I often work with couples who could be characterized as the “odd couple” (taken from the Neil Simon TV show and play of the same name where one character, Felix, was a super-neat fuss-budget and the other character, Oscar, was a total slob). It is definitely a challenge when one party is very organized, perhaps somewhat anal, wanting everything to have a place and the other party simply drops things where ever he/she is, accumulating piles of junk throughout their home.
Can these opposites co-habit effectively? Can a marriage of these diametrically opposed personality types maintain an intimate relationship?
The following are some of the complaints registered by both parties:
“She leaves used Kleenex where ever she happens to be.”
“He puts things away even before I finish using them.”
“The drawers are constantly left open.”
“There are often more than one jar of peanut butter open in the refrigerator, multiple bags of the same chips appear open in the pantry.”
“He walks around straighten things, wiping things, and cleaning; it drives me crazy”
“He leaves opened soda pop cans in every room of the house; why won’t he clean up after himself?”
“She cannot focus on making love because she is so distracted by things being out of order, like a pair socks laying on the floor.”
“Books and magazines are piled up on the dining room table. There is no room to have dinner!”
“When we have company he is constantly watching were people put their glass, their feet, or whether they spill something.”
And the list goes on.
The Felix’s of the world could learn to loosen up, to relax their exacting standards, and perhaps enjoy a little messiness in their lives; the amount of time they spend organizing and cleaning might be better spent being creative or smelling the roses. On the other hand, the Oscar’s of the world might profit from a little more organization in their lives so they wouldn’t always be searching for their lost belongings which end up being found buried in the debris.
Neat-freaks tend to be anxious people who have learned to control their anxiety by focusing on getting things organized; in this way they attempt to control their world and reduce their anxiety. Slobs handle their anxiety by denying the chaos all around them. To the dismay of their anal partners, these people don’t even notice the mess; they can step right over a pile of clothes on the floor as if it were invisible. When slobs feels anxious, they rush around, become distracted, and leave messes in their wake. Neat-freaks notice everything, and it drives them crazy as they wonder how their messy partners can live in such disorganization.
So the question is, how do these different types live under the same roof?
Felix and Oscar were best friends. While they each complained about the other, they loved one another. And perhaps that is the point. The strength of their personal connection withstood their individual quirks. Rather than putting one another down and creating emotional distance between them, their differences were tolerated, if not embraced.
When couples visit my office presenting with odd-couple syndrome it often turns out that there is an underlying emotional disconnect that is the core of the problem. The weaker the connection, the more important these individual differences become. As the emotional bond between the individual becomes stronger, the differences in styles become less important.
Furthermore, as the bond and emotional attachment strengthens, each of the parties becomes more willing to make modifications in their styles. That is to say, as the Felixes and Oscars of the world become more attached to one another, their respective anxiety diminishes; and as their anxiety diminishes become less unconsciously driven; hence, , their quirks diminish. They each become more mindful of their behaviors and the impact on one another. When they are anxious, their first priority to anxiety-reduction; when feeling connected, their priority shifts to the other person and the strengthening of the connection.
If you are in an odd couple relationship, you might be wise to recognize that your partner is not trying to drive you crazy with their quirks. Rather, their compulsive neatness or messiness is an attempt to deal with anxiety which has become an habitual style of behavior. It is not directed at you. Furthermore, when there a greater bond between the two of you, you each become less anxious. Instead of being critical of each other’s behavior, learn to engage one another. Become a partner and ally rather than an enemy. Perhaps you can learn to work with your partner as you both discover that intimacy lies somewhere between the messiness and the orderliness.