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Carolyn Hax: Girlfriend’s tidiness feels like pressure to keep up

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Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: My girlfriend “Gina” and I might have slightly rushed moving in together because of covid. We’d only been dating for about five months at the time things shut down, but I didn’t want to stay in an apartment with a rowdy roommate — long story — and she didn’t want to be alone so we took the plunge. We’re not kids — I’m 32 and she’s 38 — and we were already talking about moving in together, so it felt right. And it has been great, we are so right for each other in so many ways, except one little thing: She’s kind of a neat freak, in my opinion.

When we were dating, I appreciated how well she cleaned up before I came over. Now I know she’s like that all the time: no clutter, no dust, everything always spotless. After she uses the bathroom or kitchen, she immediately cleans up so well you can’t tell she was even in there. She vacuums and dusts every day, she even wipes her dog’s paws after walks and empties the cat’s litter box after every use.

She never nags me about leaving a mess, but if I don’t immediately clean up, she’s always right behind me doing it for me, so I feel compelled to try to be as neat as her. I’m far from a slob but I’m definitely not like her.

I thought she would relax after we got used to living together, but she’s the same as when I moved in. I’m not sure how to approach the subject because I don’t even have a legitimate complaint. What am I going to say? Please don’t clean up after me? I don’t want to live in a house this clean?

In a way that’s true, though. I like a place that’s more “lived in.” One of us is outside the norm. It’s her, isn’t it?

— Living With a Neat Freak

Living With a Neat Freak: That’s about a 5- or 6-to-0 ratio of internal dialogue to communication with Gina. Most of it rationalizing everything away before you have to say it, so you can avoid the whole thing.

That is as far “outside the norm” as any of Gina’s cleanliness tactics.

So let’s start at the end and work backward: “I like a place that’s more ‘lived in.’” There you go! Perfectly fair thing to say. And Gina likes a place that’s spotless. Why can’t you start there with the premise that you’re both fine, just different?

“I’m not sure how to approach … because I don’t even have a legitimate complaint.” For one thing, yes, you do: You’re not comfortable with her cleaning up behind you if you let a moment pass before doing it yourself. That too is fair and it’s important to say, because right now Gina has no idea she’s bugging you, which is not fair to Gina.

And, for another thing, claiming you have nothing to complain about is either disingenuous or self-erasing. Let’s say for argument’s sake (and consistency, since “you’re both fine, just different”) your concern isn’t even a complaint, per se. It’s still something true about you that affects how you feel with her. Therefore, it’s valid.

Recognize that. Then say something, because not doing so is a lie of omission. “I’ve been trying to live by your cleanliness standards, because I love and appreciate you, but it’s not comfortable for me. I’m wondering if there are ways we can compromise.” If there aren’t, there aren’t, but at least it’ll be on the table. (Just don’t leave it there.)

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