Mailbag: Can you make a messy guy tidy up?

I’ve got some interesting letters that I’d like to share with you. First, a quick announcement: the next Tao LIVE will be happening in San Francisco on Tuesday, 10 June, 7-9pm. Format is 30-40min talk followed by Q&A. Topic of the day is The Tao of Bliss: How to Feel Great in Your Body All the Time. Click here to get tickets on Eventbrite. Come on down if you’re in town. I’ve only got room for 30 people in my living room, so get your ticket quick. Wine and chocolate included in the ticket price — I will happily bribe you if that’s what it takes for you to show up.

And now, to the letters. First one is about a lady finding herself in the apartment of a great guy — except that the place is an unholy mess. How can she convey her discomfort without alienating him?

Dear Dr. Ali, I have been dating this guy for 2 months and he is great. Very worldly, intelligent, and successful.  I was highly impressed with him until he invited me over to his place for a tour. He owned his condo that has the view of the Manhattan’s skyline from his floor to ceiling windows, so he told me I will be very impressed.

When I walked into his apartment, however, I was so appalled by how messy and unkempt it was that I even didn’t notice the view! There were dirty dishes on the counter and the sink, dirty laundry everywhere. His bed was a mess. I was tiptoeing around to get to one room from another. His response was: “Sorry for the mess, I couldn’t finish doing laundry over the weekend.”

So my dilemma is as follows: How do I tell him to clean up his place without sounding like his mother? Do I make a joke about it, hoping he gets my hint? Or do I say, honey, your place is not conducive to romance so I don’t want to visit you anymore? Or do I say, should I give you the phone number of my cleaning lady? How do I go about it without crushing his ego (after all, he was so excited to show me his place and was proud of it) or turning from goddess into his mother or worse yet, into his maid? I know you would slap me if I ever entertained the idea of cleaning up his place.

Dr. Ali, i’m also curious if the mess in his condo is a reflection on how he feels about me or would you say that he is just a messy/clueless man? One would think that if you want to impress a woman, you would make some effort in cleaning up the place, wouldn’t you? Thank you, Annelise

Annelise — Great letter! First off, you need to know that this is not about you. At all. Bachelor boys, left to their own devices, tend to be messy creatures. I have known them, I have visited them, I have counseled them, and heck, I’ve even lived with them.

One guy I visited had a sink that had never been scrubbed in the two years he lived in his tiny New York City apartment. It was so disgusting that I took it upon myself to clean it up just so I could use it myself during my stay. It took me 30 minutes to finally get to porcelain. This was not just a scrubbing, folks – it was an excavation. Native American gravesites were found and trilobite fossils unearthed in the crust of that sink.

Another guy whom I often spent time with in my Cambridge days had this amazing 3 bedroom pad in the poshest neighborhood in London. Not only was every horizontal surface covered with stuff – journals, ties, shirts, books, practice suture knots (he was a surgeon) – but his kitchen had not been cleaned in about a year. So there was this massive accumulation of dirty dishes in his sink, which had coalesced into a living, writhing mass of ancient food scraps, forks and plates all held together by congealed duck fat (he was fond of confit de canard) which had an aroma to raise the dead and kill the living.

Getting to the bottom of that sink took me a good three hours, and to this day I consider it my greatest humanitarian effort. Luckily, our boy has gotten married since then to a very caring and patient woman. Without her, there may have been far fewer successful liver transplants in this world, so I’m thrilled it turned out well.

I could go on about Superfund-level toxicity of the homes of other boys I’ve known, but that’s not what this post is about. This post is about how to talk to men about this kind of thing, or any other kind of behavioral change you’d like out of them.

The general rule of thumb is this: if you’d like to give anyone some friendly advice (e.g. “Clean up yer mess or you ain’t getting any”), it’s much more likely to be adopted if it’s perceived as coming from a place of love, rather than a place of judgment and superiority. Demonstrate that you’re on his side.

You do that by using two rules of thumb:

1) State it in terms of YOUR experience. It’s not about him; it’s about you.

For example, you could say, “Omigod those socks are DISGUSTING how can you live like that you savage brute were you raised by wolves GAWD I hope the human race never sees your genes perpetuated.”

That may come off as judgmental. Instead, you could say something like, “When I see the dirty socks in your living room tumbling towards me, it reminds me of a scary experience I had when I got pelted with tennis balls in the school playground when I was five. I would feel so much safer if they weren’t around.”

Partially kidding here, but you get the idea: how does his messiness make you feel? Focus on that, and you’re halfway there to avoid being judgmental and getting what you want. The formula is “When I experience X, I feel Y.” That’s step 1.

2) State the outcome you want as a benefit to him. What’s in it for the dude to do your bidding?

“Clean up your pad because that’s what civilized humans do” is a nice sentiment, but not terribly motivating to the brain of the perpetually adolescent male. And frankly, it sounds like something my mom would say, further diminishing its persuasiveness.

But what if you were to have this dialogue instead:

Girl: “Hey. Do you want more girls to come over?”
Boy: “Uhhh, yeah?!”
G: “Would you like me to visit more often?”
B: “Hell yeah!”
G: “Well, I really enjoy your company, too. And if you were to do some touch-ups around here, like clearing the sink, running the vacuum and putting the dirty laundry away, I bet girls would be willing to visit you more often. Including me. And if you’re too busy to do it yourself, I’ve got a great cleaning lady I can recommend.”

With this dialogue, you establish many things. First, you make it clear you’re on his side. Heck, you enjoy his company, too. How can we make this work?

Second, you’re providing a solution, so you’re not just nagging him. A simple rule of thumb for interacting with humans is that you’re not allowed to make a criticism unless you’re also willing to provide a solution. When you say you’ve got a good cleaning lady to recommend, you’re being useful, not just critical. This means you care more about him than you do about being right.

Third, you’re subtly setting a boundary saying that you’re not entirely okay with the current state of affairs. You’re expressing it in a positive way, as a benefit to him – “If you clean up, you can expect more visits from me” – but unless he’s dumber than a block of cheddar, he’ll get the subtext, too. And he’ll be grateful that you gave him the benefit of the doubt: “I will assume you are busy instead of thinking you are an inveterate Neanderthal slob.”

That’s what you should do in this situation. What should you never do? You should never ever clean up after him. This not only does nothing to improve the behavior, but it also drives men batty. Whenever my mom visits and proceeds to go on a cleaning rampage, it takes me months to find again the stuff she’s rearranged. I’ve gotten used to my medium-entropy arrangement of things, so don’t futz with it please.

Additionally, this is about training. If every time you threw a stick for a dog to fetch, you went and retrieved it yourself, what would the dog learn? It would learn that its owner is inordinately fond of running after sticks. Congratulations – you just turned your Labrador Retriever into a Labrador Lounger. Similarly, you don’t train a guy to do his own housework by doing it for him.


Remember Rosie, of the Epic Email Exchange on self-esteem and the single woman? Well, we’ve got good news from her:

Dear Dr. Binazir, It’s me, Rosie. I just wanted to let you know that the guy I was telling you about in my last email – we’re officially together now! It’s been a little over two months since we became exclusive, but it feels like we’ve been together for much longer. We have definitely moved a bit faster than I had originally envisioned my first serious relationship to move, but I don’t feel like I’m spiraling out of control; if anything, everything feels like it flows naturally.

I feel so safe with him that I’m able to be vulnerable with him, which is something I hadn’t ever been with a man. I actually told him I loved him last week. I had for a while – not just the “OMG butterflies I’m in love” feeling, though I do have that too, but the “I want you to succeed and be happy and I deeply, deeply admire your strength, kindness, and intelligence” love.

I had examined long and hard if I was really feeling the second kind of love, not just being swept up in everything. I promptly started crying because I felt so vulnerable and overwhelmed with feeling – and he said “I love you too” and just hugged me tight until I stopped sobbing. It was the most amazing thing.

He is wonderful – we see each other multiple times a week, we already have stuff in each other’s bathrooms, and we just have wonderful times together, whether it’s watching a movie at my place or going out to a lovely brunch in the city. It just is amazing being with someone who accepts all my quirks and loud mouth. With all the guys before, I felt like I had to watch what I said or did for fear of scaring them off, but with him, I finally feel free to be myself.

What’s also great is that while we do spend a lot of time together, we are perfectly fine having multiple nights alone – he can go off to trivia and a party with his friends (who are all lovely – it’s so awesome gaining a whole new friend group) and I can have some time to myself to play with my cat or go to dinner with my sorority sisters and it’s not a big deal. No needy feelings, no constant texts (we don’t text everyday, which I’m totally okay with). It’s so freeing!

I really cannot thank you enough for your book and for your knocking some much- needed sense into me. There is absolutely no way I would have been ready for him, a genuinely wonderful guy that I strongly connect with at all three levels, if not for your advice and tough love. Sincerely, Rosie

Great story! Some things to notice about this letter:

  1. You don’t need to get every guy. You just need one who’s a good fit for you.
  2. By definition, the one who’s a good fit for you is the one who’s cool with your quirks. Heck, he probably likes you for them, not in spite of them.
  3. There are many, many guys out there, so whoever you are, no matter how unique a snowflake you think you are (you’re not, I assure you), even if only 0.1% of the population is good enough for you, that’s still thousands of dudes who are a potentially good fit. Look for one of those and quit trying to shoehorn into your life the guys who aren’t right for you, or to shoehorn yourself into something you aren’t just to please a guy.
  4. Keep working on yourself. As great Zen master Shunryu Suzuki once said, “We’re all perfect, and we could all use a little work.”

That’s all for now, ladies. If you’re in the Bay Area next Tuesday, come on down to Tao LIVE, and be sure to tell your friends who are in the neighborhood. It’s a much richer experience to see you all in person and it’s fun to help you find solutions to your challenges.

All the best,

Dr Ali

PS: Big thanks to Rajshree, CaptainbB, and JK for posting reviews on Amazon for The Tao of Dating! You ladies rock. If you’ve read the book and already like it, I’d be infinitely grateful if you took a minute to post a review expressing your like, because book sales are how I make a living, and every single review helps :-)