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How to Deal with Roommates Who Won't Clean Up After Themselves...

Updated on April 13, 2011
Lisa HW profile image

"Lisa" , a "social sciences enthusiast" and Mom of three grown kids, writes from personal experience/exposure and/or past research

And You're Sick of Cleaning Up After Them

After a lifetime of being a "Felix Unger" to a number of different "Oscar Madison's", I'm convinced that a "Felix" and an "Oscar" should never share living quarters. (To those unfamiliar with Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, they are two characters in "The Odd Couple", by Neil Simon, which is a comedy about a "neat freak" and a "who-cares" kind of guy, who make the mistake (sort of) of becoming roommates.)

Not everyone who thinks living space should have a normal degree of cleanliness and neatness is exactly like Felix Unger; but, when living with someone who won't clean even the most middle-of-the-road among us will find himself thinking more and more about "being a Felix". That's the thing: People who won't clean make the rest of us feel as if we're the ones who are "compulsively neat" or "germ phobic".

The problem is that people who clean regularly care, and people who won't clean don't. People who clean want to know there will always be a clean pot to use. They want company to feel like the atmosphere in the home is nice. They, themselves, enjoy the feeling of "fresh air" that a clean place brings. To them, a clean place means having a clear head for working and a nicer place for relaxing.

People who clean are often more "others centered". They believe in table tops with nothing on them because it's more attractive for inhabitants and guests, alike; but they also tend to see the thoughtfulness in leaving table tops clear in case someone in the house wants to use them.

To people who see cleaning as important, a welcoming and pleasant environment is clean, fresh, and neat.

People who clean generally see cleaning as a part of day-to-day living and will find a way to get it accomplished without seeing it as a major undertaking.

Then there are the people who won't clean. I can't explain all of the motivations of these folks because - to be honest - I can't really imagine how the heck they think. I have, however, heard enough comments from this sort of person to be able to pass on a glimpse into their thinking.

People who won't clean don't want to take up their precious time cleaning. ("There are more important things in life.") They often believe it's their home, and they want to be able to relax and not "worry" about cleaning. To some of them, a clean and neat home is "not warm", and they like "the lived in:" look. Apparently, they think it's "friendlier" (friendlier to people who won't grow up and clean their bloody living quarters - that's what I say).

These are people who laugh about the fact that the pizza box from two days ago is still around. They don't empty bottles and overflowing trash. If asked about these things their response is usually, "I'll get it - just not right now."

People who won't clean will not wash dishes and will instead keep taking more and more clean ones, until there are no more clean ones left. When there are no bowls left they'll start eating their cereal out of pots, and when there are no pots left, they'll either eat out or make aluminum foil bowls (or, perhaps, hit the vases).

People who won't clean don't have a "clean clothes" supply, a "dirty clothes" bag/bin, and something like a jacket or two hanging separately because they've been worn once and may be worn again. These are people who have several giant clothes piles, with "most of the clean ones over there" and "most of the dirty ones on that side" and some pre-worn-but-not-entirely-dirty items mixed in.

They don't mind a little scum on the bathtub or black marks in the toilet. They don't worry about fire hazards, and these hearty souls aren't even afraid of the Board of Health! Their home is their "castle" (???). How they live is "nobody's business" - and, in fact, they may even see themselves as more emotionally well adjusted because, after all, they know what it is important in life - and it isn't cleaning.

The Felix who lives with an Oscar has two choices: Either adjust or do the cleaning ("if it's all that important to someone"). The trouble is that The Odd Couple was a comedy, and when you live with an Oscar Madison it isn't the least bit funny. In fact, after a while you don't feel like you're living in a cute comedy any longer. You start to feel like you're Cinderella, and you're living with the ugly step-sisters.

How much you can work with the situation depends on how much space you share.

My sister and I laugh now because when we were kids she was messy, and I was neat. (Today, she has a clean, nice, home - for the record.) We shared a bedroom and a long bureau. She is five years older than I, so she had bigger clothes and lots of them. She was old enough to have lots of accessories as well. She would use up available space on beds and other surfaces, and inevitably her stuff would end up on my bed and my half of the surfaces. One day I got so frustrated I marked "officially" divided the top of the bureau into two, distinct, sections and said, "Your stuff goes here. This is for my stuff, and I want it clean!" I proceded to divide everything in the room, and from that day on half of everything in the room was neat.

When roommates operate at two completely different ends of the spectrum it can help to keep absolutely everything separate - food, dishes and pots, toilet tissue, paper towels, absolutely everything. That may involve having a "bath tote" or having a storage bin in a bedroom, in which dishes are kept; but with a little effort the neat person will at least always have clean plates and a shampoo bottle that hasn't spilled because someone left the cap off it.

Separate refrigerator shelves and drawers, separate cabinets, and separate shelves in the medicine chest and linen closet can help. If your roommate doesn't mind retrieving his food from behind a mountain of items thrown in on a dirty refrigerator shelf; and you want all your fruit juices facing out and on a clean shelf, separate shelves can make a big difference.

Dividing space can at least allow a Felix to function in his own spaces. Also, a successfully divided living space can then be close to 50% clean.

If roommates have separate bedrooms it can help to establish that the living room, kitchen and any dining space is "public". Establishing that someone can make a big mess in his bedroom but can't leave his stuff out and around "public" space can sometimes help. Messy people just live messy. If their stuff is brought into the living room they'll just make a mess with it. They can't be with their stuff and not make a mess, but sometimes they're willing to keep their stuff in the room (if they're not too selfish).

Messy people, however, have a way of using up one space and then expanding out to the next available space - until their stuff has taken over every available space, like "The Blob". Not all messy people are mean spirited, though. Some would like to improve the situation, so sometimes designating certain spaces as "off limits" for stuff is something with which they can work.

People who won't clean always have a reason. They never have time. They often "don't have any place to put anything". They never really explain why it is they pile up big, falling-over, piles of miscellaneous items, rather than at least make neat piles of items of one category or another - but I guess they don't owe anybody an explanation.

For the person who "doesn't have any place to put anything" there are always storage bins that can be stacked; and if it isn't possible to buy those, then there are always heavy-duty trash bags (or better yet, the more attractive clear or light blue bags). It's not that difficult to scoop all the stuff from the coffee table into a bag, move it to Oscar's room, and let Oscar take his time about sorting it all out.

Having a calm, civilized, discussion can help. A Felix should not wait until his head explodes before trying to address how much the situation is bothering him.

People who clean always learn, too, that leaving the mess until it finally gets the best of the other person is futile. Mess does not get the best of an Oscar. In fact, I suspect that Oscars need mess to be able to thrive.

If two roommates can at least come to an agreement on a clear division of space and an establishing of "public" space (which, in a roommate situation, may be limited to a living room and kitchen) the degree to which things become messy may at least be reduced.

If the "cleaning" roommate is then left to vacuum, dust, and take care of the bathroom fixtures it isn't so bad, since both roommates may acknowledge that one cares more than the other about such things.

Then there is the matter of not being able to use the kitchen sink because an Oscar has been loading dirty dishes and pots into it for days and days. If roommates can have a civil conversation about ways to accommodate both, and if a division of space is something on which they can agree, the last matter may be the matter of the sink. If it's a divided sink - great. (Well, the dishes in it are obviously not "great"; but at least having one clean half is).

If the sink is not a divided one the it may help if the two roommates can agree on the point that it is reasonable to expect to be able to use the sink; and that if dishes are left for more than x number of hours they will be placed in a strong trash bag and moved to Oscar's bedroom until he feels like dealing with them. (If Felix and Oscar share the bedroom, then some other location will have to do.)

The problem of two different types of people sharing living quarters is a messy one and a complicated one. Like all messes, it sometimes takes breaking the larger mess down into smaller, simpler, ones; and then addressing each one separately. Straight talk, compromise, and respect for the other person's different ways are usually crucial.

When engaging in that straight talk mentioned above, consider bringing up the fact that landlords throw people out for not keeping the place appropriately clean. Bring up the matter of bugs and rhodents. Bring up the fact that you have a right to a certain amount of clean space, and a right to be able to have guests who aren't horrified and nauseated.

As long as people are in this kind of situation both need to realize that neither can have everything they way they'd like it. A Felix may always be a little bugged at having to look at a coffee table that's clear but an end table that is loaded up with stuff. An Oscar may need to be told that he has just taken over too much space while not taking an equal proportion of the cleaning responsibility. If both parties are reasonable people it should be possible for them to work out a plan that is fair to both. If one is not reasonable it may be time to consider finding a new roommate.

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