In the last 10 years in my work as a therapist I’ve heard couples argue about some of the most serious issues. I’ve also heard an equal amount of arguments over the most ridiculous things. The most common, yet benign argument, is over housework.
John Gottman says that 69% of marital problems are perpetual issues that will never be solved. This means that you really need to figure out a way to keep the peace and ride the waves of the perpetual problems.
When couples come to my office and I bare witness to their arguments over minute things like housework it can be incredibly telling about the state of their relationship. It’s rarely about the dishes, the dirty clothes, or your partner’s decision to move the furniture around without consulting you first.
When people dig their heels in and fight tooth and nail over who doesn’t clean up after themselves I think to myself, 1) who cares about the dishes?? and 2) what’s this really about? And those are things that I will quickly verbalize.
99.9% of the time when I call couples out on what they’re arguing about they will admit to me that it’s really not about the dishes.
In order to get there I ask questions like, what’s really under your ager over the dishes, why is this so important to you, and what feeling or thought comes up for you when you see your partner’s dirty dish in the sink?
That’s when I hear the translation: “you’re not on my team,” or, “you don’t have my back,” or “I feel like I’m just here to clean up after you (which translates to: we aren’t spending any quality time together).”
I’ll be honest with you – for the last 8 years of my marriage one of our perpetual problems has also been housework (which is why I finally hired a housekeeper).
I call this the dirty sock test (because that’s our issue): On any given day as I am picking up around the house I can find my husband’s dirty black socks strewn around like I’m on an Easter egg hunt. I know this about him – he sits down, removes his socks, and kicks them to the side, and there they stay until he or I come around and clean up. I’ve spent 9 years living with this man, I know that’s his habit, we all have them and I know I’m far from perfect – we said for better or worse, right?
But if I happen to be picking up the house and I bend down to pick up a few dirty socks and also happen to find myself whispering expletives under my breath, I know that my love tank is empty and he hasn’t been speaking to me in my love language, and I it’s time to ask for what I need. What I might think I need is for him to pick up his damn socks, but what I truly need is much more than that (it's usually quality time).
Nobody gets that angry over a pair of dirty socks (or dishes, or furniture, or tardiness) unless there’s something under that anger - the socks just happen to be the blister on the surface.
So when you’re ready to snarl, retreat to your corner, send a snarky text or give an obvious eye roll, it’s time to check yourself and ask, what’s this really about?
Another way to think about this is to ask yourself, “if my best friend left their socks behind, (left a dish in the sink, or was late for plans) would I blow up?” More than likely it would just roll off your back and you wouldn’t think twice about it.
We give our friends a great deal of grace. But when you aren’t nurturing your friendship with your partner its easy to fight about the little things.
So what’s it really about? Are you resentful over something that’s missing in your relationship? Those conversations might be more difficult to have, but I’m happy to help. You might not get over those perpetual problems in marriage, but when you’re free from resentment it makes it so much easier to be friends - even if they don’t get around to washing their dishes a couple times a week. You can click here to book a consultation with me and we can talk about how couples therapy might help.