When Your Husband Washes The Dishes

I’m washing the dishes. That’s because Justin’s just washed the dishes, but only washed half. So I’m washing the dishes. Because when my husband says, “I cleaned up the whole kitchen,” what he actually means is, “But not everything…:” Even when he’s explaining his domestic contribution, he only explains half. And so I’m finishing the job.

When asked why he said he washed the dishes but only washed half Justin might respond by saying something like, “Meh, I got bored.” Or, “What dishes?’ Or his favorite, “Is it really necessary to wash all of them?” Justin’s a highly educated grown man with a very successful professional career as a television producer. At work he’d never say, “Meh, let’s just make half the show.” But at home, halfway is the whole show. And so I’m standing here long after Justin and the kids have gone to bed, washing the other half of the dishes.

In the fifteen years Justin and I have been together, this is not the first night I’ve stayed up late finishing the job long after the job was supposedly done. By day I make mental notes documenting the location of sticky floors that will supposedly be mopped up knowing full well they will be mopped up, but not with water, or soap, or a mop. Mentally, the juice spilled on the floor that will be covered by ants in the morning if someone doesn’t do something about it will be mopped up. But physically, that juice will stay in that very location waiting for me, or until the end of time.  The kids will step through it getting their shoes stuck in the juicy mess and one of them will say, “Someone should clean that up.” And then everyone will look at me.

Holiday decorations can stay up for months or years despite a conversation that involves my beloved saying the words, “Yes, I will take them down.”   A heavy piece of furniture that I couldn’t possibly move myself will collect dust before it’s moved. Likewise, that old sandbox in the yard will become compost long before it’s “I’m definitely going to move that this weekend” moved. That is, unless I move it myself.

And if you’ve gone down the wrong thought freeway thinking Justin’s lazy or unhelpful, he’s not. He’s willing and helpful. He just doesn’t finish the job, which technically makes him not at all helpful, but in a meant-to-be-helpful-but-I-got-bored kind of way.

When Justin and I first started living together, it didn’t occur to me that my ovaries made me a domestic expert. Whereas Justin who, if he didn’t tell you already, has two Ivy League Degrees which by definition qualify him as smart, steps across the threshold of our house and has an immediate domestic lobotomy, I step across the same threshold and am the de-facto rememberer, knower, maker, cooker, and cleaner of everything, even things that have already been done.

At the beginning of our relationship I was determined not to be a part of a couple that had fights about domestic obligations. I worried about being labeled a nag and was quick to judge any friend who was. And then I found myself washing dishes that had already been washed or wondering why our cabinets smelled like blue cheese only to realize someone had washes the dishes, but not dried them before putting them away and now they were moldy.

I’d ask Justin to run a quick errand on his way home from work. He’d return empty handed and look at me like I was speaking Tagalog and say, “What errand?” as if I’d made it up. Or I’d mention to Justin that it would helpful if he’d at least get his dirty clothes within the vicinity of the laundry hamper in the bathroom and he’d politely reply with sincerity, “I was going to. I just didn’t yet.”

And before you again drive down the wrong thought freeway and assume I’m some sort of white glove wearing clean freak, pull over. I’m not a clean freak at all. But, I am a mother. That means I have children. Those children live with me. And those children who live with me like to eat on plates, drink from glasses, wear clothing on their bodies, and discard that clothing onto the floor, over and over again throughout the day. Children’s messes are like a college girl’s STD. If you don’t deal with it, it’s going to spread fast. So I deal with household messes fast knowing that another one will be coming soon.

For a few years there I’d try various tactics to equalize our domestic responsibilities. For a while, I’d only do my laundry in a Gandhi-like peaceful protest against me being the only person in my house responsible for everyone else’s clothes getting cleaned. Justin didn’t mind. In fact, he was quite willing to do his own laundry and sometimes even mine. Except his definition of doing the laundry meant shoving a bunch of clothes in to the washer and turning it on. By the time those soaking wet clothes needed to travel the two feet from the washer over to the dryer, he’d have forgotten about it. Or worse yet, he’d figured he’d knocked washing the clothes off his list. Drying them? Wait, who said anything about drying them?

For a short while, I figured that it probably took me longer to bring up my domestic discord to Justin than to just clean everything up myself. And so, in an effort to save time, I’d quietly surrender to the chores without protest. But I made the mistake of telling Justin my plan, which he reminded me of every 2-3 minutes of the day and every 5-10 minutes in his sleep. That’s when I decided that wasting time negotiating the laundry was a far better use of my time than being reminded I’m a hypocrite by a man I’m legally bound to until death.

But, something changed today as I washed the dishes my husband had left behind. I had long since wondered why such a smart man could have such a difficult time completing simple tasks at home. Sure it had occurred to me years ago that Justin was applying the “Male Theory Of Getting Out Of Chores”, which involves the male species doing a shitty job at all household responsibilities in hopes he’s never asked to do them again. I’d assumed this was the explanation for the one and only time Justin did put the wet washed laundry into the dryer. He put the dryer on the “High Heat” setting and I ended up with 13 pairs of underwear small enough to cause me to lose circulation in my vagina and a laundry basket filled with t-shirts that had been shrunken small enough to fit my 4-year-old daughter.

But today it occurred to me that my highly intelligent husband isn’t an intentional domestic moron, nor is trying to be unhelpful. I realized he’s not well. My husband is ill. This can be the only explanation for a well-credentialed man having less domestic follow through than a fetus. And so it’s occurred to me that my husband has possibly suffered a stroke that only impaired his ability to clean up after himself. Likewise, I’m researching to see if there is an undiagnosed form of dementia which makes married men forget that they’ve just put dirty dishes into a dishwasher filled with already clean ones.  Or, at the very minimum, he’s suffering from a soap-opera worthy bought of amnesia that has him remembering every nuance of his job, but nothing at home.

I take great solace in knowing that my husband is not well. I’ll take amnesia over, “Meh, I got bored.” The thought that he’s well and has the luxury of having Household A.D.D. is a little too much to bare.

Because truth be told, I’d like to have Household A.D.D. I want to stop in the middle and assume someone will finish my chore.  I don’t want to know all the answers. I don’t want to clean up all the messes. I’d like to shrug my shoulders and walk away from homework, organizing birthday parties and washing both halves of the dishes because I just wasn’t interested anymore. But, I have ovaries. So that means I can’t.

When the television show “Entourage” was on HBO, Justin used to run around the house screaming like Jeremy Piven’s fast-talking agent character Ari Gold, “Fuel The Jet!” Piven’s character would excitedly beckon for his minions to fuel his private jet at a moment’s notice when he needed to take care of business. Justin loved the bravado of it and whenever he was excited about something he’d yell, “FTJ, baby!” as if we had a jet.

Since my ovaries dictate I’m the defacto cleaner-upper of the sticky spot on the floor and the late night washer of the second half of the dishes, they also give me the right to walk around the house asking my minions to, “F.T.J.” Finish the job, people. Then maybe I won’t have to.

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21 thoughts on “When Your Husband Washes The Dishes

  1. It is a woman’s lot to be the only one in the household who can apparently successfully complete these chores. The one time my ex- did the laundry (because I was down for the count with an adult case of Chicken Pox). He put the laundry in the machine. Threw in the soap.An hour later put the laundry in the dryer, and then kindly put it all away. Only he had never run the washer. Or noticed. My drawers were full of dry laundry soap for months.


    1. I suppose that IS much easier than just learning how to do it correctly, for the sake of your wife’s or SO’s sanity.

  2. I showed Alex how to operate the washing machine the day we got back from our honeymoon. He’s technically been doing his own laundry for years now, but I was pretty sure there was something about marriage that was going to make him forget. He still manages to do it himself but actually taking his clothes back OUT of the dryer? Not a part of the process.

  3. As a working dad with a wife that is a SAHM and 3 kids 6 and under, I can actually understand how your husband ends up where he does. I know because I’ve caught myself doing this stuff to my wife.

    My wife and I honestly see things differently. I live much more in the “now” when I am at home. I am only there for a few hours a day and all I want to do is enjoy my kids while I am there. While they are awake, nothing else at all matters to me. I get 3 hours MAX a day with them. So, that spilled juice that happened in the middle of a chasing and giggling session or while helping my son finish his homework or stacking blocks for the 80th time for my daughter, just doesn’t cross my mind as critical at that moment.

    I will say exactly what your husband says “I will get to it when I am done here.” I’d say there is a 50/50 chance I will actually get to it. As you say, its not out of laziness or malice and obviously not from a stroke, but simply because my mind was somewhere completely different when it happened. By the time the fun ends and the kids are in bed, I’ve simply forgotten about it.

    Of course, like you, my wife mentally catalogs those things and knows that if she doesn’t deal with it, feet will get sticky. So she does it. It’s not fair to her and even worse is it isn’t fair to the kids who rarely get to have fun with her cause she won’t let things go. She won’t let things go cause she “knows” she’ll have to do it. It’s a vicious circle.

    So, how does it get better? Two things from my viewpoint:
    1) Get me to empathize. After the kids are in bed, and NOT in the moment (in the moment = nagging to us, even if it is unfair) bring up some things you would really appreciate help with and why (one thing at a time, otherwise = nagging). My wife did this once with my dirty clothes issue. I would leave dirty socks in the living room and dirty clothes next to my side of the bed.

    She asked, very nicely, at a moment when there were no high emotions and we weren’t doing anything else: “I know you don’t do it to drive me crazy, but it really does. Could you please start putting your dirty clothes away? And is there anything I can do to make it easier for you? I pick up a hundred things every day from toys, to food, to clothes for the kids, I really shouldn’t have to do it for a grown man too.”

    So, I told her that for the next few weeks she has my permission to remind me every time I leave socks on the floor. I agreed to not get annoyed with her and that I would stop whatever I am doing to pick them up.

    After a few weeks of this I got to the point where I never leave socks on the floor. Ever.

    2) Understand that we will do things differently. Nothing will stop me from helping faster than being told how I am doing it wrong. Now, obviously only doing half the dishes and claiming to be done deserves some derision. But see #1 for that: “hey, I appreciate you helping with the dishes, but when you leave 3 dishes in the sink I still have to wash them before I can cook breakfast tomorrow morning, so it doesn’t ease my stress as much as you might think it does.”

    But, nitpicking on what order he washes the dishes in, or “helping” by frequently suggesting better ways (AKA your way) of doing things makes us feel like idiots. It’s an enigma. Smart, professional men can feel like mental midgets when our wives tell us we don’t know how to wash a spoon the right way.

    So, help us understand what the end should look like, “Please put the big pot in this shelf, otherwise I end up dropping it on my head.” But try avoiding telling us how we get the pot in there, even if we look like gorillas trying to open a suitcase.

    So anywho, it could be just me that thinks that way, but I figured I’d share.

    1. Just for the record, actually living “in the moment” during that time with your children would mean that you’d stop and say “oops, we spilled something, we’d better clean that up.”

  4. I guess I’m glad I’m not the one and my husband isn’t the only one. Recently, I noticed my husband stopped doing just about all lawn maintenance. He just shrugged and said he hates yard work, alway has. I just don’t understand why that equals don’t do it. Or why he doesn’t know where anything in the house is. In front of company, he asked me where our son’s clothes were. Um, in his room, in the dresser and the closet. He is a very smart, professional man but it’s like he uses all his capacity for any type of labor for work and comes home unable to process anymore information or move any muscles.

    1. It’s only “kinda huge” if she had absolutely nothing else to do at all, all day, ever. If one sits at home eating bon-bons all day while filth piles up around them and expects the other who works all day to do half the housework, and the other does it gladly, THAT would be “kinda huge”. That aside, it seems you missed the point. It’s not about him doing “half the work”; it’s about him doing what work he does do half-assed.

  5. You know it doesn’t have to be this way. My wife and I developed some early division in our relationship. I wash the gross stuff like the bathroom, I do all the cooking because I’m the better cook, and I mostly do the dishes and am always left with anything that doesn’t go in the dishwasher that she doesn’t want to take care of. She handles the laundry and does a lot of other cleaning and picking up which I help with too.

  6. I guess i’m pretty fortunate in the fact that my husband pretty much does all of the dishes, he is so anal about it. If I load the dishwasher he will completely unload and reload it so now I don’t even bother. But ask him to do the laundry or vacuum the floor and he looks at me like I just asked him to move to a 3rd world country!

  7. It’s a really interesting post, but not for the reasons you might have thought. It is an excellent case study to illustrate one of the top three stressors in a marriage (the other two being money management and frequency or form of a sex life).

    For division of domestic chores, the vast majority (close to 90% by some studies), it’s a similar story — the wife feels like she does it all, and the husband does nothing. Particularly if it is a husband who works outside the home and the wife who works inside. Same old, same old for the stories, yet the root causes of it are highly similar (about 75-80% of the original 90).

    You say repeatedly that your husband doesn’t do the job you want him to, and in some cases, some women interpret that as “disloyal” or even “well, he’d do it if he loved me”. But often the reality is they fundamentally have different standards — yet that doesn’t mean the husband’s standard is WRONG and the wife’s is RIGHT. It means they differ and they have to find some compromise somewhere. In this case, I see at least four red flags as to why your husband doesn’t do that good a job — mainly because he knows that it’s not going to be good enough. Whatever he does, you’re going to redo. His “good enough” is your view that it is half-assed. Often, in similar stories, the husband has the same view of the wife’s behaviour in our situations — stereotypically, not taking care of the car, not looking after electronic devices, etc. The classic sterotype is the husband who does half-assed job cleaning the house and the wife who doesn’t care if the car makes an extra noise while she’s driving it, she just needs to get from A to B and doesn’t have time to deal with the fact the oil light is on. Both stereotypes are equally offensive, but they frequently persist in case studies. Again, the solution is obvious — find a middle ground unless it’s life or death, fall on your sword time for one of them.

    A bigger concern is that he and your kids have learned, “Why bother, mom will do it anyway.” And you will, so they’re not wrong. You might be surprised that they don’t “love” you for it, in fact they probably resent you for it. Because they know that what they do to help is never going to be “good enough” unless they do it exactly the way you want them to do it.

    You wrap your martyrdom in “I’m not a neat freak, I’m a mom who contains messes”, but your family has pretty clearly told you they’re willing to live with more mess than you are, so you’re not doing it “for them”, you’re doing it for yourself. Why is up to you to figure out, but it probably isn’t the rationalizations you listed above.

    The most popular refrains in couples therapy of the last three years for most therapists? “Let it go” for the wife, and “be in the moment” for the husband. If you want an eye-opener, maybe print your post and ask your husband what he really thinks. I suspect his storyline might be a little different than you portrayed.

  8. My husband has always been a huge help because frankly, anything else is unacceptable. It’s not 1950. He does all of the laundry (except folding, we barely do that anyway), cooks, does the dishes when he’s off work, and generally just helps me out.

    Frankly, I find the kind of attitude of the husband in the article pretty terrible. It’s boring for us women too but “I got bored” is not an excuse. Walking away from something is crap and relying on your wife because she does it better or something is the worst. He needs to grow up! Adult life is about sharing responsibilities- a marriage is about sharing responsibilities, and leaving one person with 80% of the burden is just not good enough. Sounds like Mum needs a 4-day weekend away without the kids and Dad needs to do everything to appreciate quite how much she does.

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