to clean it. After all, I felt that it was not technically my room– it was my parents room and my parents house. By not cleaning “my” room, I was sabotaging “their” territory, not mine. Hence, this is what gave birth to my conformability in disorganisation, making me good within my career in finding order within disorder.
Had my parents given me a key to my room during my adolescence, restricting their entry and told me “it’s “your” room, do what you want with it, we give up”, possibly my reaction at first would have been to leave it in mess, but after a period of time, I hopefully would have decided on my own accord that I don’t want to live in mess and self motivated myself to become organised.
Hence, we come to the Battle for Territory. Animals mark their territory by urinating or defecating every-where. Adolescents do it by placing their items in places around the house. Girlfriends worried that their boyfriend is cheating on them do it by leaving a box of tampons in the bathroom, and so on.
Any parent who’s reading this who struggles with their messy adolescent, try respecting the boundary of their room and encouraging the adolescent to believe it is “their” territory, not yours. You may find that they choose on their own not to sabotage their own territory when they feel it is not under threat by others, hence minimising the need to mark their territory with their own mess.
2. Re-enacting Childhood
Even if in my case as in so many others there was a battle for territory, a need for freedom of expression and independence which led to a messy room in adolescence, why did it continue on into adulthood with my partner? Surely, as a grown man now with my own house, I have no need to mark my territory with mess. There are probably more mature ways of making myself feel like I own my house, by paying my mortgage for example and by actually owning my own house.
Why is it that my partner has now become like my mum, shouting and nagging at me constantly to clean my room?
I believe that the reason for this is within our need to re-enact our childhood traumas through our present relationships, a dynamic that is described well in a video from the School Of life.
For me, I understand now that I create mess not just to mark my territory or due to finding my level of mess acceptable.
I also now understand that I create my mess because paradoxically, I unconsciously miss my parents shouting at me about mess. It is an engrained trauma by which my understanding of love and affection is in part by my mum screaming at me to put my socks in the washing machine. It is my childhood method of attention seeking and rebellion manifesting as an adult. It is of no surprise then that I find myself attracted to obsessive clean- freaks, for they are vulnerable to allowing my projections of disorganisation to affect them, creating the counter-transference of anger and annoyance that I seek a reaction from to feel like I am loved again.
“True love is finding someone whose demons play well with yours” – The Joker”
― The Joker Batman Arkham City
So as we wonder whether our partner is so messy to deliberately wind us up, we can take solace in the knowledge that this may literally be the case. I doubt that these insights will stop a couple from fighting but may help understand why it is they are fighting and why something so small as a misplaced book on a coffee table may be such a touchy, argument provoking subject.