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Dishes left on the Countertop of Life

Your Humble Blogger happened across an essay called She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink, which has been recently passed around by everyone and everyone else. I am linking to it, not because I agree with either the details, the hypergendered worldview or the main thrust, but because it inspired me to say a few things about, well, my own marriage, and my own thoughts about leaving dishes by the sink. I mean, it’s not about dishes, right? Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu probably don’t need his follow up essay to know that. His example of continuing to leave dirty dishes on the counter after his spouse repeatedly asked him to put them in the dishwasher speaks to myriad aspects of cohabitation. It’s not news to say that fights about the dishes are rarely about the dishes.

What I think the writer gets at, here and in the follow-up essays, but fails to articulate, is that individual acts happen in a context, and that context is what is important in a relationship. That context is the relationship, in a way that is helpful to think about. So: if a particular dish-by-the-sink incident is within the context of my partner does so much around the house, but I wish he didn’t do that one thing it is very different from my partner is the most selfish human being on the face of the earth, I have to do every fucking thing for him, he can’t even put the dish in the fucking dishwasher. Matt’s spouse was presumably thinking the latter. It’s not about the dishes on the counter as such, but I want to emphasize that each individual act of dishes-on-the-counter contributes to the entire context, which in turn is how that individual act is interpreted.

Sound complicated? Excellent! The world is complicated.

If you are minded to commercial metaphor, you can think of it as a bank of good will: our partners keep a running balance of good will, which we, with every action (and inaction) increase or decrease. However, the cost (or reward) for each action is multiplied by the amount in the account already, so a sweet and helpful gesture by a treasured spouse is counted very differently than that by a total dickweed, even if it’s just remembering to fill the car with gas. The irritations likewise. And of course the metaphor is completely wrongheaded because that balance is not computed but intuited, and may at any moment have as much to do with the spouse being hungry or tired or horny than with your recent direct actions. If your actual bank is like that, my advice is to withdraw. If your spouse is like that, my advice is not so, but far otherwise. If you don’t think your spouse is like that, then, well, you know him better than I do, but.

If you don’t think you are like that, you are wrong.

And the thing is—it’s not just marriages. It’s not just romances. It’s your relationships with your workers (calling in sick on Monday again) and your professors (no extension for this loser) and your kids (could you just once turn the light off when you leave the room) and that guy you buy coffee from every morning (oh, great this guy again). And everything you do feeds into that context and is interpreted within that context, and that constantly changing context is your relationship with everybody in the world. That context is the world, in lots of ways that are very helpful to think about. So, you know, be nice.

OK, fine, be nice. Wonderful insight, innit?

Here’s another: you can deliberately influence the context in which you hold other people. You can choose my partner does so much around the house, but I wish he didn’t do that one thing or my partner is the most selfish human being on the face of the earth, I have to do every fucking thing for him, he can’t even put the dish in the fucking dishwasher. I don’t want to overstate it, because the bit above where I talk about being hungry or horny is also true. But to a great extent, you can decide that you will rate any particular action as a Big Deal or Small Stuff, and that is easier to do if you consciously think about it in the context of how you choose to view your relationship with the person doing that thing. With luck, that’ll mean that when your spouse does something irritating (and we all do sometimes) you take a moment to appreciate just how much she (or he) does for you all the fucking time and then you pick up the dish and put it in the dishwasher yourself and forget all about it. Without luck, that’ll mean that you remember that your spouse really is the most selfish human being on the face of the planet, and hell, if that’s the case, you really ought to keep that context in mind when dealing with all these myriad microaggressions.

What I have found helps keep the good stuff in mind is saying it, out loud, as often as necessary. My Best Reader and I have the following conversation every week:

BR: Thank you for doing all that laundry.
YHB: Nah, it’s my job, I’m the laundry guy.

And I am the laundry guy and it is my job, and it is lovely that my Best Reader thanks me for doing it every week. It’s not just because it’s nice to be thanked for things, it’s because that verbal thanks tells me that the next time I leave a dish on the counter (or my own equivalent thereof) my Best Reader will likely put it in the context of he does help out a bit around the house and all, and he means well. And while I probably don’t thank my Best Reader every single time she cooks dinner, or every single time she does the grocery shopping, or every single time she picks me up from work, I try to make a habit of it, at the very least frequently enough to assure her that whatever irritating things she occasionally does (and we all do them, even my Best Reader) she can rest assured that I will think of it in the context of my goodness, the most irritating thing she does is occasionally leave the little empty sweetener packets on the table, that’s not bad. I use the example for rhetorical purposes only, by the way; I see no upside in disclosing details of how irritating we humans actually are to live with.

But while we are really irritating cohabitants, we humans also have this amazing ability to wrench our perspectives around, sometimes. Try it! And then put the damned dish in the dishwasher.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,