Welcome to Unsolicited Advice, the weekly column in which I dispense advice to people who didn’t ask for it and don’t know who I am.
This week I pulled an interesting letter out of my favorite advice column at Slate, Dear Prudence (show Prudie some click love for bringing us our life lesson this week). A woman writes that she is sick of her husband’s judgmental attitude about her cleanliness habits.
My husband has this habit of inspecting the house when he gets home. After a quick hug hello, he walks through the house and points out anything out of place: lights being on in an unused room, my shoes in the wrong spot, dishes unwashed. He says he’s unable to relax after work until everything is tidy. He does the vast majority of all household chores, so it’s hard for me to complain about things like putting my shoes in the right spot, but it still feels really patronizing and controlling. I have worked hard to be more tidy (I was a complete slob when we first got together), and he is working to be OK with the house not being spotless, but we still bump heads about this pretty regularly. Advice?
This particular request really resonated with me because I think a lot of women who stay at home with the kids and/or have a career from home deal with this. I can only assume from the nature of the letter that our Slobby Wife is one of those people. I don’t think this husband is being exceptionally mean. I think the letter indicates a communication issue that can be solved if both partners are willing to step back and examine their actions.
When I was exclusively a stay-at-home mom I often felt like my husband was judging me when he got home. He had no way to see the myriad of things I did in a day, most of which involved just keeping a lid on the boiling chaos that comes with small children. My days were filled with cleaning, cooking, tidying, cooking some more and non-stop fulfilling of needs. Then it was rinse and repeat the very next day. I had neither the time nor the energy (or even the skill) to keep a perfect home.
Many times when he would walk in the door from work I could sense his disappointment. He was and is an amazing father and partner, but he’s still only a man. I would see his eyes peruse the half-finished dishes, the unfolded laundry, the general disarray and ask a silent question: What has she been doing all day?
This would only spur me to begin a rapid-fire list of all the things I’d done that day. I would try to frame it as excited conversation but what I was really doing was asking him not to be upset with me. I was trying to explain that even though he didn’t witness it with his own eyes, I had been productive. I wanted desperately for him to know that I was doing my job the best way I knew how. I wanted approval, but I felt scorned. That was not his intention, but that is how it felt.
It only made me more annoying to him. I think it came off as bragging on my good days and lying on my worst days. It certainly was not endearing and smacked of desperation. No husband enjoys a desperate housewife…at least not his own!
Husbands, don’t walk in the door disappointed. Make a decision to walk in thankful. Just choose to spend your first moments together at the end of a long day in peace. Don’t think about all the things that are wrong, think about how much is right, and how much love is in your home…your castle. Perhaps you might even occasionally thank your wife for changing the bed sheets or keeping clean towels in the closet. Whatever small domestic accomplishment she’s achieved, don’t take it for granted. A little gratefulness can go a very long way. At the very least, do not make condemnation your first communication with your wife the moment you walk through the door.
But this is a two-way street, ladies. Don’t think you’re getting off the hook here. I noticed our Slobby Wife said she is a recovering slob and her husband does a majority of the domestic chores. This sounds ideal on paper but it doesn’t work in real life. I suspect a large part of the disdain she senses from him is based on the fact that he’s doing a disproportionate amount of cleaning. He certainly must feel like the least she can do is put her shoes away, particularly if she (like I was) is home all day. She may alleviate some of that by taking on a larger portion of the housework.
I am also a recovering slob (light on recovery, heavy on slob) so I know what my life looks like to people who aren’t so messy. Including my husband. I’m embarrassed but that’s just how I am. That being said, I’ve slowly learned over the years that even if a thing doesn’t make sense to me I can still make an effort to change if it makes sense to my husband. I’ll often crack an egg and leave the shell on a nearby paper towel or used pan. I hate when the excess gunk drips on the way to the trash. I’ll come back for it when I clean later. My husband told me after many years that he hates it. We actually had a little argument over it (ahh, marriage). But in the end, I came to understand that even though I don’t think it’s a big deal, it is to him. It’s a small compromise to make but it brought so much peace.
Slobby Wife needs to understand that her “changes” can’t ever stop. Her husband needs to understand the same. They both will need to compromise and make exceptions to their bottom line. Hubby can learn to sit in the chaos of his home for a few minutes each evening when he returns, or he can learn to simply clean his space to his liking without judging his wife. Slobby Wife can learn to keep at least a small portion of their common space the way he likes it so when he gets home he can at least enjoy that. It’s not servitude, it’s service.
And stay-at-home mommas and those who work from home – here’s an invaluable piece of advice my beloved mother-in-law gave me when I first became a wife and mother. As tempting as it is to want to throw your babies at your husband for some blessed relief or begin talking his ear off because he’s the first adult you’ve seen all day, give him a grace period. For me, it was 2o minutes. And I hated it. It seemed like so long because dammit, I’ve been with these kids all day long! Once the greetings were out of the way, the first 20 minutes of my husband’s return home was left to him. It is important to let your partner transition to the household. He’s been working hard all day too. You’ll find him much more amenable to your requests if you’ve given him that window. This is one of the most valuable pieces of marriage advice I’ve ever received. Now I pass it on to you.
In the end, this isn’t really a story about a mean, anal-retentive husband and a slobby wife, it is a story about a marriage and the weird compromises we all have to make to live with each other and grow together. Often we think of the “compromise” as applying to big, dramatic situations, but in reality, marriage is a game of inches, not yards. The little things eventually have the biggest impact.
Don’t be afraid to let go of your seemingly reasonable demands in favor of growth and compromise. And never forget that your spouse is not your enemy…your spouse is your teammate, so treat him or her accordingly.