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My brother is a slob

His bedroom stinks! How can I get him to keep it clean?

Well — you can’t, says our elder. But if you quit nagging, there might be another way to get him to shape up.

Dear EWC

I have gotten to a point living with my older brother where I feel like something needs to change, but I am not sure what to do! My brother is 26 years old and I am 21. We live in a three-bedroom apartment that is fairly expensive. My brother has never been much of an organized person, but I never realized the extent of his messiness until he moved in. His room is constantly a disaster and smells like unwashed clothes (seriously I don’t remember him doing laundry more than five times a year). His room permanently smells like a nasty Goodwill and there are pieces of food and medication laying on his floor. I have tried telling him that he needs to keep his room clean but he gets defensive and angry when I say this and tells me that his room is his business. He’s also told me that he wants to change and have a nice space — it just isn’t happening! I enjoy the company of having my brother around but I am worried that if something doesn’t change, I will only resent him more than I already do. What do I do to get him to change his behavior and finally start to take care of himself?

Willow replies

I understand completely how frustrating this must be to you. It must be so hard to see your brother living in filth. I’m sure you weren’t raised that way, and it’s bewildering to those of us who grew up in reasonably neat and clean environments how others can live in squalor and not seem fazed by it.

The question you have asked is how you can get your brother to change his behavior and start taking care of his room and himself. The short answer is: You can’t. He is an adult and is in charge of the way he lives, whether or not you approve. As difficult as it must be for you to see his room in slovenly condition, it’s his choice. I’m sure that isn’t what you want to hear. I assume he is paying his share of the rent, and in that case he is right when he says his room is his own business. If he is paying for that space, how he chooses to maintain (or not maintain) it is up to him.

Your letter doesn’t indicate that his sloppiness extends to the common spaces in your apartment — the kitchen, living room, etc. That would be a different conversation, since those are your spaces too and you are just as entitled to their use as he is. Ideally, you and he have an agreement on maintenance of the common space, and if he violated that agreement you would have every right to speak up about his mess. He would have an obligation to you to uphold the standards he’d agreed on. But his room is not common space.

My advice to you would be to stop nagging him about cleaning up his room, as hard as this might be for you. He’s aware the room is dirty. Despite what he says about wanting to change, his actions suggest otherwise. Cleanliness simply isn’t his priority. In his own room, that is his choice to make. Your comments, no matter how gentle or well-intentioned they are, could be construed as criticism or disapproval. That could be taken personally, make your brother defensive and create a wall between you. It sounds like that may have happened already. Is this issue important enough to you that it’s worth risking your relationship with him? Only you can determine that.

Perhaps your brother would be amenable to hiring a cleaning service to come in and do a thorough cleaning periodically if your budget permits. I suspect you would have to phrase the suggestion carefully! Perhaps “I’ve been thinking about a cleaning service once a month (or week) since we’re both so busy and it’s no fun to spend our time cleaning. What do you think?”, instead of “I’m hiring a cleaning service because you’re such a slob and I can’t take it anymore.” Try to make it a positive and cooperative idea instead of an accusation and he just might go along.

If he doesn’t, though, please don’t expect his habits to change. You cannot control what he does; you can only control your response to it. You indicate you already resent him. That feeling will only get worse if you can’t manage your expectations on this issue. Ask him to keep his door closed and stay away from his space as much as possible. If you truly feel you can’t live with his room in its current condition, you will need to decide whether moving out or finding another roommate is what’s best for you. Whatever you decide, please don’t let this problem become so large that it comes between you and your brother.

Letter #: 450301
Category: Family

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