Every morning, just before he heads out for work, Richard Weiss hides the newspaper—and he is not going to reveal his stashing place. He'll tell you that he has no choice, that his stealth is rooted in self-defense. If he leaves the Detroit Free Press out in plain view—say, on the kitchen counter, the TV stand in the living room, or the dresser in the master bedroom of his Birmingham, Michigan, home—his neatnik wife, Donna, will act quickly to make sure the newspaper is history. "In her mind, if something is lying around or is sort of out of order, it's fair game," says Richard, a psychiatric social worker. Donna is all for keeping current with current events. It's just that when her husband makes his way through the paper, "he clips coupons or stories he thinks are interesting, reviews of restaurants, or recipes he insists he's going to try, and then leaves the clippings all over the house," says Donna, 48, a property manager. And don't get her started on the cartoons from the funny pages that Richard, 50, hangs on the refrigerator door. "Clutter!" she says, exactly the way Scarlett O'Hara said, "Yankee!"
But that's all small potatoes for Richard. He has bank statements from 15 years ago ("You never know"), T-shirts from baseball teams he played on more than 30 years ago ("I might thin down and be able to wear them again"), the tie he wore to his Bar Mitzvah ("It may come back into style").
If you're a diehard Democrat and your mate is a Republican, it's possible to avoid political conversations. If you're pulling for the Yankees and your mate roots for the Red Sox, well, baseball season doesn't last forever. But the neat/sloppy issue is pervasive, says Arlene Kagle, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in New York. "It's much more difficult to ignore."
Jonathan H. Parker, 47, a Miami Beach attorney, knows that all too well. He and his girlfriend, Melissa Marshall, a 38-year-old sales manager, took a five-year time-out after being together for six years, partly because of their differing views on the subject of tidiness. "I'm type A all the way, everything in its place. She's just the opposite," says Parker. "Her coat comes off and goes on the floor. Clothes come out of the dryer and stay in the basket. Her attitude is: Why fold them when I'm just going to wear them again? It's taken me some time to get used to our differences."
The neatnik in a relationship does tend to have more of a struggle, according to Kagle. "It's rare that a sloppy person is made uncomfortable by another person's neatness," she says. "Part of being a sloppy person is that you just don't notice."
Jewelry designer Amanda Jaron and general contractor Stephen Jaron of Naples, Florida, are still married "because he is willing to tidy up," says Amanda, 38. "We fight very little. When we do, it's because he wants to throw things out and I don't."
As she explains it, "I'm the kind of person who needs to have stuff out where I can see it. At any given time, I have thousands of beads everywhere. The time I'd spend cleaning would take away from being an artist." Amanda's husband is the kind of person who needs to have stuff put away.
The couple's story can be told by a quick look at their walk-in closets. Not that you can actually walk into Amanda's walk-in closet; there are too many clothes on the floor. Meanwhile, Stephen, 46, maintains his space as if preparing it for inspection by military top brass. The long-sleeved shirts all hang together; the short-sleeved shirts are similarly unified. The socks are stacked in perfect formation. In Stephen's home office, "his papers are stapled or paper-clipped together," says Amanda. "His world is alphabetized and in numerical order. I just don't know how to live that way."
Some would argue that disorder is in the eye of the beholder. Count Richard Weiss among them. "I don't think it's that I'm so messy," he says. "It's just that my wife is so neat. Why wash a cup that you can use again a couple of hours later? Why get rid of something that might be valuable?"
Kagle thinks the issue may be as much about timing as about the tidal wave of detritus. "It's not that the other person won't pick up his socks or hang up her coat," she says. "It's often that it isn't happening as quickly as the other person thinks is acceptable."
Experience has taught the Weisses the futility of trying to convert each other. "She has come around to accepting things, and now she will ask before she throws anything out," says Richard. Jonathan Parker, who's been back with his girlfriend for a year, has "given up on retraining. Now I try to see things from her point of view. But I try not to pick up after her as much because I don't want to encourage the behavior."
Getting frustrated, getting mad—what's the point? Getting a housekeeper—that's the answer. "For years I did matrimonial law," says Parker, "and I became convinced that one of the best ways to avoid divorce was to hire someone to come in and clean. It's working for us. It really is."
Joanne Kaufman is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
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