Quick Summary: When we fight with each other, the ostensible topic of the fight often has nothing to do with what is really troubling us.
I often talk with patients in the office about challenges in our relationship with our significant other, our main relationship. I’ve come to call some of these fights “dishwasher issues,” because what the fight is supposedly about (ie how to put dishes in the dishwasher) often has nothing to do with what the fight is actually about.
Couples fight about all sorts of things— like how to load dishes into the dishwasher. These arguments can be epic— screaming at each other, breaking things, tears, doors slamming— over how to put dishes in a machine.
Objectively, we can agree that the specifics of loading a dishwasher are not critical. The plates go on the top rack— or the bottom. The bowls face left– or right. I have preferences, you have preferences, and my partner has preferences; in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that important.
Our dishwasher at home doesn‘t do a great job with the silverware. I don’t like pre-washing the silverware. From my perspective, if the silverware comes out dirty, it has to get washed again. So what? I don’t want to hand wash every piece of silverware before I put it in a machine. My wife feels differently— she is annoyed when the silverware comes out dirty and thinks it should be washed before going in. She does not want to wash it again and would prefer to do it once. Honestly, both of our positions are reasonable, at the end of the day, it does not matter that much. We are each entitled to our preference. I’m sure this scenario happens at your house— if not the exact situation, something close to it.
Most people can also recall times in their relationships when something as silly as this caused a huge fight.
Honey, you know the silverware has to get washed before it goes in the dishwasher.
Yeah, I know.
Then why aren’t you doing it?
Well, I don’t really care if I have to wash it again.
I told you, you have to clean it before it goes in. I’ve told you a thousand times (voice rises).
I told you a thousand times, I hate washing it first. That’s the machine’s job (voice also rises).
Of course not. Just like you never clean up around the house either. You do it your way. Great. Just let it come out dirty. Run it through the machine a thousand times. Whatever (sarcasm rises).
Right, I’ll just spend ten hours making it spotless, and then put it in the machine. Maybe then it will be good enough? No, I’ll tell you what, I’ll quit my job and spend all day cleaning the silverware before putting it in the machine that cleans the silverware. How does that sound? (sarcasm, anger, and voice all come up).
Seem familiar? Why does this happen? Why does something as objectively stupid and unimportant as loading a dishwasher cause a fight?
Usually, the fight is not about the dishwasher. It‘s not about the silverware. It is actually about something else, below the surface, that is not being said. We are talking about doing the dishes, but our meanings and emotion are much different. Here’s the same conversation, except with what might be going on below the surface, the thoughts and emotions beneath the words:
Honey, you know the silverware has to get washed before it goes in the dishwasher. I’ve asked you to do this for me before, but you don’t seem to listen to me or value my opinion.
Yeah, I know. I’m trying to do the dishes so you can relax, why are you micromanaging me? Why are you being controlling?
Then why aren’t you doing it? You never seem to value my opinion, and I don’t feel heard. Do you even care about what I think?
Well, I don’t really care if I have to wash it again. I hate it when you second guess everything that I do. I’m an adult, I can wash dishes, you need to give me some space.
I told you, you have to clean it before it goes in. I’ve told you a thousand times (voice rises). You don’t pay attention to me, don’t care about my needs, and always insist on doing things your way, even when it hurts me.
I told you a thousand times, I hate washing it first. That’s the machine’s job (voice rises). You want to control my life, control what I do. It is quite frankly oppressive to be around you. You remind me of my mother, who was always trying to control me.
Of course not. Just like you never clean up around the house either. You do it your way. Great. Just let it come out dirty. Run it through the machine a thousand times (sarcasm rises). You say you are a part of this relationship, but all the real work falls on me. Just like my parents were never fair to me, never valued my contribution, you’re the same way. I have never felt like anyone sees me or my contributions.
Right, I’ll just spent ten hours making it spotless, and then put it in the machine. Maybe then it will be good enough? No, I’ll tell you what, I quit my job and spend all day cleaning the silverware before putting it in the machine that cleans the silverware. How does that sound (sarcasm rises). It doesn’t matter what I do, its never good enough for you. I could spend my entire life trying to make you happy, and you’d just be dissatisfied and want more. This is like my relationship with my father, I was never good enough. I have a deep concern in myself about never measuring up.
This is not about right and wrong. It is not about how to clean dishes— the dishes are just the surface level problem. Even if there was an agreement on the dishes, the conflict would resurface somewhere else. There are deeper needs that each person has that are not being addressed, and instead of connecting on the level of the deeper needs, the argument is about dishes. The challenges that each person feels are valid and need to be addressed, and that cannot happen while the focus is on the dishwasher.
So, where do go from here? We need to recognize that big fights about trivial problems are not really about trivial problems. Instead, the surface level problem is masking something larger, and that larger more complicated issue is what needs to be addressed. To do this, each person needs the self awareness to recognize what is actually happening, what needs are being unaddressed, and have the courage to communicate needs.
Coming together on these deeper issues involves love, grace, and acceptance communicate openly, honestly, and with care. This communication goes both ways, and both partners need to do the same thing. By recognizing what the fight is truly about, we can find resolution, address what is really bothering us, and feel better in our relationships.