It’s not about the dishes. It never was. They’re just the straw. You know which straw. The LAST straw. You’re run down, exhausted, life is happening and it needs your attention and then your spouse leaves that cup on the shelf by the door. Not even in the kitchen! And you need to clean it up! How dare he!
These things happen in relationships. All relationships. It may not be a cup, it may not even be in the house, maybe it’s in the car, maybe it’s about groceries. It doesn’t matter what it is. What we know is something happens and then we lose it. But why? Why do these things happen and why can’t we cope with them?
It’s really simple – and very complex – all at the same time. What happens is we have a lot going on in our lives, and so do our partners, but we don’t share all that’s going on with each other, and when we do, we often aren’t clear about how that impacts us. We say, “The baby’s teething, drooling everywhere, and didn’t nap today.” What our partner hears is, “The baby’s teething, drooling everywhere, and didn’t nap today.” What we meant was, “I have a whole extra load of laundry to do, but I didn’t get the first load done because I couldn’t put baby down without baby crying. I listened to so much crying today. My head can’t take another sound! I haven’t showered in two days and I don’t even know who I am anymore. I’m overwhelmed and stressed and just wish I could curl up and have someone else take this weight for an hour.”
Our partners then say something like, “What’s for dinner?” or “I’m heading out to watch the game with the guys.” If they’re really astute, they may say something like, “That sounds tough” and give us a hug before they ask for dinner or say they’re going out.
You saw it didn’t you? That last straw. As the words left his mouth it floated to the ground between you.
Men don’t get it. They don’t understand the words and weight between the lines. We want them too. We want them to understand and recognize what we’re going through. We want them to hear “The baby’s teething, drooling everywhere, and didn’t nap today.” and recognize the weight and the agony that goes with that short, simple sentence.
It’s not about the dishes, or going out with friends. It’s not about the laundry or who washes baby. It’s about balance and support. The work that goes with being the primary caregiver, especially to a cranky baby, is something that cannot be understood by someone who is not there all day every day.
What Happens When That Straw Falls?
As the straw falls, one of three things happens. If the relationship is strong, if you have enough energy to think for a moment, if you can hold your anger in check, then you will say, “I need help tonight. I’ve had a horrible day that I can’t put into words.” But if your relationship is not strong, if you don’t stop and think before you speak, or if your anger bubbles out, then the words you use will be very different. Your tone will be very different, and instead of receiving help and compassion, a flurry of straw followed by that one lone, last straw will come out between you. Or the third way people often deal with these situations is to withdraw. Say, “Okay, fine.” but then don’t talk. Don’t tell them you’re hurt, don’t tell them why. Nothing resolves our anger, upset, hurt builds.
We can’t control our partners, but we can control ourselves. At least in theory. Often once the weight of too much emotional work, too little sleep, not enough support, not enough empathy, compassion, or understanding we find we lose the ability to control ourselves.
The cycle repeats over and over.
How To Regain Control
Regaining control takes work and is unique to each person. But there are a few things that can help. First, it’s important to understand where you need the most support. Do you need someone to help with the dishes? Or maybe you need your partner to stop, look you in the eyes, listen while you tell hem how hard your day was, and respond with, “Wow, that sounds so tough. I’m amazed by what you accomplished!”
At this point don’t tell your partner what you’re discovering. This is for you. Write down, one to two sentences only, exactly what the problem is and exactly what you need. In order to keep it to the limited number of sentences you need to move passed the insignificant details (of which there are usually many) and break it down to the root. Is leaving dishes on the counter an issue because you’ve told him over and over how hard you find it to get the dishes done, yet leaving them around the house makes your job harder? The issue isn’t the dishes, but you don’t feel like he’s heard you. You don’t feel like you or your feelings mattered. You don’t feel like he cares.
What needs to shift so you feel supported? What would show he cares? If you say, “Put dishes in the dishwasher” he might do that, but you will likely still feel like he doesn’t care. Because the dishes weren’t the issue and there are likely many other similar issues in your life. Instead you need to focus on what you need to feel loved and cared for by him. Do you need him to listen and let you know he understands how hard your day was? Do you need him to do things, without being told, to lighten your load? Do you need him to come and give you a shoulder massage and tell you he loves you and appreciates what you do? Maybe you wish he’d bring you a cup of tea or a bottle of wine when he comes home? Or would taking a night each week to have baby stay with grandma for an hour and the two of you have time to be together with no distractions help you more?
Do you need words, acts of service, loving touch, gifts, or quality time more? (hint: you need all of those over time, but one will sound much more appealing than others).
Once you’ve figured out what you really need to feel supported and loved, you can practice how to tell your partner. Think about the last time the two of you really got into a big fight. What was it about? What did he say/do? What did you say/do? Now imagine if you changed the words and actions and were able to take a deep breath and say, “I’m feeling really hurt right now. What I need is…” What do you think would happen?
What if you told your partner what you needed when you were angry?
It Takes Time
This is not a magic formula. The first few times you try this you may not notice a difference. But over time you will. That’s the nature of relationships. They take time and effort.
Sometimes you need personalized guidance. Sometimes you need to work through trauma from your past. But with effort you can learn to be better and your relationship can transform.