How many times have I heard this interchange from the troubled couple sitting across from me? She says: “He obviously couldn’t care less about what’s important to me!!!” He says: “I do! I do! I just forgot!” But she doesn’t believe him, because if the tables were turned in the same circumstance there’s no way she would forget.
It’s always a variation on the following. Carole cooks dinner and rushes out to a meeting at the kids’ school. Henry stays home and puts the kids to bed. She arrives back at 10p.m. and can’t believe that the dishes are still in the sink, unwashed. She knows he’s been in the kitchen. The evidence? He’s eating a snack in front of the T.V. Her blood is boiling and her voice is tense when she asks, “Henry, why didn’t you wash the dishes?” He looks up blinking, struggling to log on what she’s saying and responds, “Dishes?” Then all hell breaks loose.
What makes these scenarios so destructive is the wife's misinterpretation of her husband's actions. Yeah, it sucks that he didn’t tidy up so she could come back to a quiet, organized home after a long day of work and taking care of her family’s needs. But she’s wrong when she experiences Henry’s lack of diligence as primarily having to do with her. Yes, he walked in the kitchen while she was out, and yes, the sink was filled with dishes. But for him, it just didn’t register. Dishes, what dishes? His mind was focused on getting that snack and making it back to the T.V. in time for the start of the game. He didn’t even see them.
Of course, Carole and Henry have a problem. He needs to do his part of the work around the house, no question. But if she interprets his not doing the dishes as him purposefully sticking it to her, she’s angry about the wrong thing. More likely, he’s in a state of mind that is oblivious, lost in his own world. If she can accept that, at least the problem is understood from the proper point of view.
Women’s minds work differently from men’s (you can reverse the genders in this scenario if it’s the woman in your house who is the oblivious one). When Carole walks in the kitchen, the dishes in the sink are screaming at her, “Wash me! Wash me!” She won’t be able to relax till the sink is clean and the work is done. But it’s different for Henry. If he were living on his own, he’d have no problem leaving them till tomorrow because it’s more important to catch the game and decouple from the overwhelming stresses of the day. He’s been hanging on by his fingernails all day till he can get some time to gear down and the bits of housework that need to be done are just not a priority to him.
Carole fears that if she leaves the work undone, it will pile up and up and she’ll start to drown, like Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice! But Henry doesn’t operate with that same internal anxiety. If he were living alone and left the housework undone, he’d figure that he’d get around to it some time – no hurry. So if he maintains the level of tidiness that his wife seems to need so much, he’s doing it really for her sake, not because he needs it so clean. It doesn’t come naturally for him. It’s not the sink of dishes that’s screaming at him, it’s his wife!
Another way that male/female minds work differently is that if the tables were turned, the wife wouldn’t forget his request, so she makes the logical assumption that he also remembers what she had asked for and has purposefully disregarded it. Women are socialized to meet the needs of those around them – we learn to be good girls, nice girls, help out and accommodate very early on. Men are trained to strive to compete and are much more comfortable putting their own needs first because they were raised that way. They often have to work to notice what others need whereas for women, it comes naturally.
Where does this leave us? The dishes are still not washed, but at least Carole understands that it’s not because he doesn’t care about her feelings, it’s just because it didn’t register; also a problem, but a different, maybe less destructive one.
Disclaimer! Of course, these gender stereotypes are not consistent across the board but they are prevalent in many of the couples I work with in marriage counselling so I thought it worthwhile to discuss.
I’m a family therapist and the author of Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife's Guide to Recovery and Renewal and My Sister, My Self: Understanding the Sibling Relationship that Shapes Our Lives, Our Loves and Ourselves.