The Truth About Slobs and Neat Freaks

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 surprise you.

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.

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From Bees to Human Beings

The Integrative Theory of the Division of Domestic Labor was first proposed by Jess Alberts, PhD, a professor of human communication at Arizona State University. Oddly enough, the seeds of the theory were planted one day as she was reading about bees.

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 deep-seated pattern.

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 Housework

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 Gender Thing

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,” Riforgiate says.

Tidying Up Messy Emotions

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?”

When to Consult a Psychologist

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