by Kassandra Lamb
In honor of Valentine’s Day coming up this weekend, I figured a post on relationships would be appropriate.
I read an article recently–a blog post by a guy named Matt–and I think he has absolutely nailed the main problem in most modern relationships, even those in which the partners would say they are “happy.” He posted it less than a month ago, and it’s gone viral. Last time I checked it had over 3,000 comments.
But sadly only about half of those commenters actually got what he was really saying.
The title is: She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes By the Sink. And I highly recommend that you pop over there and read it after you finish this post.
The commenters who didn’t get it thought it really was about the dishes. How could his wife divorce him over something so trivial, some asked. Others came down on her side, calling him a slob who expected his wife to be his maid.
All this despite the fact that he points out that it wasn’t about the dishes. It was about the lack of respect he was showing her, when he refused to change a minor habit–that of leaving a glass by the sink instead of putting it in the dishwasher–and when he tuned her out every time she complained about this minor habit.
The one mistake I think Matt made in his analysis of all this was conceptualizing it as a gender difference issue. I don’t think it is, or at least not completely so.
Most of us, male or female, have a tendency to dismiss something as unimportant unless it’s important to us, or unless we can readily understand why it’s important to someone else. It’s perfectly natural to judge the importance of something through our own filters.
But when we commit to love another person, we have to make a conscious effort to understand what’s important to them. And if we can’t understand, that doesn’t change the reality that it IS important to them. We still need to respect that.
This could happen regarding a lot of things that are important to either partner. I’m sure the issue even comes up with gay and lesbian couples. One of them is neater than the other, and the other one doesn’t get why it’s not okay to throw candy wrappers into the backseat of the car.
For most of his life, my husband was a long-distance runner. When we were first married, I didn’t get why this activity was important to him. I asked him why, and he couldn’t really give me a good answer. “Because it feels so good when I stop,” was what he said. Huh?
He ran at lunchtime a couple of times a week, and that was fine. But on the weekends, he used several hours of our potential time together pounding the asphalt. And I spent those hours resenting his absence.
And then his father died of a massive heart attack. My husband quite smoking and increased his running to every day. And I stopped resenting it, because now it made sense to me why it was important.
Today I know that his father’s heart attack was only a catalyst for the increase in running. It wasn’t why it was important to him. Like all athletes, he enjoyed challenging his body, and he liked the endorphin high after a good run (the “feels good when I stop” feeling). I, on the other hand, do not get the athletic mindset at all; I exercise because I know I have to in order to stay reasonably fit and healthy.
Okay, so the key problem is not all that gender related. It’s the lack of understanding regarding certain things that are important to our partners, and tending to dismiss and/or resent those things. And this, in turn, causes our partners to not feel respected.
So why is it that all too often these resentments and misunderstandings are about the guy doing/not doing something that annoys his wife?
Here’s the part that is gender related, but it’s not some mysterious, natural difference in how we see or feel about things. It comes back to some socialized differences, how each gender has been taught to interact with the world and others.
These are generalizations, so of course there will be exceptions. But in general, women have been socialized to care about their homes and maintaining their nice appearance. Who’s the one who is apologizing for the mess (whether there really is one or not) when we drop in on a couple? Probably the woman, because she feels that how the house looks is a reflection on her.
Men care about their homes, but in different ways. Its size and value reflect on how good a breadwinner he is. And he wants to be comfortable in his home, to be able to relax there after a long day at work (and not have to always be neat and tidy, thank you very much).
Also, men, in general, have been socialized to tune women out when they are “nagging” about something that the man deems to be trivial (and most things related to keeping the house nice fall into that category). Their fathers were clueless about these issues, so how could they teach their sons–either by example or with more blatant, verbal lessons–how to cooperate with a woman’s attempts to keep the house looking respectable?
And even though we are supposedly liberated now, and equal partners, both sharing the housework… blah, blah, blah… many men still remain oblivious to this issue, because they are modeling those fathers, who modeled their fathers before them.
Most women don’t start out nagging, by the way. First, they ask. Then, they gently point out. Then, they point it out a little more strenuously. (The man will have no conscious memory of these earlier attempts to get him to comply because he tuned them out.)
Eventually women begin to nag, letting their irritation show more and more. And sometimes, like Matt’s wife, they start to slowly stop loving this man who can’t seem to hear that it’s a simple thing to put a glass in the dishwasher, rather than leaving it on the counter. She resents, maybe without even being consciously aware of the resentment, that he seems to care so little about what is important to her that he can’t bother to do this small thing.
So why does this not happen in the other direction? Why doesn’t the man start to resent when the woman doesn’t get what’s important to him? He very well might, and justifiably so. And certainly such resentments have led to the decline and even the dissolution of more than one marriage.
But here are some other gender factors that affect all this.
- Most of the time, the things that are important to him, that she doesn’t get, are things that don’t directly involve her. They’re activities he likes to do, such as tinkering with his car or watching sports. Maybe she gives him some flak about the time these activities take away from things she deems more important. And he resents that. But he often does them anyway, and most likely not in her presence (either because he leaves the house to do them or she leaves the room). So the negativity around these things is most likely sporadic and short-lived. And he’s programmed to tune her out! (Now, if she doesn’t learn to shut up about these things, eventually they may have problems, but she probably will learn to shut up. See below) .
- Most of the time, the things that are important to her, that he doesn’t get, involve their home, which is shared territory. He lives in that home too, and his actions affect that home, and her efforts to keep it nice, on a daily basis.
- Women are socialized to pay closer attention to the quality of their relationships, especially with their spouses. It’s a residual of the old belief that the woman was supposed to make the man happy, to adjust to his mood and worry about whether she was pleasing him. So today, women–again through modeling their mothers and their grandmothers before them–tend to pay attention to the state of the relationship more and analyze it periodically to determine if it is still a happy one. Now, they are noting their own happiness as well as their husband’s, but they’re still more the “keepers” of the relationship. (I’m not pulling this out of my hat, folks; research has been done on the subject.) As a result, the woman is more likely to figure out why something is important to her man and stop giving him a hard time about it.
She may not have the right reason (as was the case regarding my husband’s running) but she has a reason that makes sense to her. So she lets it go, or maybe even supports these activities that she once resented (by buying him new running shorts when the old ones get ratty 😉 ).
The man, on the other hand, just tunes her out when she bugs him about taking his shoes off at the door or putting his dirty dishes in the dishwasher. The situation never changes and the resentment builds up. Each time it is less about the shoes or the glass by the sink and more about the fact that he doesn’t get why this is important to her.
Let me add one more thought. Even though these actions may seem like a “small thing,” It’s hard to change a habit, so cut your mate a break if s/he seems to be trying.
And if you’re the one trying to correct some little thing that annoys your mate, you will no doubt forget to do so in the early stages. Two precious words can defuse your mate’s bitching at you about it. “I’m sorry.” (Adding “I’ll keep trying to remember” wouldn’t hurt.) Say it in a pleasant voice, not an irritated one, and your spouse’s anger will most likely melt away. You might even get a kiss and a hug for your efforts.
Remember, it is NOT about the dang glass! It’s about whether or not s/he feels heard and respected!
(Please do go read Matt’s post now; it gives some details from the male perspective that I found surprising and enlightening! But don’t read the comments; most of them just confuse the issue.)
Are there things, even little things, that are important to you that your significant other just doesn’t get? Do you think there might be some things that are important to him/her that you’re not getting?
Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington mystery series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy mysteries, set in Central Florida.
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