real life

The clean freak vs the messy pig. A story of domestic hell.

Listen carefully. Can you hear the sound of fighting across our wide brown land? These are not disputes about politics or religion. Nor are they about asylum seekers or immigration or whether the burqa should be banned.

The arguments you can hear are about leaving teabags in the sink. And dropping wet towels on the bed. About a new bottle of milk being opened before the last one is finished. And leaving lights on when you leave a room. Not replacing toilet rolls when they run out. And the right way to stack the dishwasher and squeeze a toothpaste tube. They’re about putting whites in with colours. And leaving doors open and toilet seats up. About not wiping up toast crumbs AND LEAVING THE CEREAL BOX OPEN SO THE SULTANA BRAN GOES STALE, DAMN YOU.

These are the big issues of domestic life and they’re tearing happy households apart. It doesn’t matter whether you live with your spouse, friend, defacto, children, parents or flatmate, there are always petty home dramas that niggle. Chief among them are issues of tidiness because it’s statistically impossible for everyone in a house to share the same mess threshold.

There’s something about living with other people that calibrates your tidiness against each other and assigns one person the role of Clean Freak (aka The Nag) and someone else the role of Messy Pig (aka The Nagged).

Notice how both terms are pejorative? This is because each party sees the other as abnormal, tiresome and a big fat punish.

It’s a widely held misconception that clean freaks are female. Wrong. I live with a Domestic God and I don’t say that to brag. It’s hell. My husband may not be able to bake but he is a very tidy guy. Organised too. I am neither tidy nor organised domestically and this causes many problems. For him. But for me too. May I please speak up on behalf of messy people and state it’s not fun to be constantly told how to be less messy.

I am often baffled by this turn of events because honestly, I used to be the tidy one. In past lives with past boyfriends and flatmates, I have done plenty of bitching about wet towels and carelessly strewn teabags. Plenty. Similarly, my husband has been the messy one in his past.

So how did we get here?

My theory is that it starts with a slight discrepancy in your mess threshold and before you can say ‘coffee-grounds-in-the-sink’ you find yourself in opposing corners. The more you’re told not to be messy, the messier you become. Which forces them to be cleaner. Which makes you feel there’s no point in lifting your game because they have it covered.


Until pretty soon you’re lying on the couch in stained pyjamas defiantly flicking belly-button lint on the floor while your partner whips on a white glove to do the finger test on window sills while glaring at you from across the room. And you’re both wondering ‘how the hell did this happen?”

The thing with cleaning is that it’s a war of attrition. It’s not that messy people will NEVER clean. We will and we do. It’s just not as…you know, urgent for us as it is for them. We all have a mess threshold. But if you live with someone who has a lower threshold than you, you rarely get to discover what yours actually is because they will always crack first and clean up.

My tidy husband went away for a month recently and, as I like to remind him, the house did not become a segment on A Current Affair. Authorities were not summoned. Rats did not breed. DOCS were not called. I kept it together splendidly because I could clean up when I was ready.

My high mess threshold makes me unusual among most of the women I know. However I have been thrilled to learn that while I am in the minority, there are other couples who function this way. Last month I went to a friend’s birthday party where her husband used his speech to affectionately detail her domestic shortcomings. It was a familiar list. I too believe that pots and saucepans benefit from being left in the sink with water in them ‘to soak’. The best part about this is that a magic cleaning fairy always comes to finish off the job and the next time you look, said pot has been washed and put away. Try it!

Another domestically challenged girlfriend called me to vent after a particularly bad night. “The toddler wet the bed and all I wanted to do was mop it up, put a towel over the damp patch and get everyone back to sleep as soon as possible. But my partner insisted on Googling the best way to remove wee from a mattress even though it was 2am. And then he was all scrubbing with the warm water and the soap and I was like, are you mad? Who DOES that?”

Clean freaks do that. Messy pigs do not.


Watch Karl Stefanovic and I discussing the dishwasher on The Today Show last week

Are you the clean or the messy one in your house?