Ask UfYH

Ask UfYH: Don’t Give Me This Whole “Men Don’t See the Mess” Bullshit

Q: My boyfriend and I just moved in together, and although we agreed on splitting the chores, I’m doing most of the cleaning. My boyfriend says it’s because men just don’t see dirt and messes like women do. 

A: Oh, sweetie, your boyfriend’s full of shit.

Let me tell you a fun fact about me: Without glasses or contacts, my vision is estimated to be about 20/900 (it’s a very rough estimate because eye charts don’t measure that high). So I know something about not being able to see stuff. And even with my old glasses from two prescriptions ago, in dim light, and when I’m dead tired, I can still see a mess. Your boyfriend can see the mess. He just doesn’t think it’s his job to do anything about it.

Let’s examine that a bit. “Men don’t see dirt the way women do.” That’s a pretty common assertion. And it’s bullshit. Vision problems aside, we’re all seeing the same dirty house; we’re just interpreting it differently. You and your boyfriend both walk in, see the pile of crap on the kitchen counter, and have different reactions to it. You likely think, “Man, that pile of crap is really bugging me. I should really clean it up a little.” He likely sees it and thinks, “Huh. Pile of crap. It’ll get taken care of.”

Why does he think that? Well, because we’re dealing with endless generations of social gender constructs that tell us that taking care of the home is “women’s work.” Whether you or your boyfriend or your parents or your peer group believe these constructs is largely irrelevant, though, because it’s so deeply ingrained in our society that it permeates every level of culture: You see it in TV shows, movies, commercials, in the workplace, in literature, and in almost every facet of life. There’s no escaping it.

So when someone says, “Men don’t see dirt the way women do,” what they’re actually saying is, “Men have been conditioned over generations to process the dirt that they see in a way that requires no further action on their part.” It’s not genetic. It’s learned. And it can be unlearned.

For example, it cracks me up when someone says that men aren’t as good at doing laundry as women are. If you’re relying on traditional gender norms here to explain that away, you’re failing. Because I bet that your gender norms are telling you that men are more mechanically-minded, men have better spatial relation skills, and that men understand science better. Now, we all know that those things are total bullshit, they’ve been proven to be total bullshit, but if you’re a person who believes in those things, think about it for a minute. Laundry involves machines with buttons and dials, it involves figuring out the sweet spot of what and how much to put in those machines, and it involves the science of water temperature, soap, additives, and heat. You can’t have it both ways. Either you believe in those gender norms and you realize that all those things said norms are telling you men are good at should make them really fucking excellent at doing laundry, or you acknowledge that gender norms are a social construct and that anyone can learn how to do laundry properly.

Part of the issue with the norms surrounding men and cleaning seems to be this whole category of stereotypes about women being better at housework, men screwing things up so that it’s just easier for the women to do it, and men leaving messes until women get fed up and just do it themselves. These are all learned behaviors. And by buying into them, you’re saying that men can’t learn, or that it’s women’s responsibility to teach them. You know how I learned how to snake a drain? Google. The Internet opens up this wide, wonderful world of instructions and tutorials, and really, “I don’t know how” ceased being an excuse for not doing housework right around when the old World Wide Web was in its infancy.

So, long story short? Your boyfriend sees the mess. He just doesn’t think it’s his problem. How do you fix that? You sit down and talk about it. You explain that you’re not buying into this whole “I don’t see the mess” thing. You make schedules if you have to. You stop being the only one to clean up things that you’ve agreed are either his or a shared responsibility. And you both work on not buying into the gender norms that are trying to tell you that household roles are genetically programmed.

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13 replies on “Ask UfYH: Don’t Give Me This Whole “Men Don’t See the Mess” Bullshit”

Two people can look at the same situation and legitimately have very different reactions. This is mainly an issue of interpretation and prioritization. In fact, whenever you have more than one person living in a shared environment, you’re undoubtedly going to have different priorities. Left unchecked these differences can lead to conflicts.

However, I think that assuming one interpretation is “correct” and the other is “incorrect” is dangerous and is not a very healthy way to foster a mature relationship among equal partners. Instead, it casts one person as the parent, and one as the child who needs to be taught better.

The fact that men often put a lower priority on housework than women may have a lot to do with traditional gender roles–but it does not necessarily mean that the woman’s interpretation is correct and the man’s is wrong. Do the dishes need to be washed every night? Maybe. Maybe not. You don’t want to leave them until they attract bugs–but letting things slip for a day or two isn’t going to hurt anything.

The important thing here is to recognize that you have a difference in how you prioritize housework. To recognize that it makes at least one person in the partnership uncomfortable, and to have an open and honest discussion on how to fix it.

It’s not fair for one side to just dismiss it as “it doesn’t bother me, so it’s your problem.” If something is bothering one of you, you both need to work to find a solution.

On the other hand, it is equally unfair for one side to just demand that “this bothers me, therefore you must change.” Again, we’re aiming for an equal partnership. You need to work together to find a compromise that both parties can live with.

One approach I like is to 1) without assigning blame, let the other partner know that an unfinished task is bothering you. 2) schedule a time in the future to work on the task.

This has several advantages. Neither party is blaming the other for the task. Neither is insisting that the task be accomplished immediately. Both parties can reprioritize the task and find a place where it fits comfortably with their other desires and needs.

Mostly, however, this approach provides a framework for discussing the task at hand. After considering the other priorities and tasks on your plate, you may decide to have one person do it, or you may decide to work on it together. Regardless, you agree upon a specific solution with a clearly defined set of responsibilities and deadlines that you can both live with.

I don’t think how or when someone sees a mess is based on gender; the whole gender thing is kind of a copout. A lot of it depends on how each party was raised and the expectations placed upon them throughout their lives. Some men grew up in homes where Mom may have stayed home or even worked and did all of the cleaning, and they have never been raised to think about housework or even cleaning up their own messes. Some men honestly assume that the relationship they pursue with women will follow the same pattern, and as we know now, that is not necessarily the case. When you set up a household with someone, particularly a wife or girlfriend, it’s a team effort. Both parties need to make sure the house is clean and things get done, and the man involved in the situation may need to take a look at how he does things and change his behavior and thought process to work with the woman involved instead of copping out and saying, “Well, women just notice more dirt.” No, some guys actually take for granted that the girlfriend will clean up after them, whether it’s inadvertent or deliberate. and it’s actually very thoughtless and can cause the woman to feel like the guy involved doesn’t value them at all.

I also think we tend to see OTHER people’s messes and not our own. We have two 3×3 closets in our house. That’s it. TWO. So my clothes are folded and stacked all over the place. I know this drives my husband nuts, but he also knows there’s no other option right now so he says nothing. He has an entryway pile of crap that DRIVES. ME. INSANE. It’s the very first thing you see when you walk in our house. Every once in awhile it all tumbles down. About 2-3 times a year he purges it and “organizes” it. He also – no matter how hard I try – refuses to take his shoes off when he walks in the house. On a normal, dry day I don’t care but rain or snow? We’re all walking around in wet socks all day. On the flip side, I tend to leave my hair in the shower – and I have A LOT of hair. So while I see HIS behavior as annoying and messy I’m sure he views mine the same way. It’s important to get on the same page and agree to take care of the things that drive the other person insane.

This turned into biased ideas about cultural gender norm of the mass population rather than trying to understand the psychology behind why men are more lax about cleaning. For example, the reason I am not strict with my cleaning is that I don’t put cleaning on my list as a high priority compared to all my other “high priority things.” A mess to me looks like something that I will get to at a later time when I feel like doing it.

I get up at 7:00 AM, get to work by 8:30 AM, get off work at 5:30 PM, get home at 6:00 PM, and usually go to bed by 11:00 PM. Considering 30 minutes to go wait for my fiancee to get off work and the 15 minute drive home.. I have roughly 4.25 hours to pursue my personal activities. Keeping in mind that this is after my long, nerve-wracking work day that usually involves straightening up my work area.

Would I rather play video games and watch TV, or clean the house? Of course playing video games is going to come first on my personal list. Whether that is right on wrong is a whole different story. In my relationship I work a full time job and my fiancee works a part time job, so she does most of the cleaning.

This has nothing to do with gender norms. This is you being a feminist at heart, and finding the perfect outlet to support your crazy ideas. I do like your blog, but I do not like your views on this particular subject.

I love that you call me a feminist like it’s going to hurt my feelings. I do have crazy ideas, like gender parity and everyone in a household pulling their damn weight. Make whatever excuses you want for your choices and behavior. Your response sounds like your conscience got the better of you for a minute and it made you defensive and feel the need to overjustify. That’s your deal, dude.

You and your boyfriend both walk in, see the pile of crap on the kitchen counter, and have different reactions to it. You likely think, “Man, that pile of crap is really bugging me. I should really clean it up a little.” He likely sees it and thinks, “Huh. Pile of crap. It’ll get taken care of.”


What has worked a bit for me is telling him, clearly and directly, that I hate constantly cleaning up after him with the fire of a thousand suns, and that this contributes directly to my crankiness when he gets home from work. He now has strategies to deal with it. It’s not perfect, but it’s a work in progress

I think a certain amount of the taking-care-of-crap attitude comes with age, too – god knows I used to be shit at it when I was a teenager/younger adult.

This is awesome :)

My contribution to this shall be as follows: Mr. Juniper *sees* mess, but he struggles with how to process what he’s seeing. Our way of dealing with this is working to his strengths, so we have boxes/cubes for sorting laundry and counter-top recycling boxes for the fiddly things (lids, etc.), among other things (ie counter-top boxes are very much in sight and cubes give definite areas).

I definitely think there’s a lot more “Hmm whatever” with some men. Or they think that moving stuff around is equal to cleaning up (looking at you, dad).

With my boyfriend I find it amazing that yes, he can ignore the dishes for days, but when I ask him to do them, he does the whole nine yards. While I’m the woman to keep everything into the water until it’s cold and everything in the drying rack until it can be used again.

I’m on the fence with this one. There is definitely a learned gender role behavior. I also think Sequined is right with who cares about what more– or who has been taught differently. ( My stepdaughters look at me like I have two heads when I clean the vents in the bathroom.) We fall into traditional gender roles in my house… but I think it’s because I’m not working so I take on the house as a job more than DH does. I’m lucky that he doesn’t take it for granted…. though he has said “I’m sorry, love. I just don’t see when it’s dirty” sometimes. He explains it as know when things need to be put away but not thinking to clean it So he tries to maintain control over the clutter (aka invisible corners/counters/cubbies). I’m the one who remembers the bathroom needs to be cleaned twice a week. At very least, he’ll offer to help clean if he’s around when I’m in a groove (and ask how I want something done rather than attempting a half-assed job) AND— and this is the most important— he acknowledges how much unbalanced the division of labor is in the house and knows when/if I go back to work (as in at a job) that he’ll be doing more than taking out the garbage and shoveling the walk.

And I actually don’t feel bitter about being the primary chore-doer. Probably because I know how much he appreciates how much I do.

“Men don’t see dirt and messes like women do.”

…LOL, no.

I do understand what he means because, as you said, the way we socialize children based on their assigned gender will definitely lead to people of different genders interpreting their world differently and, I believe their responsibilities, including a messy kitchen. I recall reading a study a while back that demonstrated that most men begin to feel they’re taking on too much of the housework once they move past doing about 30% of the chores while it’s closer to 70% for women. So, a 30/70 split is perceived by a man and woman team as an even and fair split when it’s actually not because of how we’re socialized.

But, that’s such a load to use to try and get out of the agreed upon split in housework.

I think it’s also common that there are cleanliness issues that one person cares about more than the other person (or even realizes that they could exist), like dusting the blinds or cleaning out light fixtures or wiping down the stovetop after cooking on it, so it could be wise to have a discussion of what kinds of tasks really need doing–maybe he’s doing some you’re not noticing, or maybe there are a bunch of things you do that he’s never considered before. My partner sanitizes our kitchen garbage can pretty often, but when I lived alone that never even crossed my mind.

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