Why Couples Break Up Over Dirty Dishes

Louisa Leontiades Beastly & Beautiful, Psychology, Psychology-Relationships

When I walked in, the kitchen wasn’t clean and I sighed inwardly. Before I’d got angry, now I was just apathetic. We’d agreed you see. I was in charge of the cooking and he was in charge of cleaning up afterwards. It was our attempt at gender equality. But he’d let it slide again. Like he forgot to wipe the table after eating. Or sweep up the scattered pasta shells we always managed to drop under the table on our monthly Italian date night. It was annoying, sure. But I never thought pasta shells would be what caused us to break up.

Housework in general was something that he disliked and I understood. I disliked it too….but I did it anyway, normally picking up the slack from what he didn’t do because it wasn’t worth the fight. Until I got so angry at the unfairness of it all, that we fought anyway.

‘But I told you.’ He’d say. ‘These things slip my mind, they’re unimportant to me. Feel free to remind me.’

‘You mean feel free to start nagging you. Why can’t you remember them without me nagging?’

Dunno, he said shrugging dismissively. It’s a man thing. Women see dirt and men don’t. Wasn’t it you who sent me the article on that?

Then he walked out. I was fed up of being the one who nagged, or as he put it ‘reminded’ him to do things. Our best attempt at sorting the housework had been to write a list of tasks and stick it up on the fridge. But then he got quite carried away at the competition.

‘Look how many crosses I’ve got! he said. ‘I’ve done far more washing than you this week.’

‘Great’ I said inwardly seething. Should I have bought some gold stars for him?

Because I had never asked for or needed praise for cleaning out the fridge. It’s not like it was a great achievement. It was just part and parcel of running a house. Nor had I felt the need to tell him how many times I had cleaned it. I wasn’t like

‘Darling I’ve cleaned the fridge ten times this month! Aren’t you impressed?’

He liked the easy life too much and I hated being the nag. Eventually we got a cleaner; too little, too late. Because not long afterwards, we broke up. Our housework incompatibilities and associated issues had eroded our relationship and my attraction to him. He needed someone he said whose standards were lower than mine. And I was a drama queen making a big deal over nothing.

That was one way of seeing it.

But the fact that he accidentally forgot to change the sheets, or sweep the floor even after I’d told him a hundred times, and more importantly, after he’d agreed to it, was a mark of passive aggressive behaviour.

My boyfriend had grown up in a very reasonable household where logic and decorum prevailed. Anger was viewed as an unacceptable loss of control. And so in an unconscious effort to be ‘accepted’ by his parents, my boyfriend had subverted his rage during his childhood and grown up to become Mr Nice Guy.

But Mr Nice Guy was unable to assert himself which meant there was no way of getting what he needed. Instead he developed a strategy. He learned that the BEST way to get his way, was through indirect inaction. It was the path of least resistance. The easy way out.

He didn’t want to do the housework, but he agreed to do it because if he didn’t, it would cause a fight. Then he ‘forgot’ to do it, because he knew that eventually I would stop nagging him to do it and he would get out of it. It worked for a while. We got a cleaner and I lowered my standards. But it didn’t stop there. Instead of just helping with the cleaning so that we did less, the cleaner replaced ALL cleaning. He did none, and I was damned if I was going to do any if he didn’t. We lived with pasta shells under the table. About 10 of them at any one time. Dried and shiny with tiny specks of bolognese stuck to them, glued to the floor and smouldering with my resentment.

Back then I didn’t realise that part of the reason I was even with him was because I couldn’t stand someone who challenged me directly; I had a huge fear of rejection myself and was attracted to someone who actively avoided confrontation. I thought it meant less drama. But it only meant less externalized drama. Because the resentment was just as, if not more, destructive. I had been afraid to rage, but in the end I was the one who cracked first.

‘That pasta shell has been there for over a week.’ I shouted.

‘Well why haven’t you picked it up then?’ he said smiling at me. ‘Have you been resentful all this time? How very passive aggressive of you!’

‘I wanted to know how long it would take before YOU picked it up. But you’re never going to are you?’

‘I didn’t even see it.’ He said ‘So I couldn’t even if I wanted to. Besides I work late. You have more time to pick up the pasta shells.’

‘So that’s going to be our life. Either I nag you like a child to clean your room. Or I accept that my time should be spent cleaning because I chose to be in a job that finishes at 5. ‘

‘You don’t have to treat me like a child. And as you said, you chose a job which gives you more time. Take responsibility for your own actions and their consequences.’

‘But you act like a child. You don’t keep your agreements. And you don’t even try to resolve the problem. Instead you conveniently ‘forget’ and don’t say anything about it so that I’m forced to confront you. Say you don’t care about pasta shells under the table if that’s really how it is. Don’t agree to clean and then just ‘forget’. It’s not my job to chase you. I’m not your fucking mother. And by the way? I chose a job where I could have more free time, not more time to pick up food from the floor. If that’s how much you think my time is worth then you’re an asshole.’

‘So this is it. You’re leaving me over a pasta shell?’

‘If that’s the story you want to tell people, then yes.’

He laughed derisively but his face started changing. He was angry. Because I was rejecting him. And I felt some sort of satisfaction. I was finally getting a reaction about this thing that was important to me instead of being constantly dismissed.

As his face turned purple and he spat at me about how I was fucked up and pitiful, I wondered. Maybe I’m never going to be able to live with anyone. And maybe I should resign myself to the fact that it would always be me who cleaned the house.

How many women have wondered this? How many women are with men who have been taught that strong emotion should be suppressed in order to avoid rejection? Who adopt passive aggressive strategies as a way of getting out of what they don’t want to do? How many women have also been taught that anger is a bad thing and purposely seek out passive aggressive men because of their own fear of conflict?

 

I didn’t care that he didn’t see the pasta shells on the floor. I didn’t care that he had been taught by society that cleaning was a ‘woman’ thing. I didn’t care that he had a job which required him to work late so he had less time to do the ‘boring stuff’. All three of those reasons were simply justifications for why I did the housework and he didn’t, even if neither of us wanted to.

The bottom line is this. Housework is one of those necessary evils. It has to be done even if the amount is negotiable. So negotiate about it. Argue about it. Decide on what you are and are not willing to put up with, for your sake and for the sake of the relationship. It should be the level you can take without resentment. Then stick to it. Because (even) worse than doing housework is seeing what was once a loving relationship break up because you were both afraid to face that negotiation in the first place.

I didn’t leave him over a pasta shell. I left because our argument was characteristic of how we operated together. Two people who were seemingly unable conduct a relationship without falling into manipulative passive-aggressive communication strategies. We had been indoctrinated into suppressing the expression of our emotions and eventually the emotions themselves. Our suppressed anger turned our respect to scorn. And our love to hatred.