Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: My Daughter-in-Law Insults Me by Cleaning My House

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I’ve never had a particularly warm relationship with my daughter-in-law Bernice. She’s a bit of a cold fish. For example, when her mother died a few months ago, I never saw her shed a tear. Whenever I tried to talk with her about her mother’s illness and then her death, she made it clear she didn’t want to talk about it with me.

However, I will say she is a good mom to our two young grandchildren. She is always attentive, considerate, and patient with them.

Anyway, here’s where you can maybe help. Lately when my son, daughter-in-law, and our grandkids come for a visit, every month or so, the first thing Bernice does when she arrives is clean my two bathrooms and my kitchen counters and sink. And not just once; she’ll clean several times. She even brings her own spray cleaner. I may not be the best housekeeper in the world, but my house certainly isn’t filthy. Her scrubbing is insulting.

I think I should say something about this, as it really hurts my feelings that she doesn’t think the cleanliness of my house is up to her standards. My husband doesn’t think I should say anything. What do you think?

I want to suggest that Bernice cleaning your bathrooms and kitchen when she comes to visit isn’t really about you as a housekeeper. Rather, it is possible that Bernice is suffering from germaphobia (medically known as mysophobia), defined as a persistent and extreme fear and consciousness of germs, dirt, and contamination.

It is estimated that as many as 26% of people have some form of germaphobia (it being more common in women), ranging from mildly annoying to threatening one’s quality of life. It is not known what causes germaphobia, but it is suspected that a traumatic event, such as Bernice’s loss of her mother, may be a trigger.

It is important to note that mysophobia and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) are not the same thing. While a symptom of both disorders is a constant focus on germs, as with repeated hand washing, a mysophobe washes their hands repeatedly to get rid of germs and contaminants. Someone with OCD washes their hands repeatedly because they cannot not wash them (double negative intended!).

Interestingly, many celebrities suffer from germaphobia, including:

  • Howie Mandel, who is very open about his germaphobia;
  • Michael Jackson, known for wearing gloves and a surgical mask in public;
  • Howard Hughes, an extreme recluse entrepreneur, who was said to use Kleenex to touch anything;
  • Cameron Diaz, who was quoted by in a 1997 Time magazine article saying she was germaphobic, but then she later denied this in an interview with Bill Maher (the June 26, 2009 edition of Real Time, Episode #159);
  • Saddam Hussein, who reportedly often ordered visitors to strip and wash with antibacterial soap;
  • Donald Trump, who in 1997 outlined his fear of shaking hands in his book Trump: The Art of the Comeback. It has been reported that he even refuses to touch the buttons in an elevator.

The good news is that germaphobia is treatable/manageable. The four common treatments include, often in combination:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (this can help identify and control the terrifying thoughts that underlie the fear of germs).
  • Medications (although certain drugs can be effective, germaphobes often won’t take them because they fear they have been contaminated in the production process).
  • Exposure therapy (gradual desensitization by being in situations involving germs).
  • Self-help exercises (for example, breathing and relaxation techniques, meditation and Yoga).

With this information in mind, I do not recommend talking with Bernice about your hurt feelings when she cleans your house while visiting. Rather, if you really want to be helpful and supportive, I suggest you send Bernice and your son an e-mail saying how much you look forward to their next visit.

Then I suggest you say that you want to do everything possible to make their visit easy and comfortable, and they should feel free to let you know any groceries or supplies you can get in advance. Tell them you appreciate that Bernice may want some specific cleaning materials on hand, and if she specifies those, you will make sure they are available for her.

In this way you are acknowledging your awareness that Bernice uses cleaning products during her visit, but you are not judging her or criticizing that she does so. If Bernice is dealing with germaphobia, you are being understanding and helpful. If she isn’t dealing with germaphobia and does, in fact, think you’re a lousy housekeeper, you are still coming out on the winning end: There is no confrontation between the two of you about your housekeeping and she continues to come to visit – and this is most important – with your grandchildren.

I assume you don’t want some real or imagined dust bunnies on your bathroom floor to jeopardize your relationships with your son, Bernice, and especially with your grandchildren.

Update from grandmother, three weeks later

My husband and I sent an e-mail to Bernice and our son based on your suggestions. Over two weeks went by without hearing from them, and we were sure we had done the wrong thing.

Then we got an e-mail from our son saying that Bernice was at first embarrassed by our e-mail because it was obvious that we were aware that she had some problems involving her cleaning. However, her new therapist helped her realize that our e-mail was an act of kindness. Our son said both he and Bernice appreciate our kindness.

He went on to say that they will be visiting and we need not bother buying certain cleaning products in advance. Bernice will bring what she needs. He also said Bernice is not comfortable talking about any of this with us, but she wanted us to know that she and the kids look forward to being with us.

I want to thank you for your help. You helped me see things that I am quite sure I would not have seen without contacting you. Thank you.

 Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

E-mail queries to [email protected]

 Dr. Karen L. Rancourt‘s most recent book is,

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts

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