A close up view of the daily goings on of a typical American Coupledom resembles a made for primetime series or a daytime soap. And that is what the most successful series chronicle – the minutiae of lives joined together. Could be Friends or Modern Family but the humor tends to be built upon repetitive, menial transactions of domestic life.
And so “As The Toilet Paper Rolls” is the title of today’s post because even the chosen direction that one installs the most elemental necessity of hygienic care can create controversy between two people. I first became aware of this arena of Coupledom combat when a family member mentioned that her husband disapproved of her directional choice. There is a right way and a wrong way. I thought that they were kidding but I have since heard this from others. I’m sure Martha Stewart has an answer and certainly hotels with their neat triangular folds show us the way. But still…does it matter?
In the Coupledom everything can matter. Females know how frightening the drop can feel when a seat is expected to be down but is left up. Jeez! Tooth paste caps not replaced lead to pasty exchanges and sponges not squeezed free of suds cause stinky, smelly accusations. Dishes and glasses emptied from the dishwasher yet not returned to the shelves in the proper order create chaos and havoc, interpersonal estrangement. Light switches left on (wasteful) or lights turned off when someone took a brief bathroom break (come on) – can cause fireworks. Or someone almost finished the orange juice and left the mostly empty bottle in the fridge – no note to the shopper that “we are out of O.J.” Oops, crumbs by the sink. A plate preemptively removed from the table, the remaining food trashed – “I wasn’t finished.” Damp towels on the bathroom floor. Shoes left in the family room.
And this isn’t the interchange between a parent and a child, though it sure sounds like it. These are the adults. The problem is not any one incident but the repetition of these incidents, over the years, that clogs the Coupledom pores and bogs down the communication highways with the sludge of accumulated resentment.
Folks feel foolish describing these frictions to me. It is humiliating to admit to so much acrimony over which way the toilet paper turns. But domestic life, all life, is made up of details, transactions that seem so menial yet they are hardly that. In fact they are the currency of communication. The mechanisms of interpersonal interaction. And as with breathing and sleeping, we cannot survive in a civil society without them.
Of course there are many other issues that create conflict in relationships but for the purposes of this post I am honing in on the shared life of domestic maintenance. It is apparent to me that folks who co-habitat, whether married or not, bring with them the habits and beliefs that they were raised with. Everything from the proper direction of the knives in a cutlery drawer to the broader definition of neat as in “ready for guests,” has its roots in the world of the past – how the parental home was run, what were the rituals, rules, make of cars and bathroom etiquette. And when couples act out these learned behaviors often they find out that their partner thinks those habits or rules or methods are wrong, ridiculously demanding, unreasonably rigid or unbearably messy.
And then each party fights for their way of doing things – it’s the right way or it’s the good enough way and what’s your problem anyway? But what gets lost in the battle of minutiae is that the tone is often dismissive or perhaps demeaning, superior or sarcastic, all of which spells hurtful. It is the manner in which the difference is fought that feels unloving and disrespectful.
And since these disagreements or tensions are frequent, the accumulated residue of each round hardens over time. The scab that hurt makes is anger. There’s the rub. Couples seem frustrated and angry with each other, are snappy, roll their eyes, create distance, draw in the children with a glance to join their side, start the battle of passive-aggressive retaliation.
What is the solution here? Pause – take a break and observe yourself and your partner during any one of these encounters. Become a cameraman not an actor on the set. What was that again – did I just dis you because you left the light on? Did you just sneer at me because I rearranged the dishes on the shelf? Did neither of us use any humor here? Did we forget to laugh at ourselves? Did we forget how typical we are – Lucy and Ricky, Mitchell and Cam, The Odd Couple, Mork and Mindy. What planet did we come from and why did we leave it? Oh my goodness, NO! Where did we go?
This is not a one shot conversation. As I mentioned earlier, there are belief systems – habits and notions dragged into the present from the past – at work here. Cultural, gender, religious, racial, geographic, ethnic, even generational differences that need to be outed and explored. But you can be sure of one thing the partners have in common, and that is the active role that misplaced pride and ego play here, the personal investment in having to be right because of the humiliating possibility of being “wrong.” As if one’s entire self-worth and self-esteem will be determined by the outcome of who let the dog out this time. Foolish, Foolish Pride. It can bring down a marriage.
If your Coupledom has been caught in this snake pit of pettiness for a long time, I would recommend couples therapy. If not, have the conversation not once but as a matter of routine. Tease out the beliefs and really examine them together and establish some new ones that are a compromise – and laugh. It is all so silly. But the stakes are very high.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2016