Why doesn’t my partner wash the dishes? Why doesn’t my roommate
ever vacuum? These burning questions plague many relationships and leave some
on the rocks. Now researchers think they have answers—and their new theory may
Messiness isn’t necessarily a sign of laziness or lack of
caring, just as neatness isn’t necessarily the mark of compulsiveness, says researcher
Sarah Riforgiate, PhD, an assistant professor of communication studies at
Kansas State University. “People have different levels of tolerance for dirt
and disorder,” she says. And those differences are influenced not only by
psychology, but also by physiology.
It seems that bees have different levels of tolerance for
incomplete tasks. If you put two mismatched bees together, the one with less
tolerance for a drop in the honey level will work harder, sometimes working
itself to death. Meanwhile, the other bee is never motivated to help, because
the honey level never falls far enough for that bee to feel bothered.
Alberts believes that a scenario similar to what happens in
hives is playing out in homes every day. Let’s say one roommate—we’ll call him
Felix—is bothered as soon as the trash can reaches three-quarters full. The
other roommate—we’ll call him Oscar—isn’t disturbed until trash is spilling out
onto the floor. Felix’s threshold for action is lower, so he’ll take out the
trash before Oscar ever notices a problem. Before long, this can turn into a
In housework as in everything else, practice makes perfect.
The housemate who regularly does a job gets better at it, while the other one
never has a chance to practice. “You wind up in a situation where one person
wonders why the other can’t load the dishwasher right,” says Riforgiate. That
only makes it harder to divvy up the chores evenly.
The Gender Gap in
In mixed-sex couples, women, on average, do more housework
than men. According to the theory, this gender gap is rooted in differences in how
attuned people are to housework that’s left undone. Both nature and nurture factor
into the gender divide.
“Some of it has to do with how you were raised,” says
Riforgiate. “In general, we expect women to do more of the cleaning.” Girls who
are taught to do housework—both directly and indirectly by example—may grow up
into women who do all the laundry.
“There are slight biological differences that may play a
role as well,” Riforgiate says. “Women generally have a little keener sense of
smell than men. There are also different numbers of rods and cones in the eyes
of men and women.” Consequently, she ways, women’s vision tends to a bit better for
seeing texture and detail. The upshot: Individuals vary in how soon they smell
the garbage or see the dust, and often it’s the woman in a couple who notices
these things first.
But It’s Not Just a
Of course, plenty of men are meticulously neat and tidy, and
plenty of women are not. Even within the same sex, there’s a lot of variability
in how much people are bothered by a messy house—and a lot of potential for
arguing over dirty socks on the floor.
At the National Communication Association conference this fall,
Riforgiate will present a study, coauthored with Alberts and Arizona State
professor Paul Mongeau, which looked at platonic same-sex roommates. “When
roommates had very different threshold levels for cleaning, they were more
likely to report greater conflict and less satisfaction with the relationship,”
Tidying Up Messy
For couples and roomies alike, conflicts over housework can
cause considerable resentment, frustration, and stress. “To resolve these
conflicts, it’s important to talk about the situation in ways that are less
emotional,” says Riforgiate.
“People can make really negative attributions about those
they live with,” she adds. “The person who doesn’t clean is ‘lazy’ and ‘incompetent,’
or the one who does clean is ‘impossible to live with because you can’t leave a
dish in the sink.’” But name-calling isn’t likely to help. A better approach may
be to say, “You’ve got your cleaning threshold; I’ve got mine. Now how can we
meet in the middle?”