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A Messy Marriage

Mary's Side:

A little clutter never hurts

Growing up with five siblings and a mother with packrat tendencies, I lived with clutter. A little bit here and there doesn't bother me. Sometimes, I get ambitious and try to straighten up the house. But I consider a certain amount of clutter to be a sign of life—evidence that people are living here.

In the first few years of our marriage, Wayne would tease me about the little piles of things I left around the house. Whatever I happened to be working on would be left in a pile on the floor, ready to be picked up again as soon as I had the chance. There'd be a book or two by the living room chair and another by the bed. If I were writing letters, the stationery and pen would be left on the table. A craft project would be abandoned wherever I'd been sitting. I always planned to get back to these things momentarily. But many times, they'd sit there for days before I realized I needed either to finish them or put them away.

After we had children, piles of toys joined my other piles. Actually, things weren't even in piles anymore. They were scattered over the floor, the table, and the counters. Wayne frequently complained to me about the mess.

I knew I wasn't the best housekeeper. But at least the floors were usually vacuumed and the bathrooms were clean. Wayne cared more about neatness than cleanness. He wouldn't notice that the kitchen floor desperately needed mopping. It was the newspapers and play clay left on the table that bothered him. His criticism stung. Frustrated, I decided that since he was the only one irritated by it, he should take responsibility for cleaning it up.

Wayne's Side:

Neatness counts

I love keeping things neat and orderly. At work, I clear everything off my desk at the end of the day so that I can start fresh and clean the next morning. People have wondered if anyone uses my desk because there's nothing on it. I hate having a lot of "stuff" around. We've often joked that I'd be happy living in a bare racquetball court.

Mary's habit of leaving things in little piles around the house bothered me. But it wasn't nearly as bad as having to step over toys left on the floor or clear a place at the table just to eat. If I tried not to say anything, my annoyance grew into resentment and anger. When I couldn't stand the mess anymore, I'd express my frustration to Mary.

She was more concerned with keeping the kids occupied than keeping a neat house. But the kids needed to be taught to take care of their things by putting them away. It was aggravating to come home from a long day at work and see toys on the floor, newspapers and artwork lying on the table, and counters overflowing with school papers, books, CDs, and whatever else the kids had been using. I couldn't relax knowing there was a mess to clean up.

I tried to ignore it. I even waited, hoping someone would eventually straighten things up but it never worked. No one else seemed to notice it like I did.

I was always the one who insisted the kids put things away before they did anything else, and that made me feel like the bad guy.

I work hard to provide for my family. Taking care of what we have shows pride of ownership. I got angry coming home day after day to see that what I provided for my family wasn't appreciated.

What Wayne and Mary Did:

"Wayne was coming home to a messy house nearly every evening," says Mary. "And he was angry."

With their three children involved in outside activities, Mary began to understand Wayne's perspective. "We'd come home from outings and realize we were always home long enough to mess things up, but not long enough to clean up. Then later, when I'd be fixing supper, Wayne would complain to me about how the house looked." Tired of all the time they spent fighting about the issue, Mary and Wayne decided something had to change.

Now, rather than focus on each other's habits, they try to approach the problem objectively. "We both want a home that is attractive and appealing," says Mary. "So we look for ways to help each other accomplish that goal."

Mary no longer sees neatness and cleanliness as separate issues. "A neat room looks clean," says Mary. "Wayne usually cleans up the kitchen after supper, and he does a much better job than I do. His clutter-free counters make meal preparation easier for me, so I try to keep papers and things from accumulating on the counters during the day. And I let him know I appreciate his efforts."

Wayne knows that some of his expectations are unrealistic. "I realize that five people living together are going to create some chaos and clutter," Wayne says. "We've never had a television so our children spend their time playing with toys and that creates a mess. But the few years we have with our kids are so precious. I've learned that to enjoy the treasure of their presence in our home, I have to tolerate a certain amount of mess."

Wayne agrees it isn't necessarily Mary's fault that things aren't picked up. When the clutter bothers him, he calls on the kids to put their things away. Mary recognizes the importance of teaching responsibility for clothes, school supplies, and toys. During the day, she reminds the kids to put things away. And when Wayne calls for a general clean-up time, Mary reinforces his request and joins the kids in straightening up the room.

Though their house still doesn't resemble a racquetball court, Mary and Wayne's relationship no longer suffers because of it. "Attacking the problem accomplishes more than attacking each other," says Mary.

Wayne likes to recall Proverbs 14:4: "Where no oxen are, the manger is clean" (NASB). He says, "Our house will never be as neat as I would like. But my wife and children are far more valuable than a clean manger."

Wayne and Mary have been married for 20 years and live in Katy, Texas.

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