In order to make a long term relationship work, it takes figuring out how to live well in an equitable fashion.
Today’s egalitarian relationship are built on living the mundane moments with a sense of care and intentionality. Modern couples are often at a loss for how to infuse their daily lives with true meaning such that their marriage might last a lifetime.
I work on a daily basis with numerous couples who are working to figure out how to make love last. They each come in with similar stories about where they get stuck and how their love fades.
Each of them thinks that they might be the only ones going through what they are experiencing, yet they don’t realize that the next couple in the waiting room is likely experiencing very similar dynamics in their relationship.
Very few of us really know what goes on in the inside of the relationships of those around us.
We likely don’t even know half of the story of the relationship issues of those closest to us. Yet if we did, we might realize that we all struggle with very similar issues in our most intimate relationships:
Difficulty communicating, challenges in the bedroom, emotional distance, being let down by our partners and not knowing how to fight fair are just a few of the main issues that modern couples face.
I am in a privileged position, as a therapist, to hear what people’s lives and relationships are really like. It became clear to me that most people are unaware of what’s really happening in the inner lives of others.
Most people are looking for tools to have more satisfying relationships, but are often stuck in blaming their partner rather than making changes themselves.
How I helped a couple with a fight about who does the dishes
I decided to write one of the couples I work with a letter and address their concerns from a recent session. That session focused on a fight about who does the dishes at home.
I’ve heard this sort of fight many times from couples. They argue about doing the dishes, and it becomes about much more than simply the act of getting the bowls and dishes clean. It becomes about an underlying dynamic in their relationship, and how power is distributed.
The letter to this couple is included in my book, You Are Not Crazy: Letters From Your Therapist (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, 2018) along with 50 or so other letters to individuals and couples. The letters are meant to help people feel less alone in their experience, and perhaps see therapy as an option for their personal growth and development.
The letter that follows is the letter to this couple fighting about the dishes. While their names and details of their situation have been changed, their story is a common one.
Perhaps their experience can teach us a little about how to create a romantic relationship that can last a lifetime.
A letter of marriage advice for all
Dear Alex and Jamie,
Our last session was the third time in the last two months that you have argued about who does the dishes at home.
The latest episode was one in which Alex left a cereal bowl in the sink in the morning before heading off to work. Jamie, you reported seeing the bowl but did not wash it, even though you had some time to do so. Instead you waited to see if Alex was going to wash the bowl after coming home. That didn’t happen, so you let it sit there in the sink until the next morning to see if Alex would say anything. He didn’t, and that lead to an argument.
The cereal bowl in the sink was a symbol. It held tremendous meaning for you, Jamie. It was not just something that holds breakfast cereal; it became a test of who picks up after whom. The bowl became everything that is out of balance in this relationship and how you might take one another for granted.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people in therapy discuss who does the dishes. It is a very common conversation as it represents something foundational in family life. The home is where we come together to share meals. Buying food, cooking, setting the table, clearing it, and washing the dishes are all daily chores that go into a shared family life. Yet the division of household labor constantly gets well-meaning and loving couples into ongoing quarrels.
Doing dishes is the grunt work of mealtime. We speak about the joy of cooking, we watch cooking shows on television, and take great pride in preparing a healthy and hearty meal for our families. We also go to great lengths to savor food. We become foodies, try new restaurants, and revel in good company over a shared meal. Yet we do not celebrate the joy of doing dishes.
There is no dishwashing competition on television. We don’t see shows about adventurous hosts traveling the world in search of people doing dishes. No, the dishes are reserved as a chore. They take a back seat to the main event of the meal. Those who are left to tend to the dishes might also feel like they take a back seat.
Being charged with the grunt work of cleaning up after dinner might feel lower status than being the one preparing the food, and it certainly feels lower than those who are being served. The dishwasher can feel taken for granted and unappreciated, almost acting in a service capacity.
Jamie, when you saw Alex’s bowl in the sink, perhaps you felt that he was sending a message that you should wash it for him. Perhaps you felt taken for granted and in a service role. If that’s the case, then I can see how that would feel awful. The next day your argument escalated over this cereal bowl.
Alex, you felt Jamie was being ridiculous to get so upset about a bowl. In fact, you felt pretty hurt yourself that Jamie would wait to see if you would eventually wash the bowl and test you in this way.
I know that this isn’t the type of environment in which you want to live. The argument stretched on for days and turned into extended periods of silence until you came to our couples counseling appointment.
Of course you know that this was not about the cereal bowl. The level of emotion and argumentativeness far surpassed the indiscretion of leaving a bowl in the sink for a day.
We need to understand what was brewing underneath the surface such that it boiled over during the cereal bowl incident. We need to look at why people get so upset about who does the dishes.
You are not alone in this scenario. Who does the dishes represents so much about the structure and dynamics of a family. Why do some people share the task of dishwashing while others split the tasks and relegate it to the person who did not cook?
In your relationship, Alex and Jamie, how is the division of household labor handled? We need to examine if you are holding any deeper resentments. I would suspect, Jamie, that you are carrying resentments about certain aspects of the relationship, and that they came pouring out when you saw Alex leave his bowl in the sink.
Often what will become illuminated for couples is that issues are buried deeper than they realize. There can be a displacement of relational emotions onto household duties.
Jamie, you have talked before about not feeling like a priority to Alex. You’ve described him as someone who tends to be more concerned about his own needs, and who neglects yours at various times. It is no wonder that in the aftermath of the cereal bowl incident, you brought up that he was not around for you when your mother was sick in the hospital.
Alex had no idea why you would bring that up, and became quite defensive. Yet if we look at it together, we can see that the deeper tides of neglect and lack of appreciation overflowed when the bowl was left in the sink.
The bowl wasn’t causal; it was merely illuminating imbalances already existing in the relationship. It brought to the surface the problems in the marriage that you have not yet addressed.
Brave couples, such as you, are willing to look at times when a fight over the dishes turns into something bigger. They are open to investigating what the fight is telling them about their relationship.
This cereal bowl incident can be an opportunity for greater insight and connection. It can be a chance to better understand and care for each other. Once you start feeling one another’s enduring care, and once you feel less neglected, then you might see the cereal bowl differently.
It might just be a bowl. It would not carry the same meaning that it did the other day.
When that felt sense of care is present, you might not worry about who does the dishes. Instead you might actually volunteer to do them!
Excerpt from You Are Not Crazy: Letters From Your Therapist by David Klow used with permission from Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, Inc.
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