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Fighting About the Dishes? It Might Be About Something Else

Underlying anxieties often erupt over household chores.

supermop / shutterstock
Source: supermop / shutterstock

by Aimee Martinez, Psy.D.

Many partners, roommates, and family members are experiencing increased frustration and irritation since the lockdown began. Issues and challenges that existed B.C. (Before COVID) are now exaggerated by the drawn-out uncertainty of not knowing when things will go back to normal.

Is it really about the dishes?

I have heard numerous accounts of partners quarreling about the dishes, such as who loads and unloads the dishwasher. But a disagreement about dishes might have little to do with dishes. Surface tensions often indicate underlying emotions stemming from past experiences, and even unconscious thoughts that we’re unaware of.

Arguments and frustration about dishes could indicate all sorts of possibilities. Dishes are attached to eating which is inherent to our survival. So when a partner ignores the dishes or leaves them for the other to handle, the dirty dishes or full dishwasher might be a reminder of not being nurtured. It could also indicate a struggle for control, or feeling out of control due to the pandemic, or it might feel similar to a past relationship in which one felt an imbalance and took on the majority of household and emotional labor.

How the past influences everyday surface struggles

This type of interaction is often influenced by past experiences. Sometimes when we express anger, the underlying feeling is fear. In the example above, a fear of not being fed or nurtured could be tied to an unconscious fear of deprivation, emotional starvation, and even death. But focusing on the dishes rather than the internal experience is a way to deal with and manage deeper feelings.

Sharon (not her real name) was becoming increasingly angry at her roommates for letting dirty dishes pile up in the sink for days without putting them in the dishwasher. Normally, she and her roommates worked outside the house and often ate out as well, so this wasn’t a typical issue until the pandemic forced them all to prepare most of their meals at home.

Sharon felt pulled to clean the mess herself, and she usually did, but also felt resentful that this wasn’t her responsibility. She didn’t feel comfortable bringing this up with her roommates and her anger festered. One afternoon she came home and found dishes piled high in the sink and her roommates watching TV. She yelled, “Why do I always have to clean up your mess?!” Her roommates, surprised by her reaction, just stared at her. One said, “Gosh, I’m not sure why you’re so upset!” Sharon felt horrified and embarrassed, but also very angry. She knew this was a familiar feeling but didn’t know why.

As we unpacked the interaction, she shared that her mother had been a “hoarder.” Sharon often begged and pleaded with her to help keep the house clean. Her mother almost always ignored her and Sharon would be left taking on the responsibility herself. Sharon realized that she assumed that if she brought up her concerns to her roommates they would be unresponsive just as her mother had been to her pleading to keep the house clean. Through this process of making connections to her past, Sharon was able to raise the issue with her roommates which led the three of them to find a fair solution.

When we are upset, we can easily confuse the present situation with one from the past. In the example above, Sharon realized she was recreating and reacting to an old experience with her mother rather than responding to the current situation with her roommates. Taking space to think about why you might be reacting in a certain way can be a helpful way to de-escalate tensions as they arise.

Try this exercise to identify how experiences from your past might be influencing current relationship challenges: Think of a situation when someone made you confused, frustrated, or angry. Write down a few sentences to help you tell a story or version of your experience with them. You can even try to recount the conversation between the two of you and what you were feeling. All information is useful. Try to write at least 5 sentences. The more you write, the better you’ll understand what was going on inside you.

Now, think about the recent issue with your partner, friend, child, family member, or co-worker and ask yourself:

  • What is bothering you most about this interaction or situation?
  • What do you wish you could say to this person?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate the intensity of your emotional response?
  • Did the level of intensity match the event?
  • Have you felt this way before? If so, when and with whom?
  • Can you draw any connections between then and now?
  • What fears might you have about addressing this situation?

The goal of this exercise is not to fix the situation but to open a conversation between two people—to collaborate, to be heard, to listen, and to understand. It can help you identify experiences from the past that might be influencing your current feelings. This can provide an opportunity to get to know what’s below the surface.

Before you act, think about who you are reacting to. Is this really about your partner or roommates or the dishes in the sink? Or are you responding to an older unresolved wound?

Aimee Martinez practices in Los Angeles and is a Clinical Associate at the New Center for Psychoanalysis. She is the Director of Clinical Relations at the Wright Institute Los Angeles where she facilitates early clinician development in professional marketing. She specializes working with emerging adults supporting post-collegiate anxiety and identity formation, those in creative industries, and former college athletes.

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