Reader Question of the Week: How Much Is Reasonable to Expect From Your Spouse?

Married to Mr. Clean

Hello all, and welcome to the revamped Reader Question of the Week!

Instead of posting a question and asking you all to chime in, I’ve decided to post a question and then answer it myself first. Then you all can chime in once I’ve set the tone, which I think will keep things a little more on an even keel. Here goes:

My husband likes the house to be clean. I don’t mean just picked up and somewhat neat, but spotless, everything in it’s place, every dish put away, every surface wiped. Every day. He claims that if there is something that is not done in the house that he cannot relax and be happy. While I don’t feel that I am a dirty person, I am certainly not a neat freak. I am fine with a pile of papers on the desk or doing the dishes in the morning instead of right after supper. This has been a source of stress in our marriage from day 1. We have been married almost nine years and I feel that I have made huge adjustments to try to accomodate his needs.

My question is not so much about how much I should clean (I did read your post on When Mr. Clean marries Mrs. Messy). I truly do understand the desire for a clean place to come home to. I have tried to accommodate that. I feel that I am bending over backwards taking care of our two kids, working part time, cooking meals, and taking care of the house. I try to be submissive to his requests. If this is something that he thinks I should be doing, should I be trying harder to do it? My questions is how much should I feel responsible for his happiness?

Wow. Now THAT’S a loaded question, isn’t it? I want to answer this by giving a few thoughts that may steer people in the right direction. It’s hard to give advice to any particular person because I don’t know the whole story, and we don’t know the husband’s side. So here are just a few things that may help people to work towards a solution.

When You're Married to Mr. Clean1. When you’re married, the other person’s needs/desires do matter

It’s very likely that you and your spouse are opposite in some ways. Maybe your spouse loves to socialize and have people over for dinner while you don’t. Maybe your spouse loves outdoor stuff and you really don’t. Maybe your spouse really wants to go to bed early and you’re more of a night person.

Once you get married, you can’t just keep forging ahead according to your natural tendencies. Your spouse’s desires and needs matter, too. So if it’s really important for your spouse to have a clean house, then putting some effort in that direction is definitely warranted.

However, it sounds like this woman is already doing some of that, so:

2. When You’re Married, You Find a New Balance

Marriage should be about finding a new balance–not his way, not her way, but OUR way.

Just as she should go out of her way to keep things neat if he likes them neat, so he should also go out of his way to recognize her desires to sometimes just put her feet up and concentrate on other things.

Both spouses need to figure out what a new dynamic is. And that means that you have to talk about it–and communication really is the hardest part of marriage. It’s often difficult to have that conversation because it feels like you’re fighting. When you don’t agree, and you talk about it, it seems as if you’re angry, even when you’re not. But it FEELS as if something’s wrong, and that can be scary.

So lots of couples just simply don’t talk about it.

In this case, I think a conversation is definitely warranted so that they can both sit down and hash out THEIR new normal–not his normal, or her normal, but THEIR normal.

Here are some starting points for discussion:

1. Let’s define “spotless”. Is clean the issue, or is it tidy? Is there any leeway?

2. What areas of the house are most important to you? Assuming that I can’t keep everything perfectly neat at all times, especially with children, what areas of the house would you like me to concentrate on? The living room? The kitchen? The bathroom?

3. Let’s talk about priorities. What are your big priorities for us as a family? Now here are mine: kids who love God; a happy, active family; a comfortable home; a good marriage. All of these things matter. I’m wondering, though, how I can raise happy, active kids, and stay involved in their lives, and still keep the house perfectly spotless. It seems an impossible task to me. How do you see me spending my day?

4. If you want the house cleaner, what do you think I should cut out of my day? Can I stop working part-time?

5. Can we afford to hire a maid?

6. Can you work with me to teach the kids to clean, and can you help me enforce times when they also must do their chores?

3. Where Do Expectations Come From?

Another thought I have, specifically when it comes to how to keep the home, is the root of these expectations. Often people dream of having a home just like their mom kept. But what they often forget is that mom took 30 years to figure out how to clean that well. She likely didn’t do it that well right off the bat.

And we only remember the recent years. We don’t remember the house when we were small. If you have a mom who keeps a perfectly clean house, it’s unlikely it was spotless when there were toddlers.

4. If Someone Wants Something that Requires a Lot of Time and Effort, in General that Person Should Be Responsible For It

Here’s my rule of thumb in marriage: we all do reasonable things (of course defining “reasonable” is always difficult, but we all put in effort where we can, while still leaving time for self-care, relaxation, parenting, and marriage.

If someone wants something that takes away from any of those things, then the person who wants it most should be most responsible for it.

For instance, my husband likes having people over for dinner. I enjoy it, too, but usually we’re inviting his work colleagues or students. I don’t mind doing that, but the deal is that if we’re going to do it, it can’t all fall on me. So he has them over on nights when he gets home a little earlier so he can help clean up and prepare the food. It’s most important to him, so he helps.

Keeping a perfectly spotless house when there are kids is a lot of work. I would say, then, that she should definitely put in an effort, especially in the parts of the house that are most important to him. But because this is so crucial to HIM, then it should also fall on him to do something about it. If he’s having a hard time relaxing if the house is a little untidy, then perhaps he should help clean, too.

5. If You Can’t Agree, Ask a Mentor Couple to Sit Down With You

If you just can’t agree, get some third party advice. Sometimes seeing how another couple navigated this landmine can help. And they can often help you just to talk things out, too, which can be so difficult for us.

I know this is a really sticky subject, but like most things in marriage, it’s just about two people coming together and having to find a new balance. For marital peace, ideally both people need to be willing to set aside some of their own expectations and desires so that they can honor their spouse.

I hope that helps! Let me know in the comments how you’ve dealt with this.


  1. I’m totally with #2. There is no “my way” or “your way” – there is OUR way. It’s hard to keep a house totally spotless even without kids in the mix! But I can also appreciate a husband’s desire for a clean home. There is a peacefulness that comes with cleanliness. So, what do we do? Meet in the middle. You’re already trying your hardest and at some point he needs to recognize that and maybe relax his standards a little bit. Marriage is about finding the solution that works best for both of you. Everyone needs to give a little. :-)
    Melissa recently posted…Why I Don’t Miss Cable.My Profile

  2. I wonder if your husband might have sensory processing disorder? The reason I wonder is because this sounds like what my husband and I went through for the first about 10 years of our marriage – until we learned about the disorder. Basically he cannot relax and focus on other things when the main areas of the house have clutter. It is difficult to briefly explain so I would recommend looking it up. Having said that, we did as Sheila suggested here and talked through expectations and reasons behind them. Now he helps out more but also does his best to cope on days when I can’t get to everything. I am more understanding about his needs and work harder to meet them now that I understand them.

    • I am the same way. I really cannot function amidst chaos and dirt. God has helped me overcome a lot of this by giving me 4 sons! (He sure does have a sense of humor.) Certain events have caused a bit of role reversal and my husband is now the main house/kid keeper. So we compromised. As long as the kitchen is clean and the dining room floor swept (the dining room is the first room from the door), I will ignore what isn’t done. On the weekends I help with the rest of the house. I do the laundry and then we take turns each weeks supervising the boys cleaning the bathroom. So far it works out pretty well.

      Talking about it and what he is willing to compromise on is a huge help, even though it can be daunting. And before bringing in 3rd party help, I would make sure he’s okay with that. My husband hates discussing our problems with other people, so we try to work things out ourselves.

    • ButterflyWings says:

      I suffer from OCD… unfortunately I also suffer from multiple physical health problems that means I simply do not have the ability to ever have my house as clean as my OCD demands which means I spent years having panic attacks from it. Serious ones where I would take my daughter out all afternoon and night until her bedtime (this is after losing my first husband) because I could not cope with not being able to clean the house to the standards I desperately wanted.

      The reason I share this is if a man has a genuine mental issue (SPD, autism, OCD, etc), it CAN be overcome. He just has to accept that he has two choices – clean it to his standards himself, or accept his wife is doing a satisfactory job (just not obsessively clean like he wants) and learn to live with it.

      Even when there are genuine mental issues involved, it ultimately comes down to that choice. He can decide to accept it and get professional help for dealing with it, or he can clean himself. It’s not hard to make that decision. It won’t necessarily be easy when working through the mental issues with a counsellor, or with finding extra time to clean himself – but making the choice to do one or the other and not making the wife feel bad, is a simple, easy to make choice

    • Iveth Dickson says:

      I‘m so glad I am not the only one going through this. I’m a stay at home mom and I have spent countless hours cleaning my house to keep my husband happy. Only for him to come home upset because it is not to his standards. He will come home and put everything to where he wants it. I‘m a clean freak! I love things to be clean and put away. I mean he will move things on the coffee table or shelf a millimeter to right/left .

  3. Find a happy medium. Maybe just having the living room, kitchen and bedroom cleaned to his standards would be adequate while having a less exacting standard everywhere else.

    If he expects the entire house to meet his standards every day, then either he helps with the cleaning, or other chores, so you can do the cleaning, or he lets you quit your part time job so you have more time, or he agrees to hire a cleaning service, or all of the above.

    Bottom line, you raise your standards a bit, which it sounds like you have already done, and he lowers his standards a bit to something a little more realistic.

  4. happywife says:

    I like how you laid out a process starting with taking personal responsibility, and then moving to communicating and then bringing in a mentor couple (or possibly even a counselor). Because honestly, you can expect the moon, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get it. And from the other side, you can work ’till you’re blue in the face and still not meet expectations but you can’t change your spouses expectations. Simply trying to work harder is probably not going to solve any problems. It’s going to take some deep communication to work it out.

    And after 23 years of marriage, I truly believe that there is almost always an underlying issue when it’s something that we can’t seem to come to agreement on. It’s probably not just about how clean the house is. The house is where the issue is being manifested, but there is likely something else driving the problem. Control issues, respect issues, rejection issues, never feeling good enough, etc…. My husband and I have realized that we have to talk past the issue to figure out what is going on deeper inside of each of us when there are these seemingly petty issues that we can’t seem to resolve.

    • So very, very true! I would say 90% of the time the thing we’re fighting over is NOT REALLY THE THING WE’RE FIGHTING OVER. Usually there’s something else going on below the surface. And it’s THAT THING that you must identify and work through!

    • melissa says:

      I completely agree with exploring if there is some underlyng issue like control or even some other disorder. I know a couple that is exaclty the couple described in the question and he is a very controlling person and also has OCD. I worry about the effects of this not only on the marriage but also on the children long term. Especially if there is an underlying issue like OCD counseling is a wonderful resource because a spouse can’t really be expected to help their loved one over come such a complicated issue all on their own.

      • ButterflyWings says:

        As an OCD sufferer I can … it’s no excuse to treat your spouse badly. I have OCD and suffer from panic attacks from things my husband does that are beyond filthy (dropping clean clothes in the cat litter tray and then putting them back in with the rest of the clean washing, meaning I have to rewash the entire load) but even with OCD you still have to find middle ground with your spouse. There are some really disgusting habits my husband does that I don’t bother saying anything about anymore (even when it is giving me panic attacks) in the hope that one day he’ll start meeting me half way and stop getting angry and grouchy on the few things I can’t ignore (mainly because I suffer very bad health and his disgusting habits could literally kill me and have made me extremely ill several times).

        OCD can be managed as long a spouse meets you halfway

  5. KellyK(@RNCCRN9706) says:

    I pretty much agree with all points.
    , unless mom is a full time Stay-at-home mom, hubby needs to lend a hand. If he’s not willing to do so, he should agree to bringing in help.

    • Jeannie K says:

      Even if she is a full time stay-at-home mom, some of the responsibility still lies with the husband. If you have young children at home all day, cleaning to his standards is going to be impossible. If the kids are in school, that would more reasonable.

      • I agree with Jeannie,
        I was a stay home mom of 4 kids under 5. I knew I couldn’t do everything, but I still wanted my husband to be able to relax when he came home. So I asked him what was most important to him. Then I made sure that those areas were cleaned/picked up every day. Now that we’ve had to reverse roles, he does the same for me. And since I remember how hard it was I try to make sure and help out when I am at home.

        • KellyK(@RNCCRN9706) says:

          I wouldn’t know…Ive never had the opportunity to be a SAHM and God only gave me one child so I have no idea what its like to have more than one kid. All I know is that I work a Full Time job outside my home in addition to raising our son and helping to take care of our home.

          • Jeannie K says:

            I’m not a SAHM either. I work outside the home. But my SAHM friends tell me their experiences. And I know from being home on the weekends that cleaning takes so much more time when there is a little one that needs attention.

  6. This was my marriage to a certain extent for the first couple years. Husband would come home and be very frustrated that the living room wasn’t orderly, supper wasn’t ready, dishes weren’t done, laundry was backed up….. I could try my hardest to do what he wanted, but the thing I let slide was the thing he picked as ABSOLUTELY needing to be done that day. The feeling of failure that I felt from his continually frustration made it even harder to try again the next day. After clashing on this issue many times, I learned how to be a better housekeeper, yes, but also, to ask what he wanted done the most. It actually took him staying home with the kids while in college and me working away from the home for him to realize keeping up with everything wasn’t realistic.

    I think Sheila’s advice is wonderful to an extent, but at a certain point, like in our case, someone can be choosing to look at what isn’t done instead of appreciating what is done. There are a lot of different Bible verses that talk about having a grateful heart which can apply to the husband looking at all that IS done and the wife looking at how hard he is working to provide. We are called to serve others which may mean doing more than what you consider enough and recognizing that one person cannot do it all.

    We, personal, have come to a vocal agreement about who is responsible for different jobs. This is allowed to be reviewed whenever one of us is feeling overwhelmed or we have a big life change. For example, I am currently staying at home with our three children and I do almost all of the big ticket household chores, but I am due with our 4th in 5 weeks and will need to give up some of the responsibilities for awhile. He will have to pick up more household chores and also lower his expectations of clean and tidy for a little while. One of the best things about these assigned jobs is that when one of us does the other one’s job, we can show/receive love and caring.

  7. I agree with all the advice Sheila has provided. The one thing I would add is suggesting that the husband walk in the wife’s shoes for a time. Several years ago my husband and I switched roles, I went to work full time and he stayed home with our children (3 at the time). We both found this switch to be very powerful for our relationship because we each gained a complete understanding of the stress & work involved in each other’s job and have practical experience & true respect for what the other spouse does. I wouldn’t say we don’t take advantage of each other at times but we don’t do it as often and I know that my husband truly understands the work and effort it takes to stay at home full time with the kids.

    I understand that this kind of switch isn’t possible for every relationship but it is possible for the husband to take a few days off for the wife to go to a Women’s Retreat or visit family or friends for a time by herself. I think that sometimes we as humans forget that other people don’t think or act like us, and what we see as a reasonable request for our spouse in fact isn’t reasonable at all. Being able to put yourself in the position of doing what you’ve requested the other spouse to do (in the case of this question, having a spotless house with kids at home) can really open up a person’s eyes to how reasonable the request is and might help the spouse be able to determine what the bare minimum must be done (because let’s be honest, sometimes we don’t know what the bare minimum is until we’re faced with NOT being able to accomplish exactly what you want done).

  8. Anonymous says:

    Great advice, Sheila!! We went from me doing the majority of the housework to my husband doing almost all of it, and it was a big adjustment to our marriage. It caused me a lot of stress, because I am definitely more focused on cleanliness (although I must say I’m also messier with clutter – so we’re a good team). We talked through which were the most important areas for me to be clean, and my sweet husband has been wonderful about focusing his attentions there. Part of the problem we ran into, too, was that he honestly just doesn’t see the dirt/crumbs in the same way – for example, he rarely sweeps the kitchen floor. The crumbs drive me crazy, so I take over that job. It has worked well :)

  9. I think this is something that many couples go through. People expect their homes to look like something out of a magazine but that’s just not realistic. Homes are lived in so there are going to be toys on the floor, clothes in the hamper and crumbs on the counter. It doesn’t matter if you’re a homemaker or a working woman, your home is never going to look picture perfect. You’ll do nothing but stress yourself and your family out if you try. Now, I can understand this woman’s husband wanting to come home to a house that is clean and fairly tidy but to put unrealistic expectation on her just isn’t fair. I personally think that there may be more going on than what appears on the surface.

  10. I am like her husband, in that I want everything spotless. I certainty don’t always obtain that, with three kids and one on the way, and it bothers me. Perhaps have a good heart to heart, and then maybe hire a cleaning service. Maybe having them take care of, say, the vacuuming and mopping and bathrooms once a week will free up enough time for her to take care of the rest.

  11. Having walked in similar shoes for my own nine years of marriage (soon to be ten), I can definitely relate! For my husband, a clean house is a sign of respect to him. If I choose to focus my attention on his need for a clean house, it lessens his stress and makes it so he WANTS to come home (not just walk back out the door). I felt like if he really cared about me, the house wouldn’t matter, he’d be happy our children were alive! We have learned how to walk this life together, learning to dance in a new sort of rhythm as things continue to change. I have learned that I need to make chores a priority. He has said he doesn’t mind clutter (like stacked counters) as long as the floors are clean. About a half hour from when he’s set to come home, I do my best to drop what we are working on and do a quick tidy. I’m learning to involve my kids as “many hands make light work.” I am also learning to incorporate chores into our daily lives with simple things like having them wipe down the table after meals or putting their own dishes away. I have a “kitchen helper” who helps me do dishes. It’s difficult sometimes to be actively training, but as my oldest grows, I’m beginning to see these habits take hold and my children’s abilities increase. I am having to change a little of who I am (and my messy habits) to accommodate HIS needs, but at the same time, he has learned how best to help and pitch in.

    I have been either pregnant or nursing our entire married life (our first is a honeymoon baby). I have struggled with pregnancy hormones, fatigue, lack of sleep, and the rest. I homeschool. Sometimes it’s just not easy or realistic for me to get to everything. Sometimes my husband takes over on the weekends, working on backed up chores and setting the kids to doing tasks as well. He organizes them to do what needs to get done and sometimes it’s just better coming from Daddy! Sometimes he’ll take the kids for a while so I can focus on a project. And he appreciates the work that I DO put in! But coming to this place hasn’t happened overnight.

    It’s been long discussions about how I need to know he loves me first for who I am, and telling him how much it helps when he notices what effort I have put in. He has told me how it blesses him when I focus on the areas of importance to him and take his requests seriously. How it makes him want to help and join the work when he knows his wife cares. And we have worked on a plan and have to KEEP working on a plan to get everything done! (Especially as our family continues to grow.) But it takes a humility in listening and getting to a place where I not hostile or defensive in order to hear what he is saying (and vice versa). And definitely has not come along without a lot of prayer!
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  12. I’m the messy (disorganized/creative) one and he likes order. It’s been a 20+ year struggle. Some compromise, like making sure the main areas of the house are picked up and neat; and since I love to work outside the home, a housekeeper every 2 weeks for the deeper cleaning/scrubbing tasks (and his favorite day to come home is after the housekeeper’s been here… i had to get over the reality that I just couldn’t always give him that “pleasure…” but I do pay for it because there are other things I’d rather do!).

    But I truly loved how you suggest asking HIM how to bring the children into it. I always was a proponent of chores for the kids– and always had a chore chart for the smaller things like table setting, dishwasher, trash… help with dinner clean up. Sadly, my husband NEVER would reinforce this to the kids, instead taking on these jobs himself. It made me angry (and still does) because he works hard outside the home too, and after I prepared a meal, I felt it was reasonable our kids would clean up–so a cycle of me feeling either bad for him/guilty or angry he wouldn’t exhort our kids. Now they’re all in/heading off to college and it’s too late… we love them dearly and they have many good qualities, but they are messy kids (worse than their mom!). but I strongly encourage couples to work out ways children can be PART of the family and invested in the care of their home. It goes beyond training them up in the way they should go and contributing to the famiy; it shows the husband’s respect to the wife that he guides his children that way. It was a sore point for me and still rankles; I’ve had to let it go and forgive, just as he still forgives my clutter.
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  13. I worked long hours and my wife was a SAHM. Somehow she looked after our two children AND kept the house reasonably neat and tidy. Since she has poor eyesight I think she was amazing. Now, both in our 70s she has health problems which means I have to do most of the housework. I appreciate even more what she did for many years. I count it a privlege to be able to look after her AND the house and garden. We are more in love than ever and I know just how wonderful she is.

  14. In our experience, I can say that the underlying issue for having a spotless, clutter-free home is pride.
    My husband has similar tendencies as everyone has already mentioned. For myself, I would like to have everything in its place, and everything clean all the time, but I cannot manage it, even on the most productive day. My mother is the same way, and admits that, like me, she likes having everything clean and orderly, but can’t keep it that way. It goes in cycles.

    Cleanliness becomes an idol. In the person who can’t function without “clean” present, he has built an idol. Is having the house clean more important than having love and respect from the people inside it? When a woman or children clean the house only because Dad can’t stand it, they aren’t always doing it out of respect, but out of avoidance — wanting to keep Dad/Husband happy and avoiding anger or disappointment when they have not met his requirements. Yes, keeping the home in great condition shows respect to the person who finds it important, but to the degree that he can’t function? Idol. No question.

    My husband has been known to apologize to people as soon as they walk in the door, letting them know he is sorry about the mess, etc. This is pride in action. He believes others will judge him on the perfection found in our home. When he visits someone, he notices how clean their house looks. He grew up in an environment that focused on outward perfection while their insides were a mess. His father is OCD and his mother lives under conditions of her own control all the time, having to have everything “just so”. Healthy? Hardly!

    When my husband apologizes, he shows disdain for me or the children, and causes uneasiness for visitors. He thinks he is putting guests at ease by admitting this downfall. What he says to them is, “My wife is lazy. My children don’t care. I have a higher standard than they do, and they just don’t bother.”

    Just a few months ago, we volunteered to help a very poor family move. We had no idea the conditions we would find — horrible. Trash in corners, and severely unsanitary conditions in bathrooms and the kitchen. I wished for a big snow shovel to just fill trash bags and haul it all away … their worldly goods would have been everyone else’s garbage.

    As we drove away, I said to my husband, “That is what a lot of people live every day. It happens more than we know. There they are, knowing we were coming and leaving things just as they are every day, no excuses. Those people had nothing to give, no hobbies or interests to make all that mess. They were simply living and getting by every day. I can’t imagine living like that.”

    He hasn’t said anything about clutter or cleaning since, except to help get our children to keep their school and sports paraphernalia from trickling into our living space and taking root.

    I have a lot to learn about keeping up with household needs, and he has a lot to learn about what’s really important in life.

    P.S. His office isn’t tidy (he works from home, no secretaries, no support staff – he does it all for himself). He has so much to do for work that keeping organized chaos is all he can hope for — and he understands that because he realizes the hierarchy of need as it pertains to HIM. I have had positive outcomes showing him the same goes in the home. Cleaning isn’t more important than meal preparation, paying bills on time, or guiding kids through life and fielding questions they have every day. Cleaning has to happen to some degree every day, but not to the point that it’s the #1 activity in anyone’s life.
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  15. I love how positive all the comments are!

  16. This is so our house. I grew up with a severe neat freak as a mom. I am not bent that way. I know it drives my husband crazy sometimes. We both have to learn to give a little. I honestly get distracted easily and I can walk away from a project before I complete it and totally forget about it. I did ask hubby to tell me the couple of things he wants done everyday and I try to get them done before he gets home each day but I’m not always successful. I had a friend whose husband was not kind about his expectations. Their house was immaculate and yet he could still always find something to nitpick about. I’m very thankful my husband is not like that. As always, thanks for the encouraging words! Now I need to go do the dishes :)
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  17. Michelle says:

    My husband LOVES having a clean house with zero clutter. I felt like such a failure for the longest time in our marriage because while I am not super slovenly, I am comfortable with more general day to day living messes (within reason!) Anyway, I came across Carol Tuttle’s book, “IT’s Just My Nature” about 4 years ago and it was life changing for me and completely helped me understand myself and my husband in a new light. Even just knowing more about myself so I could stop negatively judging my “deficiencies” was so helpful! But also seeing my husband in an honoring way has been so empowering to our marriage. I am not talking about condoning destructive harmful behavior– just loving ourselves and those around us for who we are instead of criticizing and blaming and judging how we think they SHOULD be. Anyway, it has completely changed the dynamic of my marriage relationship in a positive way to understand this and for us really resolved this issue. I love Sheila’s recommendations here too!

  18. Love this! I am the neat freak in our family, and my husband is Mr Messy. :) It has been quite an adjustment for us both! Finding “our” normal has been an important process and we’ve both grown from it.
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