My Marriage…Ended Over Dishes
Today I begin a new series inspired by what pops up when you Google the words “my marriage.” These are the things people most frequently tell Google about their marriages, so I thought perhaps as a marriage counselor it might help if I could address these oft-told-to-Google situations.
In April of this year, a guy named Matt Fray wrote an outstanding piece in The Atlantic called The Marriage Lesson That I Learned Too Late. I wrote this piece today having not heard of that one, but the popularity of it explains why when you Google “my marriage,” “ended over dishes” is what comes up in the top ten.
I highly encourage you to read both posts since his is based mostly in his personal experience and mine comes from my perspective as a therapist.
What Actually Causes Divorce
Before I comment on dishes ending marriages, here’s a look at the kinds of things that actually do end them. Notice dishes is not on the list.
So what about dishes? Would someone actually think their relationship ended over dishes? Well, that’s probably what it feels like.
Couples do tend to argue a lot over things like dishes and who does what around the house, and you tend to deeply feel whatever you are arguing about.
The problem is that in relationships, the thing you’re arguing is frequently not really what you are arguing about, and Matt Fray’s article in The Atlantic explains this beautifully.
Here’s the actual culprit underlying the dishes issue, and many of the other fights couples have.
Failed Bids for Connection
Marriage expert John Gottman has been saying for a long time that one of the main underlying reasons for divorce is that partners fail to respond to each others’ bids for connection.
A bid for connection is anytime you need something from your partner, from small things like taking something out of the oven, to big things like taking a week off work to sit next to your partner in the hospital before and after they have surgery.
Gottman has noted in his research that couples who are doing well together respond positively to each others’ bids for connection 87% of the time, whereas couples who are struggling respond positively only 36% of the time.
In relationships that are struggling, at least one if not both partners often don’t notice and/or don’t respond positively when the other has a need.
Bids and Trust
In other words, when you respond well to a bid for connection from your partner, that builds their trust in you.
When you respond negatively or not at all, that erodes trust.
It’s not the dishes. It’s one partner not hearing how important the dishes issue is to the other partner and not taking it seriously, which leaves the other partner feeling disrespected, unloved, and often even alone in the relationship.
I have a term for when partners consistently don’t show up for each other.
Relationships end regularly because one or both partners don’t understand that in small ways, day in and day out, they are micro-abandoning their partners by not responding positively to their requests and bids for connection.
Often they are not responding positively because they do not really realize what’s at stake. That is scary, because what is at stake is often the marriage itself.
It is easy to not realize what’s at stake, and that’s why I hook the prefix “micro” to the word abandonment. Micro means tiny. Hard to see. Miniscule.
That’s why the problem may seem to be “just” the dishes. But turning away from your partner over and over again on a seemingly small issue like this amounts to hundreds of micro-abandonments, which build up over time and leave your partner feeling ABANDONED in a big way.
That’s when marriages die.
The Way You Do Anything Is the Way You Do Everything
Father Richard Rohr says the way you do anything tends to be the way you do everything.
The issue in your marriage may seem to be the dishes, or some other trivial issue, but it’s not.
A partner who is not trying hard to understand and respond, even in seemingly small things like dishes, shows the other person, again and again, that ultimately they aren’t important.
And someone who does this with dishes surely does it in many other ways as well.
Because the way you do anything is the way you do everything. If you don’t listen, you don’t listen.
That’s why, when someone who is married to someone who doesn’t listen says, “We need to get therapy,” the person who doesn’t listen usually replies, “No we don’t, we’re fine.”
Wouldn’t it be odd if they didn’t respond that way?
How could this person, who communicates to their partner regularly that they don’t really listen, suddenly hear their partner in that moment?
How could this person in that moment say, “You think so, babe? Well, if you feel that strongly about it, I’m with you 100%.”
That would be listening, and this isn’t a person who listens.
What, then, are the takeaways here? What can married people learn from this to help their relationships?
- Try to look past the “dishes” or immediate issue you are arguing about to identify a bid for connection being made and how that bid is being responded to.
- When you are making a request of your partner, and/or a bid for connection with them, be as clear, brief, and specific as possible. (“It would really mean a lot to me if you would handle the dishes on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings when I have school.”)
- If your partner seems to be having a lot of emotions over an issue that seems fairly trivial to you, the issue isn’t really the issue. There’s a lot going on under there, and your relationship will likely suffer if you don’t take it seriously.
- Related to the above, when one partner thinks there’s a problem in your relationship, the relationship has a problem. Not taking the problem seriously just perpetuates what the other partner already is feeling is the problem.