Reader Don't Sweat the Small Stuff writes:
I'm a stay-at-home mom with two school-aged boys. I have been married for 12 years to my husband, who works out of the home. Lately he's been picky about cleanliness around the house and especially in the kitchen, and it bothers me. For example, the counters must always be immaculate and bare of any food (a batch of homemade muffins must be put away as soon as possible, etc.) He hates when I do something messy like bake. If I leave my running shoes in the middle of the floor, I am immediately scolded. I'm a naturally neat person and I'm always cleaning up after my boys, so this criticism feels defeating (I'm a highly sensitive person). Also, I believe it's OK to leave things a little messy and it feels wrong to prioritize tidiness over what's actually happening around me.
Meanwhile, my husband has some unattractive and unhealthy habits (he will not quit smoking and drinks a fair amount of beer) but I don't criticize him every day for them. We tried couples counseling for a year for some issues relating to a cancer diagnosis but I remain fairly unhappy in the marriage. I know things could be much worse and I'm grateful for his parenting and financial support. But I still feel like I'm married to a fussy old lady, and that's not what I was looking for in a mate. And as a cancer survivor, I appreciate that life is too short to be cleaning all the time. Should I just get a thicker skin and ignore him?
I'm with you, in theory. Look at this post I published about how you shouldn't spend your life cleaning if it stresses you out! But in reality, sometimes there is a need to focus on how well your home conforms to social standards of neatness, as I discuss here in a post about why women are so stressed out all the time. However, it sounds like you are neat within reason, and your husband may be subconsciously choosing to nag at you about this issue in lieu of bringing up deeper issues in the relationship.
Often, when people complain about mess (like your husband, and this wife), they have come from one of two possible upbringings: one where cleanliness was highly prioritized, or one which was embarrassingly messy (or even hoarded). Generally, people who very upset by messes are those who tend toward anxiety and fear chaos or embarrassment. Your husband may drink and smoke because he tends to be anxious and these are his methods for calming down. He may also be ashamed of his drinking and smoking, particularly as it relates to your sons observing these behaviors, and feel that a very clean and organized home would counteract any negative effect of his own behaviors on his kids.
I urge you to consider trying couples counseling again, but this time focus on these daily living conflicts that threaten to sabotage your connection. Your characterization of your husband as a "fussy old lady" is contemptuous, and contempt is one of the worst possible feelings to have for your spouse (and is predictive of divorce). I am willing to bet that your sexual connection is not very strong if you view your husband this way, and also find him "unattractive" due to his drinking and smoking.
In the interim, try to be more conscious of your messy tendencies. Many people, myself included, don't like tripping over shoes left in the middle of the floor. It is possible that your unhappiness about your marriage is subconsciously manifesting itself in passive aggressive behavior that you instinctively know will irritate your husband. As an experiment, you could try being super neat and clean for a week and see if there is any change in your dynamic. If there is, then cleanliness is just really important to him. It is probably rooted in his upbringing in some way and would be interesting to discuss, non-attackingly, together. If, for example, you knew that his mom was always up his butt to clean his room and he's basically been brainwashed, it is way easier to empathize with him.
However, if there is no change even if you channel Martha Stewart for a week, or buy a mopping robot, which you can seriously buy and it's cheaper than a divorce, then you can probably assume that his annoyance with you is deeper than the mess and worthy of further exploration. That exploration should likely be done with a mediating, calming presence, like a couples counselor, who is also cheaper than a mopping robot. (Hint to my husband, who may be reading this post and who thinks that any time I mention a product repeatedly I secretly want it for an upcoming birthday: I don't want a mopping robot, but I would like this thing, even though the kids would steal it from me.)
Good luck, and till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, Talking About Cleaning The Kitchen Comes Up In Couples Counseling, For Real.
This post was originally published here on Dr. Psych Mom. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Order her book, How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family.