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Miss Conduct

A house divided

He’s messy. She’s a neatnik. Who wins? Plus downstairs neighbors who need quiet.

By Robin Abrahams
February 28, 2010

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My fiance grew up in a messy household, and I grew up in a clean one. We’ve been living together for a year, and I’m tired of being the only one who cleans. If it weren’t for me, the sink would overflow with smelly dishes, we’d be wading in ankle-deep dog hair, and the kitchen table would be covered in dirty laundry. He thinks I’m unreasonable when I ask him to pitch in. Am I asking too much? K.C. / Methuen No, you aren’t being unreasonable if the facts are truly as you state them. Wanting one’s home to conform to an average standard of hygiene and neatness is the very definition of reasonable. (I will take your word that you aren’t a compulsive neatnik and that “overflow with smelly dishes” does not mean “there has been an unrinsed coffee mug in the sink for two hours now.”) So, too, is the idea that chores that have to be done ought to be shared. You should not be the only one cleaning, unless by mutual agreement your fiance is taking up some other task in return, which doesn’t seem to be the case.

It’s good that you are able to depersonalize this conflict and see it as the result of your respective upbringings instead of as character flaws. Still, I think this is a situation where you might benefit from a few sessions with a couples therapist. It would be good for you both to be able to share your sides of the story with a neutral third party who can give you some practical tips for working things out. This is not a situation that is going to go away, and it can and will get worse over time, particularly if you plan to have children. So get thee to a counselor and start working through it now.

We recently moved into a second-floor apartment. I told the landlord that we have a 2-year-old, and she said it shouldn’t be a problem and that the downstairs neighbors were easygoing. We’ve been taking out their garbage and they put back the garbage containers, and they baked us cookies once, so I thought all was well. Then they came a-knocking and complained about my daughter running around the apartment at 11 a.m. on a Saturday. They work from home and couldn’t concentrate. We purchased rugs to try to reduce the noise. We want to throw my daughter a party soon. Should we tell them about the party or even invite them? S.W. / Watertown Invite them. If you don’t, you’ll potentially turn a minor conflict into a cold war, which you don’t want to be doing. (And do I really have to point out that downstairs neighbors who work at home could be excellent emergency baby sitters, if they were genially inclined toward your family?) I think you ought to have them up before the party for cookies and coffee or a glass of wine. You’re both in a difficult position -- a 2-year-old does need a certain amount of running about and making loud Muppet noises, and a person who works at home needs a certain amount of quiet. This isn’t a you-versus-them situation; it’s a “let’s solve this together” problem. And it may, and probably will, require ongoing communication.

Take a conciliatory approach, even if they were angry and tactless that Saturday morning. You’d been having a decent neighbor relationship before then, and if they were overly harsh, they’ve probably been feeling guilty about it and would be grateful if you made the first move toward detente. And once they’re up in your apartment, they will see the rugs you bought for their sake and will see how cute your daughter is (She is, right? Of course she is!) and their hearts will soften. With a soft heart will come a cooler head, and the four of you can work out solutions together as to optimal placement of rugs and coordination of nap times and deadlines.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology. Got a question or comment? Write to missconduct@globe.com. BLOG Read more of Miss Conduct’s wit and wisdom at boston.com/missconduct. CHAT Get advice live this Wednesday, noon to 1 p.m., at boston.com.

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