The Mess-Maker vs. the Neat Freak

Every time we fight, we’re replaying an old argument that started when we first moved in together and our house turned into a mountain of trash.

A woman sits on top of a heap of garbage as a man looks on exasperated.
Doris Liou

Every couple has one core fight that replays over and over again, in different disguises, over the course of their relationship. In this series, couples analyze the origin and mechanics of their One Fight. To pitch your own One Fight (we’ll also accept pseudonyms, if necessary), email

Brian S. and Erinn S. have been married for five years and live in New Jersey.

Erinn: Overall, we have very different worldviews. I’m very comfortable with mess, chaos, entropy, and not doing things right away. You like to get things done immediately.

Brian: Yeah, the thing we fight about the most is you not thinking things through or pushing situations aside to deal with them “at some point” or never. Or taking the easy way out instead of taking an extra second to do a task fully, like putting your garbage in the garbage can, instead of in your hamper.

Erinn: I honestly don’t remember the first time we had this fight because I feel like it manifested the most when we moved in together. We’d been dating for six years; prior to that, my chaos/entropy was probably more hidden from you, but not really. After all, we met in college, when I lived in a dorm we affectionately called “trash room” with loose change scattered on the floor and something called “Laundry Mountain” in the corner of the room. I thought our differences made us quirky. In fact, I found that chaos and order Muppet article by Dahlia Lithwick right before you proposed and thought, “Ha-ha, this is us” not “We will be arguing over this for the rest of our lives.” And then we had it as a reading at our wedding! That this is our ongoing argument will surprise no one who knows us well.

Brian: Did we ever fight in college?

Erinn: Don’t you remember it took us six months to fight about anything in the beginning of our relationship?

Brian: The only fight I remember from that time is you coming back after a night out and being mad that I wasn’t jealous for some reason.

Erinn: Not my finest hour. Hm, so no, you don’t remember fighting about mess. I can recall several large fights in the six months after we got married and moved in together. I think the biggest, though, is what I think of as the Thanksgiving blowout of 2013. The night before Thanksgiving, I came home and you had gotten a lost book notice from the library where you’d been letting me use your card. You were infuriated that I’d never returned the book that I’d checked out in your name, a book I could tell you the exact location of, but which I’d just dreaded returning more and more as more time elapsed, part of my conflict avoidance that you hate. You went to bed mad, I woke up in the morning and ran a turkey trot, and when I came home, we had a several-hour-long fight in the guest room I’d filled with clothes, makeup, and garbage since moving in in September. I didn’t get to see any of the parade that year because I was alternating between yelling and sobbing and texting my friends about how terrible it all was.

Brian: I don’t remember that one.

Erinn: How is that possible??

Brian: Well, I do remember that the first month or two of us living together, there were a lot of fights. Which reminds me of a related argument that’s still ongoing—you saying you cleaned something when you really just wiped it.

Erinn: We’ve had various iterations of this fight over time. I put off buying Beyoncé tickets for my sisters for too long, and we had to go a different day, and I had to pay more for tickets. That was a fight. You came home from a business trip, and I was watching the Olympics very loudly with the house in disarray (by your standards) while I had thought I “cleaned” it well enough before you got home. The time I didn’t look at my credit card bill for several months and paid what I thought I owed, resulting in a large balance.

Brian: Or me finding your Social Security card in a book you lent me, after you’d already replaced it. Then more recently after you had the baby and I deep-cleaned the kitchen and found 20+ different boxes of pasta (literally). Or last week, discovering the hamper you’d just been throwing garbage and clothes into. I had to reclean everything in the kitchen because you never really cleaned it. You just wiped it. Expert wiper.

Erinn: In my defense, I was cooking every dinner.

Brian: OK, fair.

Erinn: Just needed to mention it. I feel like with each of these early fights, it was several months of frustration bubbling up on your part. At its root, the fundamental divide between us is just the whole notion of how much care to take with things, what a home should look like and how it should operate.

Brian: I also think the fundamental divide is that I’m more regimented in the way I approach life and the way I think. My natural thought process is what led me to become an engineer, and then training to become one reinforces that regimentation.

Erinn: I also feel like I have to be more regimented and slightly neurotic at work, so when I come home I do not want to be that at all.

Brian: I mean, I have to be that way at work too.

Erinn: I know, it’s just the way we both react to having to be that way. As you just pointed out, it comes naturally to you. I have a lot of room for creativity in my job, but there’s also plenty of tasks I have to do to keep the lights on, so to speak. Budgeting, vendors, the things I didn’t think of when I became a librarian. I was in it for love of the game I suppose. So to have to deal with the nitty-gritty—that is not my strong suit. I do a good job faking it! But I have to try really hard to be that way at work. So to me, home is where I can be more myself. I also think we can maybe chalk up this divide to how we each grew up. There were four kids in my family, and my parents were strict, but our house felt kind of crazy. So things didn’t get attended to immediately—it was like, you got to it when you got to it.

Brian: I think we grew up similarly, but I had a different reaction to it.

Erinn: I get the sense that you feel the need to have things be perfect all the time, and it stresses me out to feel that need coming from you. I just would prefer to read or honestly sit on the couch than pick out slipcovers online. That’s something that probably would have taken years in my family when I was growing up: picking out slipcovers. You wanted it done in a day. It’s the better way to live, probably. It was just very contrary to how I was used to doing things before I met you. I can agonize over decisions for months.

I also think the fight that started five years ago and still resurfaces now is that I felt like I had to change when we got married, and you basically got to stay the same. I remember crying and saying that right after we moved in together, and while I don’t feel that as sharply now, it did strike me as unjust for awhile. I guess it was partially that I had to become more of an adult, irrespective of whether I married you. It was just the timing. You just represented that painful change. Do you agree that I had to make more changes when we got married than you did?

Brian: Yes, that seems fair. I’ve changed to become a bit more relaxed. It took longer though.

Erinn: I think over time we’ve gotten better in that it’s not fights anymore, it’s conversations. I also think hiring a cleaning person has helped us.

Brian: I agree.

Erinn: I like to think I’ve grown up a bit. And you’ve loosened up.

Brian: I just expect all this more.

Erinn: [Laughs.] I think this is overall not a horrible fight to have. It’s not a matter of trust or respect, or different value systems. It’s not a relationship-ender when we argue. And in the past year, with putting the dog down and me being pregnant and having our son, I feel like we’ve gotten closer than ever. Maybe you start to realize the argument is more surface level when deeper life changes are going on.

Brian: Right, it’s never anything huge. It’s little stuff—nothing fundamentally wrong with the relationship. Day-to-day chores. But overall: You get me. You’re kind and caring. And smart and sarcastically funny. We have a lot in common. And you can put up with me. Barely.

Erinn: I think deep down we really do get each other. We were similar little kids, and we’re more similar now than outside appearances suggest. And you’re great when it comes to the big things—dealing with stuff I don’t want to deal with, and being a great dad. When you don’t have big things, the little things seem more important. And now there’s so much more big stuff in our lives. We have a crying puppy and crying baby. Like right now, right this second. In this room. We have more chaos than ever. But I’d say we’re both handling it pretty well.