Once, after spending time with my family, M commented to me that my mom dishes out criticism like it’s a compulsion. It’s as if her head will explode if she goes five minutes without correcting someone about something. Hearing this, I laughed nervously, wondering if M has noticed between my mother’s tendencies and my own.
I can be particular about things to the point of being obsessive. I don’t like the way my husband cleans the bathroom, so I don’t let him do it. I trust him to vacuum and help clean most of the house, but I staged an intervention over his dish-washing methods. It seems silly—almost petty—to argue over cleaning methods, but these things matter so I do bring them up.
At the same time, I know what it’s like to live with a control freak. I know it can erode your confidence in a way that takes years to repair. It wasn’t until I left home to go to college that I felt like I could breathe without being scrutinized, or make a mistake without being shamed for it. I’m fully aware that I have the potential to become like my mother, so I try to monitor my nagging. I don’t want the marriage that my parents have. I want M to feel respected, capable, and like an equal partner. I just want an immaculate apartment, too… Is that too much to ask?
When I criticize M about the way he does something, it’s because I care. I care about the outcome of the task, yes, but I also care that he knows how to make me happy. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t say anything. I would seethe quietly and let the resentment build. Communicating honestly, even about the little things, is important—even when it comes in the form of negative feedback.
On the other hand, it’s tough to give criticism and it’s rough to hear it. It can sound like an attack, and I know I’ve hurt M’s feelings several times. It makes me feel like a bully sometimes, especially since the criticism mostly goes one way. Still, I know it’s impossible to fix problems without talking about them. Even small problems. Even problems that M doesn’t see as problems.
This has been an ongoing struggle, but here is what I’ve learned along the way:
- The little things matter. Even if it seems like a stupid thing to argue about, the fact that you’re arguing means that it matters to one (or both) of you. Often, the core of the argument comes down to feeling respected. If you’re on the receiving end of criticism, listen. If you’re on the giving end, make sure your partner knows not just what you want, but also why it matters—then listen to their side of the issue, be understanding, and be willing to compromise.
- Nagging is not the answer. It’s a pattern of communication that builds resentment on both sides. No one likes being told what to do. However, when I tell M what I want done and why I’m trying to do it, he’ll often help. Sure, it takes a much longer conversation, but it has a much better outcome.
- If you want something done your way, you have to do it yourself. It’s not fair to expect someone to have the same standards and methods for cleaning. If it’s that important to me, I have to do the work.
- Choose your battles. Accept that you and your partner are fundamentally different in the way that you approach cleaning. Compromise where you can, and work to create a space that’s comfortable for both of you. Don’t expect your partner to do things your way just because your way is “better.” Resolve to let your partner do some things in their crazy, backward way, and love them for it all the same.
The Dishes: A Case Study
Have you ever felt a surge of irrational anger over something that, in isolation, shouldn’t be a big deal? For some people, the feeling is triggered by facing the same annoyance again and again—the keys left in the door, the cap left off the toothpaste, or the car windows left open on a rainy day. For me, it’s when M says he’ll do the dishes—then only does half of them.
After a moment of pure rage that my husband repeatedly offers to help and then does a terrible job and leaves work for me, I remind myself that a) the man is trying to help, and b) a sink half-full of dirty dishes isn’t the end of the world. Still, if you say you’re going to do a thing, why not do it?
I truly appreciate that M wants to help around the house. Even if he never initiates cleaning, he always tries to pitch in when he sees me doing chores. He gets a gold star for that. Still, I get the feeling that the primary reason he’s helping is to make me happy. Therefore, his dish-washing strategy is backfiring. Thus, the reason for the intervention.
It all comes down to expectations
After a year of arguments about the dishes, I decided that it was time to get to the root of the problem. I’ll spare you the details of our thrilling conversation, and skip to the magical breakthrough that (hopefully) will change my life and the state of my kitchen sink forever!
The core of the disagreement was about expectations. M felt that he should get credit for helping with dishes, that thankless and never-ending chore, when there were less dirty dishes when he finished than when he started. By his logic, cleaning all of the dishes in the sink was not the goal since there would be more dirty dishes minutes later. He didn’t realize that to me washing the dishes meant washing all of the dishes. (Please tell me I’m not the only one scratching my head at this logic!) He certainly didn’t realize that by leaving dirty dishes, I felt that he was leaving more work for me. After this conversation, I promised to acknowledge the effort he put in, and he promised to be aware of the work he was leaving behind.
I don’t know whether this is the last conversation we’ll ever have about washing dishes, but I do feel like we have a better understanding about each other’s expectations. I stopped seeing him as unreliable and irresponsible and started to realize that he just approached things in a different way. Now, he knows how to make me happy, and I’m starting to understand his crazy, backward unique approach to cleaning.
How do you and your partner/housemates settle disagreements about chores? What unique quirks drive you crazy, and which have you learned to live with?