Cures for Messy Housemates

Many of us live with messy roommates.  It might be our spouse, it might be our siblings, it might be a good friend who turned out not to be such a good housemate.  Because all of us deal with this need during the various seasons of our lives, let’s look at the challenges and explore some possible answers.  Specifically, let’s take the example of five grown, unrelated adult living together under the same roof.  If we can solve their problems, then spousal and sibling problems might also be easier to address.  I have received just such an inquiry recently from Susan.  Let’s see what we can do to help.

Her Challenge

Five female housemates live together.  All are grown adults with varying schedules, skills, and insecurities.  Some are messier and don’t clean up after themselves.  They don’t help in the general household cleaning obligations, share in food shopping responsibilities, or cooking duties.

Her Questions

1.  What can we do as a group to stop the resentment from building up and causing problems?

2.  What are ethical or fair expectations we could implement, both for personal space and communal living areas?

3.   How can we get all parties to do their part? We need to distribute the duties equally, but fairly, in relation to everyone’s school or work schedules, religious practices, skills, etc.

4.   How do we schedule it or list it or chart it? There just seems to be so many dynamics of policies and politics of the issue.   As one example, there needs to be designated closets, shelves, and room space for all parties.

My Answers

Let’s understand some principles first.  Living together when you are related and there is a hierarchy of command, a precedence of method, and consequences for failure is hard enough.  All of these, the hierarchy of command, a precedence of method, and the consequences for failure are usually well in place as a child grows up in a home.  Usually the parents are in charge, they have set the household rules long ago, and they are fairly adept in setting consequences for failure.

It is more complex when a couple marries and must find solutions that meld their two expectations together, and an even greater challenge when fully grown adults who are unrelated attempt to live together in harmony, cleanliness and peace.  In other words, it is going to be tough.

That doesn’t mean it will be impossible, but there needs to be time and energy spent to establish these three important dynamics:  hierarchy of command, precedence of method, and consequences for failure.

Hierarchy of Command

Someone needs to be designated (by those living together) to be in charge.  This usually takes place in a group meeting where the need for order in the interactions is agreed upon and approved.  In this case, she therefore makes decisions that the others agree to abide by.  This person will consult with the other four living in the home, but has the last say in how things happen.  It goes without saying that this person will have to have the toughest skin, be willing to be frank, and will follow through with consequences as needed.

This particular conversation needs to include another dimension.  How often will a designated meeting be held where all parties can air their differences, challenges, and possible solutions?  It would be best if a communal conversation could be held at least monthly.  Remember however, that anyone airing challenges must also come with several possible solutions to be discussed.  It is no good just to whine, you must also be looking for answers.

Precedence of Method

Next, a discussion needs to be held that will clarify who “owns” what areas of the home.  I would suggest listing all the available spaces to be divided and make a list of possible distributions.  This will help get the conversation going.  It is always best to start with a plan and alter it, instead of starting with nothing in a meeting and trying to come up with something workable.

This discussion will include designating food shelves in the kitchen, methods for keeping food labeled and separated in the refrigerator, personal shelves, cupboards, and closets for all those living in the home.

Some shelving and storage areas may need to be designated as communal and are best kept to the hinder parts of the home where company will be unlikely to see potential messes.

There may also need be routines established for handling wash left in the washing machine when another housemate needs to use it, laundry left in the dryer when someone else needs to use it, and on and on.

Consequences for Failure

In a traditional home, it is easy to impose consequences.  Parents can withdraw privileges, withhold allowance, or otherwise make life miserable for unwilling children who keep unkempt bedrooms, fail to complete their household chores, or are just plain unwilling to clean up after themselves.

This is even more difficult when five adults live together.  However, a conversation needs to be held to explore ways to accommodate the messier housemates.  One method to consider is to have a treasurer who gathers a certain amount of money from all housemates and then uses it to “hire” herself out to clean up the messes of others and withdraws funds from their accounts at a certain rate.  When any one person’s account is empty, she needs to fill it back up or be given notice to move out.

Another method is to have a trial period for any new housemate who moves in, after which time she is evaluated by the others as to whether she will be allowed to continue to live with them, specifically considering her lifestyle, housecleaning habits, and messiness level.

A final method is to cooperatively pool money to hire a housekeeper who is in charge of bathrooms, the kitchen, straightening the communal living areas, and stacking stray items she finds in a designated closet.  This expense can be shared and all housemates would need to contribute their share as part of the rent.

Even as I have explored these different options, I’m well aware of the feelings that can arise whenever a “neater” housemate decides to voice her opinion about the level of “cleanliness” of another housemate.  However you decide to approach these problems, know that frank conversation should include: considering lots of options, definitively settling upon solutions, and writing up and posting the final conditions/rules/policies you decide upon.  Remember, you are always looking for ways to: have a hierarchy of command, a precedence of method, and consequences for failure.

May your housemates still like you after you approach them with these ideas!  May they be willing to discuss the challenges, seek for solutions, and contribute significantly to making your communal living a season of friendship past the need to keep the house clean, neat, and orderly!

Kindness Works, Too

Now, let me also suggest that relationships are always be more important than possessions, organization, and cleanliness.  Sometimes a slight attitude shift towards more casual organization is useful.  Occasionally, just helping out and relieving stress by doing someone’s household chore is the best answer.  Other times just leaving the mess and letting natural consequences take place might work nicely.  And, sometimes, your housemate or roommate may just need some attention first and then you can work together to find a cure.

When we spoke of this challenge recently, a friend remembered a significant situation that worked to help her find a balance.  She shares:

“This situation may also require or help one to make an attitude shift. Perhaps some of us need to learn that perfect order is not always preferable to good relationships or spending valuable time with a spouse or friend who has limited time. Part of the trick of living with someone is finding a balance–just like most of the rest of life.

“Once upon a time early in our marriage my husband, who was watching a movie saw me scurrying around picking things up in the house.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you come sit down and watch this with me?’

“I had to sit on my hands in order to sit in what I perceived as a mess (but it wasn’t really). But spending some time with my husband who worked long hours was probably the more important, and beneficial thing.

“I have learned to live with a little clutter and focus more on the people.”

And, if all else fails, it might be time to consider moving to another abode with the roommates you have come to trust as willing to share their part of the burden.  Sometimes the only way to lasting order is moving out!

Photos from and anonymous messier housemates.  Used with permission.


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