We’ve all seen it happen, in television or film if not in real life. The fight that starts with snide comments over some household chore, escalates into shouting and the hurling of unresolved and seemingly irrelevant past grievances, ends in one or both parties saying something hurtful and/or storming out and refusing to talk any more.
The washing up is such a classic battleground for people who share a living space. Unlike something like laundry, where pretty much every item can be assigned to an owner, washing up isn’t always easy to split into ‘yours’ and ‘mine’. I can look at the heap amassing next to the sink and wonder why I have to be the one to clean the pots, pans and plates from the dinner I cooked for us both last night. Partner can look at the exact same pile and note the mug from the tea he made me earlier – why should he have to deal with that now? If I portion out some leftovers into a Tupperware for him to take to work, is that my mess or his?
The other day I was partway through making curry for us when Partner came wandering sleepily into the kitchen. He microwaved himself some leftover noodles and ambled out again. He returned ten minutes later to add his now empty bowl to the washing up stack, now containing all of our bowls, and off he went again. To take a little nap.
I responded by calmly explaining why I found this frustrating. Hah, just kidding. I responded by passive-aggressively banging cutlery about in the sink while I did the washing up, shaking Partner awake when the food was ready and barely speaking to him when he came to collect his portion. He asked me what was wrong and, after some huffing and puffing, I told him I’d been really irritated by the way he left his snack bowl behind, like, “there you go, you can deal with that,” when I was already doing the cooking. He pointed out that his leaving it dirty did not necessarily mean I had to wash it, and I snarked back that actually, yes I did have to do the washing up if we were going to have anything to eat off.
“You don’t want to start a conversation about the washing up,” he said.
Oh, didn’t I? DIDN’T I? So the fact that we had no clean bowls or forks was my fault, I guess? If I was pulling my weight in the household and keeping on top of these jobs then he could feel free to drive-by-snack with impunity, never fearing that he might be using the last available crockery. Just because he’s working and I’m currently at home during the day, doesn’t mean I signed up to be his freaking maid.
If we were following the stereotypical script, this is where it would get shouty. All of the things I might say, or yell, played out in my head. What came out of my mouth was something bitchy and vague suggesting that he wasn’t exactly acing the one household task he has explicit responsibility for, but yeah, let’s not start a conversation, and then I sat down with my curry and rice (now cold) and had a little angry-cry.
Now, while there are myriad ways in which Partner and I are very similar, some of the most successful elements of our relationship come down to the ways in which we are enormously different. While I’m emotionally volatile and, I’ll confess, hyper-sensitive to perceived criticism, he maintains a level of emotional distance during moments of high stress or conflict. While I sat on the sofa, crying tears of mute fury into my dinner, he came and sat carefully next to me. Tentatively, like you might approach a feral cat, he put a hand on my shoulder.
“I wish I understood how I’ve made you feel like this.”
I took a moment to organise my thoughts into the question I probably should have asked before descending into a spiral of imagined accusations, “What did you mean, I don’t want to start a conversation about the washing up?”
Turns out it hadn’t been the dig I’d thought, all he was saying was that it was not likely to be a productive conversation at that particular moment in time. “It’s like how people say not to go to bed angry,” he explained. “If one of you is already stressed or upset, talking about division of household labour isn’t going to go well.”
Oh. Well… fair enough.
We ate, we went for a little walk, we got some cider and we sat down for a proper conversation. Spoiler alert: my feelings about the washing up were not entirely about the washing up. I was projecting a whole lot of stuff onto that; guilt that I wasn’t keeping the flat spotlessly clean when I have so much more time to theoretically do so; resentment over that guilt because I’m trying to treat writing and job applications like a job, not just loafing around doing nothing all day; worry that I’m not going to be able to contribute as much financially to our joint funds as I’d like to when I get a non-teaching job. I had some petty grievances to air, and some deeper insecurities to look at, and Partner had some thoughts and feelings of his own. We talked, and we listened, we worked out what needed to change (which, if you were wondering, does include Partner doing more washing up) – and none of it would have been possible if it weren’t for that choice that was made to not escalate.
I give full credit for this to Partner, but he’s a little more generous. “It’s useful that you’re a good communicator, and I’ve seen a lot of domestics,” he commented at one point. The fact is that actually, once there’s a bit of distance from the original point of conflict, we’re both pretty good at talking through our thoughts. And neither of us want to be in a relationship where we fight over things. So this, I think, is the only way to avoid fighting about the washing up. Or anything else for that matter. If you can resist the urge to say something cutting or provocative that will divert attention away from the things you’re afraid of saying or hearing, if you can be the person that responds to anger by asking why, if you can agree that you’d rather work with than against each other, then you get to something that I personally like a lot better. Learning to understand each other, not looking to undermine each other. Conversation instead of conflict.
And if, like me, you wish you could be that person but can’t quite manage it when you’re pissed off? Do as I did and find someone who is good at that part and hang on tight to them. I can’t recommend it highly enough.