In the 90s, I lived with a wide variety of people. Sometimes I stayed with relatives, but other times I crashed at friends’ houses, friends who were still living with their parents, since their teenaged home lives were more conventional than my own.
At one house I crashed with college professors who had the world’s smallest, saddest TV. Fired up only to watch Star Trek. Or the occasional grainy Monty Python or Dr. Who VHS. But they introduced me to hummus and bean sprouts. Owned a harpsichord and the best computers available at the time — ancient by today’s standards but quite cutting-edge at the time. Heck, they had HARD DRIVES. You didn’t have to mess with floppy disks. Craziness.
At another house I stayed, you had to take off your shoes at the door. And every piece of furniture was covered with a clear sheet of plastic that would crinkle when you sat down, no matter how delicately you lowered yourself. But curiously, there was a bunny who hopped free range through this otherwise fussy and sterile environment. And a giant pitcher of Kool-Aid always in the fridge that mysteriously never emptied. Somehow someone refilled it without my ever noticing.
I also stayed at a house where every square inch that wasn’t monopolized by piles of books or bookshelves was piled high with couture magazines and the occasional forgotten designer sweater.
And a house with a hot tub, pool table, and a well-stocked bar that no one seemed to inventory. Where my friend and I (both underage) indulged liberally in odd concoctions, pouring a small splash from each of several random bottles into a Solo cup and covering the whole thing with Sprite. Each day daring someone to catch us.
They never did.
I didn’t have much for money, so I tried to be as unobtrusive as possible at my friends’ houses and would often volunteer to do chores, in an attempt to “earn my keep.”
From this, I learned a very valuable lesson: People had wildly different definitions of “clean.” In some houses, certain chores were essential, and when they were neglected, the inhabitants would basically feel as though they were living in squalor.
At another house, no one cared about that particular chore or measure of cleanliness — and instead they obsessed over another.
But one thing was for certain: Even in the houses of atheists and agnostics, the saying “cleanliness is next to Godliness” wasn’t just hype. People could be downright moral about housekeeping.
And part of my task as a nomadic teenager was to keep all of those separate moral systems straight. To remember which moral cleaning code I was part of at any given time.
To remember I would help with the dishes in House A, vacuum in House B, clean bathrooms in House C. Whatever it was.
A bit later, I’d go on to live with with another cast of characters: Roommates. In one apartment, we truly did live in squalor. It was me and five men in a two-bedroom apartment. I stayed with my boyfriend, the patriarch of the group, in one of the bedrooms. In the other, two men slept on the floor on separate twin mattresses. Two other men paid $50/month to take turns crashing on the living room couch. On off-nights, the other would spend the night behind the couch in a sleeping bag.
Chores were a joke. My boyfriend and I kept our own room clean, but as he refused to pick up after anyone else (and forbade me from doing so), the common areas were shockingly dirty. The bathroom was the stuff of nightmares. Even though my boyfriend had been formally trained as a chef, we never made anything in the kitchen. Every meal was eaten out, either at the hotel where we both worked (I cleaned rooms, he cooked breakfast as one of his three jobs) or at restaurants.
The mess wasn’t just neglect. It was a physical manifestation of everyone’s pride. No one wanted to do more than their fair share, so an awful lot didn’t get done.
In another place, I lived with a partner who was much neater than I was — or he wanted to be, at least. I always felt like we did a pretty equitable portion of the chores. Or at least I tried to do my share.
I kept up with what seemed to me to be the essentials. And yet, he’d occasionally get upset about things I hadn’t even noticed. Especially small messes on the kitchen counter. It didn’t actually matter who had made them. The fact they were there when he’d get home from work bothered him.
One time I cleaned the counter and left it to air dry, and he was still upset to see it clean but wet.
For months I’d try and then fail. I was too focused on other chores to understand what was going on. What the big deal was. And then after countless times of his getting upset over the kitchen counter, we finally found the words to talk about it.
As it turned out, the issue was that he came in through the kitchen door and that if he couldn’t easily kick off his shoes and set his bag on the counter that it put him in a foul mood. And that foul mood would cause him to declare that the rest of our place was a mess (even if it had looked perfectly acceptable to him when he’d left in the morning).
That’s also why the counter being wet wouldn’t do. He couldn’t lay his bag onto a wet surface.
“Oh, I just need to add that to my routine then,” I said.
I told him that I already regularly darted around the house and did a brisk 20-minute clean before he returned from work (since I worked from home). Decluttering the living room. Clearing off anything he’d left in the living room (dishes, cans, etc.). Swapping out the dishwasher.
“I do it since I know clutter makes you anxious,” I said. “That’s what’s been so difficult. I’m actually trying to help but failing, since you still get upset. But it seems like I’ve missed something very important. I misread your supernormal stimulus.”
Optimizing and the Supernormal Stimulus
When early zoologists studied instinctual behavior in animals, they discovered some very curious patterns. Konrad Lorenz, who notably discovered the phenomenon of imprinting (where incubator-born geese would treat anything they first encountered upon their birth as their parent, geese or not), also noticed that birds would easily become fixated on artificial eggs that resembled their own but were larger in size.
Later, Niko Tinbergen would continue that work, finding a variety of eggs that commanded the attention of birds more than the real thing. And Tinbergen would go on to famously construct a red knitting needle with white lines painted on. Curiously, herring gull chicks clearly preferred this version to an accurate 3D model of the bird, and despite the fact that the 3D model look more real to human eyes, they would instead beg for food from the painted knitting needle.
“The larger fake eggs and the knitting needle are supernormal stimuli, things that get a more dramatic instinctual response,” I explained.
“And the state of the kitchen counter is my supernormal stimulus for how clean or dirty the rest of the house is,” he said.
“Exactly,” I said. “So if I keep that one area clean, it’s going to have the most impact on your happiness. So that’s what I’ll do.”
Figuring Out What Matters Most… and Doing It
It’s not always easy figuring out what matters most to your partner, but I’ve found that it’s crucial for any relationship (whether you’re poly, mono, or somewhere in between).
We all have different things that matter to us. Many people find the Love Languages framework to be quite helpful in understanding that it’s okay to want and need different things to feel loved and appreciated.
However, I’ve found that just knowing someone’s top love languages is often not enough. I had long known that this partner’s most important love language was Acts of Service and that it meant things like chores were going to emotionally matter to him in a way that they didn’t matter to other partners I’d had.
But knowing his general love language didn’t tell me his supernormal stimulus. In this particular relationship, the state of the kitchen counter could emotionally feel like life or death to him.
And I had no clue. And frankly, neither did he. It took us years to figure it out, despite being good communicators, generally self-aware, and very invested in the relationship.
But other times, I’ve run into situations where people just know. They know what their supernormal stimulus is, the one thing they get the most emotional mileage out of, and they can communicate that well to other people.
And yet… their partners will fight them every step of the way. Tell them that it’s a silly thing to want. Or just flat-out refuse to do that because “that’s not something I do.”
I’ve found this rarely, if ever, goes well. Refusal tends to devolve into some prolonged struggle of wills. Sleepless nights. Crying. Resentment. And pride doesn’t fill an empty bed as well as you want it to.
So sure, you can stick to your guns. But I’ve found that it’s worlds easier just to do what they want you to do. Do that one thing. Do it over and over again.
Maybe it seems silly. Maybe it looks like a painted knitting needle to you.
But it means the world to them.