Who Took the Cookie from the Cookie Jar?

Well over five years ago now, my then-triad and I were living together in New Jersey, and our home was a disaster. My partners were largely products of a “Women will do the cleaning” upbringing while I was raised with the assumption that “by the time you graduate college and get a place of your own, you’ll be able to afford to hire a cleaning service.” (Yes, my mother did say that. Yes, the real world came as quite a shock.)

Anyway, in an attempt to 1) get all of us off our asses and cleaning, and 2) keep track of everything that did need to get cleaned and taken care of around the house, I made up a chore chart. Each time one of us did a chore, we would initial it on the chart. If each of us did 3 chores a day, the house would have gotten a thorough cleaning every week.

Does anyone think this actually worked? I mean, I thought it was a good idea. But here’s what happened:

About a week went by. I didn’t pay attention to what my partners were marking off on the chart. It wasn’t my job to police them, it was my job to do my own share of the work. I didn’t manage to do 3 chores every day, but I was picking up the habits. At the end of the week, I looked around and saw a horribly sticky kitchen table, a pile of dishes in the sink, and a bunch of other stuff that screamed “Slobs live here!” So I took a look at the chart. For the most a part, mine were the only initials on there.

I go to talk with my partners. Both swear up down and sideways that they had been doing the chores. They had just forgotten to sign the chart. If things were still a mess it was because other people weren’t doing chores, or the chart just wasn’t working. In hindsight, it was very much like the classic kid’s game “Who Stole the Cookie’s from the Cookie Jar?”

At the time, I wasn’t confident enough in myself to call bullshit. The chore chart fell into disuse and was discarded. Over the next few years, a dozen different attempts to get our act together failed miserably.

Who I eventually realized, long after that triad ended, was that nothing I could have done, no agreement we could have come to, would have worked to keep that house clean. I was looking at it as a household problem, essentially a logistics problem. Gather resources, organize, and it’s fixed.

It wasn’t. I was battling depress, anxiety, and PTSD, so while I was willing to pitch in, I only had the spoons to do so much each day. One of my partners worked 12-hour shifts, at the time was our sole income earner, and harbored resentment against my second partner that he didn’t admit to until years later. He wasn’t going to pitch in and “Get taken advantage of” any more than he already was. My other partner was, to be blunt, lazy. He either needed someone willing to kick him in the ass until he got off his ass, or he needed to not be in a relationship. (He is now happily married to a woman perfectly capable of kicking his ass when need be. Thanks to the combination of her ass-kicking skills and her low-level OCD, their home is immaculate.) The sad truth is that none of us belonged in that relationship, but we were committed to making it work. Or so we said. Our inability to keep the house clean was a major red flag to the contrary.

The point of all this, is that sometimes what appears to be a practical problem–keeping the house clean, managing everyone’s schedules, even people not sleeping well or health problems–are really signs of problems in the relationship. If you are trying to fix a problem in your life (or lives) and nothing seems to work, it may be time to look deeper.

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