Living With a Neat Freak

Dear Dr. Hurd,

My husband and I have been together for over 25 years. He has always been finicky about cleanliness and “everything being in its place.” But recently he seems to be getting worse. After a 12-hour day at work, he can’t go to bed until he vacuums the carpet. Or, after I make the bed, he insists on remaking it “right.” A guest will leave a glass on the kitchen counter for five minutes and he grabs it and puts it in the sink.

He gets anxious and angry if he can’t do whatever he “needs” to do at the time. He insists on doing laundry for me and anyone who might be spending time at our house—though we ask him not to—and then complains as if he’s being taken advantage of. I love him with my whole heart, but it’s driving me crazy. Help!


Dr. Hurd replies:

Whatever motivates your husband’s behavior, you have to understand one thing: He’s getting something out of it. I don’t know what it is, and I’m not saying it’s rational or healthy, but he’s getting something out of it.

Most likely it’s a sense of control. People who indulge in excessively controlling behavior in one area (like cleaning) generally feel out of control in other areas of life.

Think about it. When you clean, you have a visible success: a clear beginning, middle and end. Life can be full of frustration and less immediately gratifying goals and endeavors. Sometimes people don’t handle the frustration or disappointment of life’s ups and downs very well; consequently, they take it out on their house — or their allegedly unclean hands, or their credit cards, or whatever the sources of their anxious activity. That’s what compulsiveness is, at root: anxiety-reduction.

Your husband needs to find better ways to cope with his need for control. Most importantly, he should identify what he’s unhappy about. If he’s getting worse, maybe something in his life has changed recently. Addressing whatever that is will, in itself, give him more control. It takes work, and maybe a little confrontation, so perhaps it’s “easier” for him to stay fixated on cleanliness and other irrelevant issues.

You cannot fix your husband, and you should not try. Your job is to take care of yourself. You have to tell him, in effect, “I can’t live this way.” It doesn’t have to be a threat. It’s just a simple statement of fact: He’s pushing you away by acting like that. If he says he feels less close to you, this is the reason. Don’t waver on this point and don’t accept blame for problems he’s creating.

I notice something else interesting in your note. You mentioned that your husband cleans up after people even when they haven’t asked him to do so, and then he feels used by them. This is a red flag for someone who loves to be a martyr. Maybe he believes that he needs to suffer to be a good person. Most of us are taught this nonsense as kids, and some of us have bought into it as adults.

He doesn’t have to suffer in order to be a good, happy person. In fact, it sounds like he’d be doing those he loves a favor if he strove to be less of a “good” person (by the standard of a martyr) and more of a happy person.

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