SK, who has become quite a fan of Dear Prudence, asked me what I thought of her advice to a neatnik fed up with her boyfriend’s sloppiness. He thought Prudence was less than helpful, but I’m not sure I agree:
A couple of months ago, my boyfriend had part of his ceiling collapse. I told him he was welcome to stay with me until it was repaired. It’s fixed now, but he’s still at my place. I travel frequently for work and have been coming home to some unpleasant surprises. He’s trying to be helpful but says he’s “just a guy.” So when he does the laundry, my dark clothes end up covered in light-colored towel fluff. There are other disgusting and unsanitary issues like the trail of urine running down my toilet and the kitchen counter spotted with grease or food. I’m not a neat freak, but I do think that he should respect my living space. I even hired a cleaning lady—but neither she nor I can clean up after him every day. After an exhausting trip, I came home to a new mystery odor and again set upon scrubbing his urine off of my bathroom floor. I don’t want to marry or have kids, and I’m tired of acting like his mommy, but I do want to keep him as my boyfriend. How do I get him out of my house without getting him out of my life?
He may be a true slob, or he may be “just a guy” (if you had a Venn diagram of these two states, the overlap would be significant), but face it—you’re a neat freak. You are entitled to be one, but it’s a good thing that until now you have lived alone. Either your boyfriend adores you or his apartment is a dump, because having someone monitor every crumb you leave and drop of urine you discharge has got to be a real drag. (As comedian Rita Rudner once observed about men’s relationship to toilets, “They aren’t too specific.”) The best way to get him out of your apartment is to tell the truth: Living together full-time is driving both of you crazy and will destroy your relationship. Explain that his moving in has made you realize that having another person around to mess up your pristine space is not for you, and surely he can’t be happy having you chase after him with a wet rag. There are no guarantees he will continue to be your boyfriend, but if he’s stuck around this long, he seems unlikely to end it just because you want him to go back to dribbling on his own bathroom tiles.
SK felt Prudie was unreasonably harsh on this woman–that food remains and urine stains are indeed worth getting up in arms over, and not the province of obsessive-compulsive folk only. And while she honed in to criticize this particular woman, she was even harder on men in general, assuming they’re generally all slobs beyond redemption. My first instinct is that this is not Prudie’s best work.
But there’s more under the surface here: while the writer basically wants to be patted on the back and told that she’s right and her boyfriend is a pig, Prudie won’t give her that out. So many letters that show up in these columns are just about labels and validation–who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s normal, who’s unreasonable–when in fact picking sides, most of the time, does nothing to address the problem.
What Prudence’s answer forces us to recognize is that it doesn’t matter which one of them is normal and which one is nuts–all that matters is that they have different expectations, natures, and comfort levels and living together is driving them BOTH mad
If they were married or otherwise deliberately cohabiting, Prudie might have made some suggestions about how to communicate openly about this and find a reasonable medium. But in this case the woman has no desire to be married, and she doesn’t even want to be living with this guy–he’s just staying without any discussion or decision between them. So the thing to do at this juncture is not to get him to respect her space, but to go back to his own.
Prudie’s response had a bit more sneer to it than I expected (who knew she had such a grudge against neatniks?) but in the end, she gives the woman the answer she needs and the words to use, so in my book she’s done her duty.