Dear Donagh

… My son-in-law is obsessive about tidiness and he’s making my daughter’s life a hell.  More than anything, he says, he hates a mess, and he says the house is a pigsty.  That is so cruel, because it’s not true.  In fact my daughter is quite tidy and a good housekeeper.  If he sees a newspaper out of place, or a piece of lego, he has a fit.  I'm worried about my daughter’s mental health, and my grandson’s.  I've tried talking to him about it but it’s not easy, he just turns on the tv or he walks out of the room.  Can you suggest anything?  Maura

Dear Maura,

I have no direct experience of this myself, but my guess is that he must have a lot of chaos inside him if he is fighting every reminder of it on the outside.  You didn't say what efforts your daughter is making to cope with him.  If she could draw his attention to the chaos he is creating in the house – much worse than a misplaced newspaper or a piece of lego – do you think it might get through to him?  Emotional chaos is vastly more upsetting than a few objects lying around.  If she could pitch it in such a way that it doesn’t seem an accusation….  Ask her if she thinks this could be a possible approach. 

Do either of you have any idea what the source of his chaos is?  Do you know any of his family well?  Could your daughter talk in confidence with one of them?  It could give her some orientation: revealing where the landmines are likely to be.  Maybe she knows this only too well already.  Still, she might learn something of value and get helpful advice.  His family had to cope with him before it was your daughter’s turn. 

I grew up in a very relaxed family; there was never any emotional chaos except what we kids created by being kids.  But in later life I saw many instances of tidy-minded people creating chaos around them.  It happens in theology and in church practice.  Ideas can be clear and distinct, but life itself is messy because it is real.  Anyone who can't accept a bit of mess is himself psychologically a mess.  The only remedy is insight, but such a person will have a lot of resistance to this.  Everyone can see it except the one person who really needs to see it.  Your daughter should tell him that his obsession with tidiness will surely drive their son to the opposite extreme; obsessions always backfire. 

Special skills may be needed if your daughter can’t bring him to that insight.  Marriage counsellors will have those skills.  Her struggle may be to get him to attend with her.  If he refuses point blank, you may need to accommodate her and her son for a while – leaving the tidy man with a tidy house and nowhere to project his chaos.  Maybe he will see it then.  But my advice is to seek out a marriage counsellor and recommend them to your daughter.  Beyond that, I don’t see what you can do besides praying for them. 

It must be very hard for you to see this happening and to know that you can't intervene directly.  Mothers-in-law, very unfairly, start off with a handicap.  But thank God you are a supportive presence in the background.  A mother’s work is never done, but of course it changes all the time.  Don’t lose hope; nothing stays static forever. 



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