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Everyone has a different tolerance level for messes. That disconnect between your standards and other people’s standards (whether that’s your housemates, partner, or kids) can be a source of friction, to put it mildly.
Cleaning, chores, and home care are arguably some of the most common sources of household conflict. We spoke with Ashleigh Edelstein, a therapist specializing in working with young adults, about how to best get the people you live with on board with your cleaning goals.
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Hold household business meetings
Whether you’re trying to start a new system of recycling, switching to eco-friendly products, or getting people on board with a new cleaning rota, Edelstein is a fan of household business meetings to facilitate communication, especially when you’re living with multiple people. “If you don’t set up something formal, then it’s probably not going to get implemented and people aren’t going to take it seriously,” she says. “You can schedule it ahead of time, so people know what’s coming.”
These meetings don’t even have to be in a room together — a group chat could do the same job. You could use household business meetings to respectfully air grievances and resentments, put forward ideas for new things to implement, and review how those new things are going. When making suggestions, Edelstein recommends you start with the “why” — why it’s important to you, but more importantly, why they should care.
If the new system will make things easier or faster for everyone, emphasize that! Or maybe the main benefit of the new system is that it’ll stop you from nagging your roommates, which nobody enjoys. Then, frame the new way of doing things as an experiment. Will they agree to try it for a month? If it’s not working for everyone, then you can try something else, or go back to the way things were.
When you (inevitably) get pushback, there’s no reason to get defensive or confrontational. Instead, get “respectfully curious.” Ask them to tell you more about why they’re not on board with the new way of doing things, advises Edelstein, “and then listen to them and see: is there anything valid in what they’re saying? Is there anything that you could understand or see from their point of view?”
You should approach household business meetings with four things in mind: creativity, flexibility, compassion, and respect.
If someone just won’t do a task (like taking out the trash) no amount of nagging will persuade them. Instead, approach mismatches in cleanliness standards or mess tolerance as a problem to solve together. Would an adaptation (such as rubber gloves) help? Would they be willing to do part of the job (empty the smaller trash in each room into the big garbage) and you’ll finish up? Could they swap for a different task (maybe they’ll always empty the dishwasher if you always take out the trash)? Or could you pool resources and hire a cleaner to come in weekly? “If people are a little bit unwilling,” says Edelstein, “then ask for a suggestion — and validate it.”
“Maybe what you want isn’t fair or realistic to expect from a housemate,” says Edelstein. For instance, acknowledge that deep-cleaning the bathroom every single day isn’t going to happen, but never is also not going to work. You’re probably going to have to meet in the middle somewhere.
Could you take turns cleaning it every few days? Could you compromise by wiping down the counters daily and doing a deep clean together each week? Again, if the other person hates this specific task, is there money in the household budget to hire a cleaner to come in and do the bathroom regularly so no one has to deal with it? Or could you trade bathroom cleaning for a different task that you hate doing?
Flexibility also means being willing to recognize and change when the things you propose aren’t working. This is where regular household business meetings come into their own. As well as a place to propose experiments, it can also be a place to get feedback. “Have a curious conversation,” suggests Edelstein. Ask what’s getting in the way and find out why the change might be causing unnecessary conflict.
Especially in a roommate situation but even with a spouse, “it’s about meeting people where they are and having compassion for different lifestyles, different abilities, and different expectations,” explains Edelstein. You might need to reframe your thinking altogether.
When you start to feel that resentment or anxiety creeping in around household tasks, ask yourself why you might have negative energy around this — is it because you feel you’re being disrespected or because you feel that they are being lazy? Even recognizing that you’re having harsh judgments about your roommate can make you realize what can actually be done. Maybe this person is just not capable of doing this thing, and you’re going to have to go back to that creative problem-solving and flexibility to find a solution that works for everyone.
“People can have different lifestyles,” says Edelstein, “but still be respectful of a shared space.” Even when conflicts and resentments are starting to bubble up, you need to treat the people you live with respectfully. “You have no control over them, but you can control how you approach them.”
What to do if things still aren’t getting done
Resist the temptation to ask about it before the agreed-upon timeframe is up. “Did nagging your housemates ever actually work?” asks Edelstein. Even if it did work, it probably came at a high cost because your roommates are now irritated with you, so it didn’t solve the issue.
Equally, when you have the urge to passive-aggressively do the task for them, acknowledge the urge is there and inquire with yourself: “What is it that’s really bothering me about this? What am I afraid will happen if I don’t do this?”
If you are going to pick up a task someone else agreed to, “do it willingly and acknowledge what you’re doing as a kindness,” she says, but that you won’t be doing it again. At the next household business meeting, start by showing appreciation, and then check in with people, even if it’s as simple as asking them what was making it hard to implement, what they might need from you, if any resources are missing, or if your expectations are too high.
Then decide together whether you’re going to continue experimenting with the proposed solution, go back to how things were before, or try something different altogether. “It comes down to ‘do I feel respected by my roommates? Can I let some things go for the sake of harmony?’” says Edelstein.
And if it’s absolutely something you can’t live with and you can change your living situation (for instance, you’re living with roommates and your lease is coming to an end), Edelstein says that you might want to consider changing your environment.