For some of us it’s the endless battle over stuff left in the wrong place. A wet towel flung onto the floor. Muddy boots on the carpet. Contents of pockets dumped daily onto the kitchen table. The bike blocking the hall. The mess, the dirt, the clutter. Especially when it inevitably leads to the endless ‘Have you seen my…?’ or crashing about yelling ‘Who moved my?’ every time they want to leave the house.

For others it’s the opposite, it’s the neat-freak who can’t come to terms with the chaos that a house full of kids creates. Who keeps tidying away everyone’s stuff. Who can’t cope when they come back to a house that’s anything less than a model of organised, clean minimalism.

These issues are often the thread of contention running through our relationships. But when things aren’t going so well they can become more than that. The tension caused by one partner’s clutter habit and the others’ inability to handle it can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

In fact a recent survey found that three in 10 divorcing couples in the UK blame arguments over the washing up and their other halves not pulling their weight around the house for the breakdown in their relationships.  I remember this as “I love you, but, #herecomesthecriticism”.  We divorced in 2012 after I tried to stick to stereotype conventions for the previous 17 years.

So while Marie Kondo suggests tactfully that we all embrace “Tidying Up” in her recent Netflix phenomenon, most of my clients are still gasping for air when relationships have disintergrated, beloveds passed away, health issues prevailed and finances are now sharply in focus for long term care.

But why is it such a big tension point in a relationship and what can we do to manage our partner’s and our differences? Or how can we learn to live with it or set much needed boundaries?

Most relationship counsellors agree on the solutions. It’s all about meeting somewhere in the middle. Here are a few pointers:

Talking Tactfully

Communication is the most important of all. Oh, and negotiation. It’s vital not to insult or hurt your other half when you’re tackling their untidiness. Comments like ‘You live like a pig’ don’t help. Tell your partner you’re not happy with the division of labour in the house and how it’s impacting negatively on your mood/time. Focus on working out the logistics rather than accusing them of being lazy or feckless.

Creating Clutter Corners and Boundaries

Decide on neat and messy areas. Not everyone can transform themselves into a tidy person overnight. Let the clutter-bug have their own space where they can have piles of stuff – for a certain time. If the piles stay there year-on-year that’s not so good. But don’t expect them to be sorting their stuff in their messy area, say their desk or a bedside table, every night.

Explain Don’t Blame

Talk about why organisation is important to you. Or why it isn’t. It may be that mess makes one partner feel panicked or depressed. There may be a reason which goes back to their childhood. If the other partner understands the need for tidiness it can help them to support their partner more than if they’re simply being told ‘pick up your mess!’ on a loop.

It’s Not Personal

Don’t take a partner’s untidiness as a personal insult. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that if your partner isn’t picking up after themselves they don’t respect you, are using you as unpaid labour and so on. But they honestly may not see the mess that so bothers you. It might sound like a cop-out but there are even some biological differences such as women having a better sense of smell so they might pick up on a towel that needs washing sooner, or a rank bin.

Cash for Cleaner?

If you have the spare cash and there’s a lot of tension over tidiness and cleaning, think about getting a cleaner. It might be worth that £20 or £30 a week to take the pressure off you as a couple.

Remember that their being different to you is probably what attracted you to them in the first place. If you were with someone who had the same personality traits and habits as you, you might struggle with that. Remember what you love about your other half and their character and don’t let a pile of stinking running kit ruin that.

If direct negotiation about your belongings and your partner is  still way too stressful, consider a mentoring or practical decluttering session with me to just get chill with each other and get to grips with all your stuff.

©2019 Rightsize Ltd.   No part of Rightsize content or images, whole or partial, may be used without Sarah Macnaught’s written consent.  Email her at  Sarah Macnaught is a leading declutterer and rightsizing specialist in the UK and internationally.  She is UK ambassador for the Institute of Professional Organisers and a celebrated speaker and international member of the National Assn of Senior Move Managers