What happens when a sloppy woman marries a fastidious man.
I sometimes fantasize about starring on one of those Korean game shows in which couples are interrogated to see how much they really know about each other.
They’ll ask me, “What does your husband consider your biggest flaw?”
And I’ll smile widely—this is, after all, the question I have been preparing for—and say triumphantly, “He hates my messiness.”
“But,” I’d continue, “even more than that, he hates my inability to accept criticism.”
This, of course, would be a reference to his nagging—or “constructive criticism,” as he calls it.
When it comes to nagging, we assume a woman is doing it. Most of the research focuses on the impact of nagging on men. Self-help on the topic is aimed at wives. Browse Amazon and you’ll find How to Stop Nagging: Why Do Women Nag? and When He’s Not Listening, Stop Nagging. Both covers display frustrated, belligerent women and exasperated men.
I am the exasperated man.
I grew up in a household with three younger brothers and a mother almost as masculine as I am. At home I often eat with my knee up, “like a truck driver,” my father once said. When I speak, I sound angry, no matter who I’m talking to. Making messes is a family tradition.
My husband, on the other hand, was born to a mother who values neatness and order above all. His older brother has a phone-cleaning regimen that consists of several different handkerchiefs. Now, my husband is not that conscientious, but he’s almost there. Let’s just say our cleanliness thresholds are worlds apart.
If I see some toys, a book, or clothes strewn on the floor, I’ll often just pass them by, thinking I’ll clean them up some other time. I have better things to do: deadlines to meet, pitches to craft, a daughter to hold, and dinner to prepare. I see cleaning as both a Herculean and a Sisyphean task. It’s a losing proposition, so I put it aside.
In the early days of our relationship, this is how the day wound down:
My husband comes home to see dirty dishes in the sink. The shower floor shows tiny traces of hair dye that I forgot to scrub away. “Did you buy more hair dye?” he asks. “What’s the point?”
The point, I want to respond, is that while dyeing my hair may be Sisyphean, at least it’s not Herculean! But I keep my mouth shut.
Last night’s sambal is still resting on the dinner table. He goes into a subtle frenzy and asks, “Why didn’t you put the food in the fridge?”
Once he does the dishes, he makes his way into our daughter’s room, presumably to hug her, but also to do his nightly inspection. “Why does she smell funny?” he asks. “Didn’t you bathe her properly?”
And later, after our own showers. “Look, the water is everywhere.”
By the end of the night, I’m grumpy. I’ve waited for him to come home only to hear him criticize everything I haven’t done. What about all the stuff I did do: the bills I’ve paid, the sink I’ve wiped, the dinner I’ve painstakingly prepared and timed to make sure it’s warm when he arrives. I bristle. He grumbles. “You’re just like a child! You never know how to take criticism.”
The same thoughts that run through men’s minds when they discuss their nagging wives also run through mine. “All you have to do is ask when you need me to do something,” I often say.
“That’s the point,” he says. “I don’t want to have to ask.”
Initiative. That’s what I lack.
But in my eyes, he lacks initiative, too. I want him to communicate with me beforehand about his specific needs instead of assuming I work on his wavelength. “You’re a woman,” he says. “You should already know what to do.” Another fight.
I am an odd woman, and he is a strange man. For a long time, we denied this. But after one too many fights, we realized this wasn’t working. So we made some changes.
First, we acknowledged our differences. Whereas he does the dishes right after dinner, I might wait until the next day. I can tolerate a dirty floor for weeks; for him, a week is the max. We operate on different schedules and priorities, but that doesn’t mean one of us is wrong.
Second, we learned to communicate. We discussed our needs, wants, and priorities. He needs the house cleaned a certain way, whereas I don’t really care one way or another. So we get on the same page. Because he’s more particular than me, he lets me know how he needs something done instead of grumbling when I don’t do it “properly.”
And we both started taking more initiative. The house is clean enough for me, but I know he likes it cleaner—so I take the initiative to set aside an hour or two to clean. Then he comes home after a long day and showers me with affection and appreciation, which is what I want.
An American Sociology Association study showed that 75 percent of participants believe women in heterosexual relationships should cook, clean, and buy groceries, while 90 percent think men should do outdoor tasks and auto repairs. Our own frustrations arose from these internalized gender roles, and we’ve made our marriage work by freeing ourselves from them.
Now, instead of telling me it’s my job to clean, and getting into another fight fueled by failed expectations, we work together. I cover for his weaknesses and he covers for mine. I earn money. He cries. I cook. He cleans.
Trying too hard to stay within gender norms prevented us from growing as individuals, and from growing together.
Don’t get me wrong: My husband is still somewhat of a nagging wife. And I’m still somewhat of a lazy husband. We probably always will be, but that’s okay with us.
Theodora Sarah Abigail is the author of the essay collection In The Hands of a Mischievous God. She lives in Indonesia with her husband and daughter.