It’s unclear how this happened because I used to be quite tidy. But then I moved in with someone whose mess threshold was fractionally lower than mine and, as seems to happen in relationships, we slowly pushed each other to extremes of behaviour. He became a Cleaning Ninja (although sadly, that’s not him in the photo) and I became Captain Pigsty.
Not long ago, the tidiness chasm between us became woefully apparent during a conversation about a pen mark on a couch. I’d left the lid off and the ink had leaked. Apparently. I hadn’t noticed. “Are you going to do something about that?” my husband asked accusingly when he saw the mark. “What?” I replied vaguely. “That,” he pointed. “Oh. Hmmm, what should I do?” I ventured, pretending to care.
It turns out this is not a good question to ask someone who is exasperated by their partner’s low tidy standards. “Look, any normal person would see a stain and try to remove it,” he huffed, not unreasonably. “You’re right,” I said calmly. “So isn’t it a pity you married the one person in the world who’d be happy to ignore it forever. Or we could just turn the couch cushion upside down. That would work too.”
I’m still puzzled by how we got here. In other relationships, I was the tidy one. And with other girlfriends and flatmates, he was messy. So what is it about moving in together that calibrates your skills and behaviour against each other and then sends you to oposing corners of the domestic boxing ring?
Yes, it seems living with someone can truly change your behavioural DNA. You rarely meet a couple who are both late or both messy or both hopeless with money or both softies with the kids. Someone has to step up to the plate and be punctual or tidy. Someone has to discipline the kids or be responsible with the money. And this in turn allows the other person to be the opposite.
So do opposites attract or is it just laziness? When you know someone else is going to pick up the towel or cook the dinner or make the remote controls work, maybe the part of your brain that used to do those things just shrugs and says “my limited capacity is best diverted elsewhere”.
One friend who moved in with her partner a year ago has been surprised by how quickly she’s lost certain skills and gained others. “When I lived alone, I did everything myself – changed light bulbs, took rubbish out, cooked for one….” she recalls. “Now I’m incapable of it. I’ll live with a blown light bulb in the bathroom for days until Sam gets around to changing it. And if he’s not home I can’t be bothered to cook. I just eat cereal. It’s like I’ve suddenly forgotten how to be self-sufficient.”
Meanwhile, her boyfriend’s messiness has stirred her latent cleanliness. “I’ve gone from being semi-lazy when it comes to keeping the house tidy to a total clean freak because Sam is laid back to the point of chaos. He loves to form piles of random crap. Old mail, junk mail, newspapers from months ago, receipts….he has a pile in every room and I can’t stand it. Sometimes now when he’s out, I smuggle the odd pile straight into the recycling bin.”
Perhaps she should have moved in with David Beckham, who, according to his wife, often does the housework himself although I find this admission (like so many made by celebrities) to be extremely suss. “David is very tidy and I’m not,” insisted Victoria in a radio interview last month. “Even our fridge is colour coded. If he does the cleaning he vacuums in straight lines. If anyone walks around after he’s done it, he gets funny.”
Another friend, a guy, has found himself suddenly dumb when it comes to finances. This happened a few years ago after he married an investment banker. “It’s her area of expertise, so it just seemed obvious she’d take over that part of our life,” he told me. “And the more I’ve handed responsibility over to her, the more incapable I’ve become until now I reckon I could barely run a small savings account. Maybe I’m institutionalised. Oh well, divide and conquer I say. I do everything with the house and the car. She wouldn’t even know what the numberplate was.”
Of course the reverse is also true. Finding yourself suddenly single is a fast way to learn new skills. “I never got into cooking because my ex loved to cook and he did it happily for the eleven years we were together,” a separated friend says. “But if you live alone and you want to eat decent food, you can’t just say ‘I’m a hopeless cook’. Someone has to do it and now it has to be me. Same with technical stuff. I don’t flap my arms helplessly anymore when something doesn’t work.”
Instead, she does what she can and gets professional help to fill in the gaps. At first, she hated having to do everything but a year down the track she’s proud of all the skills she’s acquired. “Or re-acquired really, because before I got married I was perfectly capable of looking after myself. It’s something I sort of lost when we moved in together.”
I can relate to that. There’s a fine line between complimentary skills and dependence. But I still like the divide and conquer theory as does another friend who, when asked, reeled off the following list. “I’ve always been financially retarded and my husband plots our financial life by spread-sheet. I’m an average cook but better than husband who has never even tried. I’m a great drinker and my husband loves to drive. Wait, I’ve thought of one more….I get up to the baby during the night and he sleeps!”
Are you the clean or the messy one in this relationship? What about previously? Can people change their messy/clean roles over a lifetime or are you born one or the other?