As a relatively new cohabiter - my boyfriend and I moved in together late last year - I have vivid memories of those first few weeks, figuring out who does what and when and how. I’m a pretty tightly wound person, to say the least, and boy did I have ideas about what needs to be done and where things should go and why-is-that-so-dirty-did-you-fix-that-yet?
I probably made the moving process, and the ensuing get-settled-in months, harder for both of us. I remember my boyfriend saying many times, “That’s just not sustainable.” I But I had managed to sustain this level of domestic perfectionism as a single person, and I told myself that I would keep that up without fail.
I was doing it wrong, and I imagine there are many more like me.
I remember talking to a friend weeks before M and I moved in together. She had recently moved in with her boyfriend, and I wanted to know how it was going. She and I share a sort of obsessive dedication to cleanliness and order, so I wanted the real scoop.
“It’s hard,” she told me. “I can’t do it all myself but if I ask him to vacuum he does a shit job. I have to learn to be ok with that.”
Easier said than done. My apartments, over the years, were pristine dollhouses. You could eat off my floors, I never ran out of paper towels or coffee, and laundry was folded and put away as soon as it was dry. Where others might perceive self-imposed rigidity, I saw efficiency.
We moved in together in August, and the nesting began from day one. We unpacked, cleaned and decorated bit by bit. As we moved along, I’d make mental lists:
- Clean the ceiling fans
- Wipe down the fridge
- Figure out renters’ insurance
- Configure the router
- Pick up vegetables for dinner
- Wipe the paw prints off the windowsills
- Buy a shower curtain liner
- Wash the sheets.
These lists were more stressful than helpful. Why? Because I felt like this was MY list. I had done this stuff on my own before, to my (sometimes unrealistic) standards, so I was going to do it all again. Sure, there was another person here - another person capable of spraying and wiping and shopping and hooking up Hulu - but what if he didn’t do it the way I had been doing it, the way I perceived as perfect?
This came to a head in the fall, when M had friends over for a Bears game. I was out when they arrived, and when I came back I freaked (internally, of course) about the mess. (“Great, now I have to spend Sunday evening cleaning crumbs out of the couch,” I thought to myself.) After the game and by the time I’d built a tome of a mental to-do list, M’s friends left and my flurry of an itemized panic began. I was literally paper-toweling the floor, where someone dropped a shoe, when M busted out “sustainability” again.
“Look, I’m not asking you to keep up my standard. But I plan to keep it up. I’m not hurting anyone, so who cares?” I fired back.
He said nothing.
In the weeks that followed, I thought about what I said (and what a toddler I’d been that Sunday evening). I might not have been asking or expecting M to uphold my cleaning standards, but I was hurting him, and hurting us in the process. He was going to have friends over, he was going to make messes in the kitchen, and his cat was going to leave pawprints on the windowsills. If I wanted to live happily with him, I had to adjust my expectations.
We’ve lived together for nine months now, and our house is not a mess. There are crumbs on the counter and the baseboards are dusty, but we split the chores and things get done. When one of us is overloaded with work or other obligations, the other makes dinner or runs to the store. When I feel pangs of “well, that’s not how I’d like it,” I tell myself that my priorities have shifted for the better: I traded my pristine dollhouse for a sustainable home with my best friend.
We don’t have to do it all ourselves, nor do we have to do it all perfectly. In fact, life is much better, and home is much happier, when we don’t.