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June 3, 2016

Unfinished Remodeling Projects and Clutter

I received this question by email recently, and it's got three very familiar elements in it:

I am reasonably neat and organized. Not obsessive and definitely not a clean freak but I like my papers organized and my home relatively tidy. My husband is one of the messiest people I've ever met. With his encouragement, I've organized his desk but it's back to where it was within a month. A mess of string, rubber bands, clips, books, checks, checkbook, 20 prs of reading glasses, random nails, batteries, you name it in what looks like a post tornado whirlwind.

We came to an understanding that he could keep his office and his workshop any way he wished but our papers including a hanging file basket of yearly tax stuff would be organized. We had issues surrounding the stuff that needed to be filed- he would throw them in piles but we solved that by buying a table he agreed not to throw anything on but papers needing filing.

Two years ago he decided, with many misgivings on my part, to redo our bathroom. He said it would take a few months. It is nowhere near completed. In the meanwhile, all the stuff that used to be in the bathroom clogs up my study and our hall closet. I share a bathroom with our daughter now- and she is as messy as my husband and the space is tight. I cannot find things on a daily basis. It is a daily stress.

I was going to put all the files in my office but there is no room because it is overflowing with bathroom stuff .

I cannot tell you how stressful it is to go to sleep in a junked up room crammed with bathroom items, work in a crammed up office crammed with bathroom items and step into a super messy garage crammed with all the new bathroom fixtures/appliances mixed in the most messy way with our regular food, paper goods and other supplies.

I cannot even think straight any longer.

I think we:
a. need to hire someone to finish the bathroom ASAP

b. need to create a third neutral space to house our joint papers that hubby cannot extend his mess into

c. in the long view: we do not decorate for holidays because whatever bins I put holiday decorations into are lost in the mess of the garage. I find this greatly reduces my enjoyment of festivity and life living with such disarray.

Unfinished Remodeling Projects

I'm going to take as a given that our goal isn't to get the house ready to sell to facilitate a divorce but rather to strengthen the marriage and make it more enjoyable for the writer.

If that's the case, the writer wants the bathroom stuff (1) out of the bedroom, (2) out of the office, (3) out of sight, and (4) accessible from her daughter's bathroom. Paying someone to finish the bathroom remodeling isn't the only way to get what she wants. And it's possible this approach would rob her husband of what he wants, if that happens to be the satisfaction resulting from remodeling his own bathroom.

The most marriage-strengthening solution is the Third Alternative they come up with together. It may turn out he's not looking forward to finishing it himself, but hiring someone else to do that hasn't come up because he's just not bothered by the current state of the room. In that case, it's a great solution.

But if he's looking for more time to finish his project, here are some others they might come up with together or she might implement on her own:


  • a garage sale armoire in the hall outside the daughter's bathroom

  • temporary shelves inside the unusable shower

  • a rolling storage cart

  • a shoe caddy on the inside of her daughter's bathroom door


The trick is in separating what we need from what we'd prefer. Can we give our spouse a little more time on a project by reducing the amount of daily annoyance it causes for us?

Of course, if this were the only bathroom in the house or if using the other bathroom were a huge issue, she could say, "I need a bathroom near where I sleep and room in it to store things. It doesn't need to be this one you're working on, but it's what I need. Let me know if you need more time on the bathroom project. If so, let's figure out together where I can sleep with a usable bathroom next to it until it's done."

Clutter

The writer and her husband have come up with a few steps to decrease the clutter problem, but they are not working. So what next?

I'd like to invite you to help get us to a Third Alternative. The first two alternatives are (1) the convenience for him of leaving things on any surface where they can be searched for as needed and (2) keeping things orderly enough to require no searching for, in particular, joint financial records and holiday decorations whenever she wants them.

On the blog, please leave a comment with one or more suggestions for Third Alternatives that will please both of them (i.e., give him the convenience and her the instant access to those two categories of things) and avoid the resentment both of them likely feel right now.

I'd love for us to give her "50 Ways to Keep Your Lover." In fact, I'll send a prize to the one she and her husband agree is best for them if we come up with 50.

May 20, 2016

Are Your Prescriptions Messing with Your Marriage?

Fascinating research findings:

Hope you find these research findings as fascinating and helpful as I do.

May 10, 2016

Buying a Home? How NOT to Wreck Your Relationship

Just a quick link to a great article on Homes.com for which I was interviewed. If you're buying or even renting, I hope you'll take a look.
How NOT to Wreck Your Relationship Over Real Estate

May 9, 2016

Third Alternatives: Marriage vs Cohabitation

As I wrote yesterday, I recently received a comment from Lorraine K, who wrote:

Found your blog about a week ago and I have really learned a lot. I am wondering about third alternatives for future relationships because my S.O. and I broke up over two issues that I now think may have been avoided if we had found Third Alternatives. The first issue was about a few of his rude friends. My boyfriend didn't want to give up socializing with them. I didn't want to socialize with them and felt like he was prioritizing his friends over our relationship.

The other issue, and the main reason I walked away from the relationship, was that my bf wanted to cohabitate before getting married or even engaged. I would have considered it if we got engaged (a ring, and set a date). There were other minor issues but these are the two that I think you may be able to help me find Third Alternatives because these issues have appeared with other relationships and even within my first marriage. I would appreciate any insight on these two matters. Thank you in advance and for this blog. L.K.

Yesterday, I addressed the rude friends. Today, I want to tackle the cohabiting.

This time, the two obvious first alternatives are (1) move in together and figure out later if you want to get engaged or married or (2) get engaged or married and then move in together.

It's perfectly reasonable to want some sign of long-term commitment before moving in with someone:


  • The risk of harm or desertion or financial loss or a sudden need to move is much higher with someone not committed to a relationship.

  • Those who live together before getting engaged are more likely to break up in general and more likely to divorce if they should marry after moving in together.

  • Who owns what tends to get murky, something not really obvious until one of you dies or becomes incapacitated and the other's relatives take over or one of you leaves or kicks the other out.

  • It's hard to work toward any long-term goals together, because that would require both of you committing to stick around for at least that long.

  • Because you're both keeping the out-of-here option open, you also need to stay on guard for your separation rights, adding to the chance that you will separate.

  • You're more likely to find one of you is fearful of commitment and hoping to lose the fear and move forward into a long-term relationship while the other has deliberately sought a partner with such a fear to avoid ever confronting this fear in herself.

  • It increases the chances of having children out of wedlock and reduces the chances of them growing up in the same home with both parents.

It's also perfectly reasonable to want to avoid waiting for a joint commitment to want to share a home:


  • It saves money over living apart.

  • It saves on driving time to see each other.

  • It offers lots more opportunities for sex.

  • It may mean you can get out of some chore you dislike: cooking, cleaning, shopping, mowing the lawn, diapering your kid, etc.

  • It reduces the chances your partner will take up with someone else and dump you.

  • Unless you're really wealthy and well-known, it pretty much does away with the risk of being held financially responsible for your partner after you separate.

  • In some cases, it lets one partner receive (and share) government benefits intended for those without partners.

  • In some cases, it allows a delay in a divorce from a previous spouse.

  • And it's a good way to avoid getting the church or state involved in your relationship, whether you intend it to last or not.

Once again, the best Third Alternative is the one that gives each partner what they seek from their first choice and avoids what they dislike about the other's first choice.

First, you jump the net and agree you want what your partner wants, just not at the cost of what you want. You let go of the notion that these are the only two alternatives to choose from.

Then you find out your specs: what one of you wants and wants to avoid, what the other of you wants and wants to avoid.

When my husband and I had been a couple long enough to observe each other's character through five seasons, we talked about living together. My now husband wanted to avoid state or church involvement in our relationship, and he wasn't sure he could promise until death do us part, but he wanted as long a relationship as we could manage.

Although I preferred marriage, what I wanted was that same relationship that would last as long as we could manage (because I figured I had some pretty good skills at making it last). And I very much wanted the same rights in hospitalization or death or emergency that I would have if we were married and inheritance of his half of any assets we built or acquired as a team. I also wanted to protect my son from my previous marriage.

So our Third Alternative was to see a lawyer and draw up documents that covered everything that comes automatically with marriage (will, power of attorney, living will, beneficiaries on each other's accounts, etc.) and to rent a house with both names on the year-to-year lease. Three years later, he proposed marriage, and I gratefully consented.

For other couples, the answer that works well for both parties might be to:


  • Rent apartments in the same building or on the same street until both are ready to marry, increasing the ease of spending time together while remaining single and uncommitted to the relationship

  • Move in together with the understanding that if they are not engaged by the time the lease must be renewed, the decision to continue or end the relationship will be in the hands of the one seeking marriage, who would then be free to start looking for someone less fearful of commitment

  • Borrow or earn the money needed for the commitment-shy partner to feel ready to marry, and get engaged

  • Give the one who would prefer marriage an easier out from an uncommitted relationship, such as a bank account to be used for moving out and setting up a new home

  • One or both change schools or jobs or whatever outside factor makes the one partner want to postpone marrying

  • Set up a financial plan to protect both partners' interests while their future together is uncertain, a detailed agreement about shared responsibilities for their joint household, and a careful plan for birth control to avoid the complication of shared parenting

  • Go through Imago Therapy or other relationship counseling together for an agreed-upon period to help each decide whether their position on cohabitation or marriage is likely to change in time to make it worthwhile to continue the relationship

Which one is the right one? The one that makes both of them at least as comfortable as their first choice. And you'll only find it by honestly exploring what each of you seeks to gain from your preferred choice and seeks to avoid from your non-preferred choice and then pooling your talents to find a way to please both.

The toughest part of the process is jumping the net. You must stop defending your preference, stop fantasizing about how things will go, and get honest with each other. If you can do that, the rest is actually rather enjoyable. And the outcome is a joint triumph that strengthens your relationship.

Third Alternatives: Rude Friends

I recently received a comment from Lorraine K, who wrote:

Found your blog about a week ago and I have really learned a lot. I am wondering about third alternatives for future relationships because my S.O. and I broke up over two issues that I now think may have been avoided if we had found Third Alternatives. The first issue was about a few of his rude friends. My boyfriend didn't want to give up socializing with them. I didn't want to socialize with them and felt like he was prioritizing his friends over our relationship.

The other issue, and the main reason I walked away from the relationship, was that my bf wanted to cohabitate before getting married or even engaged. I would have considered it if we got engaged (a ring, and set a date). There were other minor issues but these are the two that I think you may be able to help me find Third Alternatives because these issues have appeared with other relationships and even within my first marriage. I would appreciate any insight on these two matters. Thank you in advance and for this blog. L.K.

I love requests like these. Let's tackle the rude friends today and the cohabiting tomorrow.

When you don't like your mate's friends, the two obvious alternatives are (1) your mate spends less time with his friends (or less pleasant time, if you insist on joining in annoyed) or (2) you spend less time with your mate.

If these are the only two alternatives you see, you're likely to push for alternative 1 by insulting your mate's taste in friends, language, humor, and fun. Not the best way to build a relationship, especially with a male partner, for whom respect is the very foundation of any relationship -- the one with you and the one with each of those friends.

So, how do you find a Third Alternative? First, you jump the net. You acknowledge that you want the person you love to get the benefits he seeks from spending time with those friends. You acknowledge that whatever those benefits are, they are obviously important to someone you love. You offer to work together to find a better way for him to get them, a way that doesn't deny you what you need or drive the two of you apart.

Next, you need to find out what benefits of being with them he values. Some of them you can probably already see if you look, and those are the only ones you'll be able to learn about after splitting up with him.

But with anyone else in the future, you'll want to explore these benefits in a way that won't put him on the defensive. This means no criticism or condescension or contempt, just honest, loving, supportive curiosity that comes from genuinely wanting him to get those benefits, just not the way he's getting them now.

What Does He Get from These Friends?

  • Has he known them a long time? Do they connect him to his past? Have they seen him through tough times? Have they made him feel good about himself again after a mistake? Does he feel safe being vulnerable around them?
  • How does he feel while he's with them? Does he laugh a lot? Does he risk more? Does he appear relaxed?
  • Do they engage in activities you would not really enjoy?
  • Are they a support network, ready to help each other out of a jam (or a case of the blues) on a moment's notice?
  • Does he express gratitude or indebtedness to them?
  • Does he like some more than the others? Or does he like that they are a group more than he likes the individuals in the group?

These are questions to ask yourself. If you don't know the answers to some of them, ask him, but only one or two questions. Wait a couple days or even a week before asking more of the questions.

From the answers, you should be able to make a list of the things he'd be giving up to spend more time with you instead of them.

What Do You Dislike About These Friends?

Aside from being jealous of the time he spends with them, how do these friends affect you?

  • Do they discourage him from valuing you?
  • Do they encourage him to do things that make you value him less?
  • Do they subject you to noises or smells or sights that disgust you?
  • Do they prevent you from getting enough sleep, having sex with your guy, protecting your children, or keeping to your preferred schedule?
  • Do you feel judged by them to the extent that you take on a role you dislike, perhaps as hostess or sex object or nag?
  • Have any of them harmed you or threatened you?

From your answers, you should be able to write a list of things to avoid in your Third Alternative for getting your man the benefits he seeks from his friends.

What Do You Need in the Way of Time and Activities Now Missing Due to These Friends?

For this part, you need to get honest with yourself about what you need to feel secure and satisfied in a relationship.

  • Do you get enough time with your man but not during the right hours or days?
  • Do you get enough time with your man but have nothing satisfying to do when he's with his friends?
  • Do you get enough time with your man but not enough of his energy or playfulness or libido or excitement because of the time he spends with those friends?
  • If you get too little time with your man, is it because he spends a lot of time with his friends or because there's currently little overlap in your free time and some of his goes to these friends?

Make a list of what exactly you need to be happy if he keeps his friends.

We've covered what benefits he seeks, what you want to avoid, what benefits you seek, and now there's one more.

What Does Your Partner Seek to Avoid About Spending Time with You?

You can ask him. Again, do it in a non-accusatory, non-nagging way, so you get honest, useful answers instead of defensive ones. You can also rely on your own observations if he's no longer available.

There may be nothing on this list. He may simple want time with you and time with his friends. But he may also be choosing the friends as a way of avoiding the things you want (more or different time with him).

  • Which of the things he needs (from the first set of questions) are things you could give but don't?
  • Which of them are things you simply can't offer?
  • What are you two doing when he seems happy to be with you?
  • What are you two doing when he seems unhappy to be with you?
  • What does he encourage you to do differently when his friends are around?

Make one more list from the answers: what is it that he hopes to avoid about your first alternative?

Now we've come full circle: What he seeks, what you seek to avoid, what you seek, what he seeks to avoid. Put all four lists together. These are the specs for the alternative that did not occur to either of you but would make both of you happy.

Remember that some of the things each of you need could come from different sources than they come from now, and nothing about your current use of time or ways of dealing with the friends is carved in stone.

If you don't want to spend time with his friends, that's okay. If it cuts into your time together, maybe you need to find more time to be together, cutting out less important activities, eliminating a work commute, spending less time on other people's needs, etc.

Now is the time to work together. You've got the list of specs, and it's time to brainstorm. The crazier the idea, the better, because crazy ideas knock down imaginary obstacles and trigger creative thoughts, so no judgments, no evaluation while you're adding ideas to your list.

If you two run out of ideas, ask some friends to join you in brainstorming -- just not those friends.

How to Tell When You've Found a Third Alternative

What makes a great Third Alternative is that it meets all of your specs, so that both of you like it as much as -- sometimes even more than -- your favorite of (1) your mate spends less time with his friends (or less pleasant time, if you insist on joining in annoyed) or (2) you spend less time with your mate.

Here are some that might work for a variety of different specs:

  • He picks a fixed night of the week to spend with his friends, one on which an organization you're interested in gets together to sing, dance, bowl, ice skate, quilt, or discuss Russian literature.
  • The two of you find girlfriends for several of his friends, so both of you can enjoy group get-togethers.
  • One of you changes jobs to sync up your schedules so you have more time together without getting rid of the friends.
  • He sees his friends but agrees to come home sober enough and early enough to enjoy sex or Scrabble or gourmet cooking with you.
  • The two of you hire a scriptwriter to come up with funny replies to his friends' rude comments and you join in their activities.

There must be a hundred more options, but none of them is your Third Alternative unless each of you likes it as least as much as your original alternative.

I'd love to hear more alternatives in the comments. And tomorrow, we'll use the same process to tackle an even more challenging couple of first alternatives: (1) move in together now or (2) wait for engagement or marriage before sharing a home.

The Author

Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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