“Every time we fight my husband and I keep bringing up all kinds of old, dirty laundry. How can we fight better?” – Nora
When my son was a boy, he once said to me, “Mom, if you’re upset with me, just tell me, you don’t have to list every single thing I ever did”. Out of the mouth of babes comes wisdom. His request perfectly addressed what I like to think of as the Kitchen Sink approach to fighting.
The well-worn journey to the Kitchen Sink usually starts with one dish, or in one criticism. And then leads to another dish being piled on top. It often starts with an innocuous complaint: he didn’t take out the trash, for example. It then continues on to the last time he did the same thing, how he doesn’t seem to notice that you’re sharing an apartment which is typical because his family is completely self-involved, to which he might reply that your family is self-involved and on and on it goes. Until you have both started piling up of grievances that have happened to you for the last five years.
One innocent dish has started the fight and a pile of dishes has been stacked on top of it. And when you pile up all the dishes, the situation has built into an impossible stack of grimy plates to tackle. When each issue is heaped on another, we find that we are unable to discuss anything in particular – the argument has no focus. The initial complaint has become a deluge and whatever irked us in the first place has become irrelevant. Not only does this pull us towards the past, over which we have no control, but also destroys trust. As Clifford Notarius and Howard Markman write in We Can Work It Out, “kitchen-sinking is an excellent foul-fighting ploy that can drag down a conversation in no time at all.”
Living with someone is one of life’s great joys and challenges. As Alain de Botton points out, in none of the “19th-century novels about love does anyone ever do the laundry, does anyone ever pick up the crumbs from the kitchen table, does anyone ever clean the bathroom.” But these are the tasks we are faced with when we live with the one we love. So, we have chosen our partner in the war against household grime, now how can we stop repeating these patterns and fight better as a couple? I can’t promise you these tactics will always work but I do know that the Kitchen Sink approach will always fail you. What do you have to lose?
Stick to the point at hand
Let’s say you want your partner not to slop water on the bathroom floor when they shower. Instead of framing it as an accusation, you can ask for what you want. For example: “Would you mind drying the floor after you shower?” You might find, for once, that your desire is met. Instead of drilling down on this point and adding to it, stay with the first issue. Don’t pile on dirty dishes about the past, the future, your children and the laws of physics which prove it’s not your fault that water flies around bathrooms. Life at home, you may find, is less slippery when the floor is dry.
Focus on behavior, not character
Not taking out the trash or arriving home late are actions. They are not the proof of the kind of person your beloved is. Behavior describes something a person has done. Be careful you don’t confuse actions with the essence of who the person is as you will find yourself unraveling into an escalating barrage of accusations.
Love the one you’re with… and let them know
If you can convey to your partner that you like them, even though you don’t like the behavior they have enacted, then you are giving them something dignified to hold on to. And they can begin to take responsibility for their actions. For instance, “You look cute in a towel but I don’t like it when you splash water on the floor” is very different to “You always make a mess”. It may be hard to summon feelings of kindness when you are faced with someone else’s peccadillos but remembering that you like them will also have the effect of neutralizing or transforming the situation into one where humor, lightness and ease are possible.
I would love to know what kind of kitchen-sinking conundrums you and your partner get into. Or how have you found a way out of conflict. Leave me a comment below. And next week we will delve further by exploring how we can go beyond bickering.