My husband and I are having a horrible ongoing fight. Its epicenter is the ever-present pile of dirty dishes sitting in the kitchen sink or partially loaded into the dishwasher.
We are both busy professionals and often have different schedules so we can’t always eat together. When I’m in a hurry to make some breakfast or dinner, it’s exasperating to discover that the pan I need is soaking, or that there are no clean spoons or forks.
I’ve asked Bill repeatedly to be more considerate of me. He makes promises but they don’t materialize. Although this may seem like a small issue, I feel he is constantly disrespecting me by not keeping his word and so there are a lot of bad feelings.
I’m not even going to get into the laundry situation, but it’s similar.
We agreed to write you together, so here’s his version:
I can’t believe that David is so bent out of shape by this. I think he’s exaggerating when he says there are no clean utensils and also when he says I don’t keep my promises. I do ultimately get the dishes into the dishwasher and run it. But like David, I have an extremely demanding job and some important extracurricular obligations. And sometimes I have to get out before I have time to finish cleaning up to his specifications by his deadline.
David has way stricter standards than I do — he is really a neat freak — and I think he should learn to compromise. I certainly have become way more attentive to cleaning up since we first moved in together. I may not be on his exact timeframe, but I do a pretty good job. How we do chores seems like an absurd reason to have tension in a relationship, much less consider divorce, but his constant carping is getting to me and the bad days are starting to outnumber the good.
Obviously, we see things very differently. How do we settle this?
You’re not alone. In my practice, I see couples go at it all the time over dishes, laundry, vacuuming and cleaning. And I tell them what I will now tell you: While you may have your preferred way of keeping the house and your preferred timeframe for doing so, your husband isn’t going to simply agree with you. Arguing about it will get you nowhere except further into a state of war.
So how do you get out of constantly fighting over the dishes?
First, the big picture. If you want to have a relationship that is generally loving, respectful and peaceful, keep these points at the forefront of your mind at all times:
• You and your partner will often have different ways of thinking, acting and seeing things. That’s life. There’s nothing to be gained by seeing your way as right and his way as wrong.
• Your spouse will regularly push your buttons, big time, simply by having a different point of view. Find a way to have a sense of humor about this if you want a better shot at enjoying your relationship, including the challenging parts. You may also find it useful to remember that people grow when they learn to live with things that are not perfect!
Now, about those dishes. If you want to go forward in your marriage with good feelings rather than bitterness, both of you have to find a way to negotiate around chores and other disagreements in good faith. The key components to doing so: strive to always be honest and respectful; work to influence your partner by explaining why you want what you want, rather than by strong-arming him or shaming him over his preferences; and keep your word when you commit to doing something, even if you don’t want to do it. These are simple concepts, but hard to practice consistently. It’s hard work to live up-close with someone who is profoundly different from you.
I do wonder if you are each holding fast to your position simply because you want to be the guy calling the shots rather than the guy being told what to do. If so, make it your practice to remind yourself that you have committed to building a life together. Regularly ask yourself: how can I be collaborative? What am I willing to tolerate living with, or without, in order to share my life with my husband?
It can be quite difficult to turn your critical lens from your spouse to yourself, to go from thinking he is the problem to wondering what you can do to work together. If you remain stuck, please find a skilled couples therapist. Dirty dishes are no reason to have a miserable relationship.
Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with gay couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at personalgrowthzone.com. All identifying information has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to Michael@personalgrowthzone.com.