I used to leave a drinking glass by the kitchen sink instead of putting it in the dishwasher, and then argue with my wife when she complained about it.
I wrote that story a year ago, and since, more than four million people read it on this blog, and several million more read it elsewhere.
I call it “the dishes post,” even though it’s about a lot more than dishes. When I was asked today in an email whether there was a way to know BEFORE marriage that someone who by all appearances is a good man, might be a shitty husband, I realized the dishes post also serves as an excellent marriage litmus test.
She asked: “But, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a way for a woman to know or predict that *before* getting married? Red flags are obvious (infidelity, abuse, jealousy, etc.) but what about far-less obvious stuff?”
It’s a good question. And a year ago, I wouldn’t have been brazen enough to answer it. But when millions of people read something, share it with their friends and family saying: “THIS!!! This guy gets it!!!” and guys send me private emails telling me that it helped them finally understand why he and his wife or girlfriend always have the same fight over and over again, and that I helped him save his marriage, I feel emboldened even if it’s unjustified.
The Marriage Litmus Test
It could be dishes by the sink. It could be dirty socks thrown next to the hamper. It could be pee dribble on the toilet seat. It could be muddy shoes on the floor. It could be unrinsed shaving cream and facial-hair stubble crusted to the sides of the sink basin.
It doesn’t matter what the Thing is. Everyone has different Things.
It’s the Thing He Does Which Hurts Your Feelings or Disrespects You, And Then Acts Like You’re Crazy or Wrong When You Say So.
It usually goes like this:
Behavior X = The Thing That Hurts. Sometimes there are several things.
But Behavior X does not hurt him. In other words, dirty socks on the floor might bother you, but it doesn’t bother him. Because it doesn’t bother him, he thinks it’s irrational for it to bother you.
Thus, in his mind, the simple and best solution is not for him to stop throwing socks on the floor, but for you to stop letting your irrational emotions ruin your day.
“Why are you freaking out about something so minor and petty? Just let it go, babe! It’s not a big deal! I’ll pick them up later!”
I think you probably get it. So, here’s the test:
Step 1: Identify things or behaviors your boyfriend does which hurts your feelings.
Step 2: Say so. Kindly. Patiently. Honestly.
If he gets it, and says words and adjusts behavior to demonstrate that he gets it, he passes The Marriage Litmus Test with an A+. Congratulations!
This is uncommon. More likely are the following types of responses:
1. Dismissal — Treating your concern as unimportant like shooing away a flying insect.
2. Outrage — Responding as if you’re wrong, even going so far as to blame you for finding reasons to feel angry and start fights.
3. Avoidance — Denying you the opportunity to explain yourself because “Now’s not a good time for this,” and choosing to focus his energy and attention elsewhere.
Which means The Marriage Litmus Test continues. He doesn’t know how much is at stake, just like cigarette smokers in the 1960s didn’t know that smoking caused cancer. He’s not intentionally causing harm. He’s accidentally causing harm by choosing activities he honestly doesn’t know are bad.
Patience must be maintained. If you flip shit on him during the test, the test results will be invalid, because flipping your shit is ALSO not okay, no matter how easily and automatically you might slip into lashing out angrily.
Step 3: Kindly and honestly communicate that the Dismissal/Outrage/Avoidance response ALSO hurts, just like The Thing.
And for the sake of leading by example, kindly ask when a good time might be to talk about it more with him. NOT to criticize. But to help bridge the misunderstanding because you want your partner to understand where you’re coming from, just as you want to understand his perspective. You want to spend the rest of your relationship not fighting over silly things.
If he refuses to ever talk about it because you’re being a stupid, nagging, bitchy idiot, then maybe it’s time to leave. Because, without a major shift, your relationship is doomed.
If he agrees to a later conversation, and honors that commitment, things are looking good, and he may still earn an A.
Step 4: During the conversation, follow The 4 Easy Steps For Getting Your Husband to Finally Listen to You.
Not everyone’s brains work exactly the same. It is common for two people to view the same thing totally differently, which is why you’re having the conversation in the first place. Just because two people disagree DOES NOT make one wrong and the other right. Not all disagreements have an objectively true answer, like whether chocolate tastes better than vanilla.
Chocolate tastes better to me. Others prefer vanilla. The reasons are unique to each individual.
The trick is to understand what HURTS your boyfriend. So many guys mask their pains for fear of losing their Man Cards that sometimes their girlfriends don’t actually know what hurts them.
And it’s truly this simple:
Thing That Hurts Guy = Guy Hurting
And in EXACTLY that same way…
Boyfriend Behavior Being Discussed = Girlfriend Hurting
Each instance of the behavior caused a paper cut. And it just kept happening. Paper cuts. They don’t kill you. But it really hurts and is totally debilitating to get them over and over and over again. And ultimately, too many cuts becomes a fatal wound.
The Test Results
Even though a paper cut won’t kill me, I’m not going to choose a relationship with someone who repeatedly cuts me with paper, even after I point out that it’s happening.
My partner may accidentally give me a paper cut thoughtlessly. If she demonstrates clear remorse and pledges to stop, I will respond differently than if she says: “Toughen up, pussy. They’re just paper cuts.”
Everyone will have a different pain tolerance and threshold, as well as different reasons (they might have children together, for example) for grading the Marriage Litmus Test on a curve.
In the end, it’s up to each person to establish their personal boundaries and to enforce them. People who don’t communicate and enforce their boundaries are doomed to a life of other people making them miserable.
In the end, a guy who doesn’t “get it” or refuses to try will make a shitty husband, even if he’s a good guy in other areas.
He’ll just keep on cutting you with paper. Maybe not on purpose. But eventually, through negligence.
In the end, a guy who believes there’s a clear winner in the Chocolate vs. Vanilla debate, and that anyone who doesn’t agree with his opinion is wrong, will ultimately prove to be an insufferable asshole and shitty husband who will purposefully or inadvertently teach your kids to be insufferable assholes.
But just maybe, once your boyfriend understands that something that doesn’t hurt him and that he never intended to be harmful CAN STILL HURT YOU, and it registers with him how dangerous and abusive it is when people suffer that way, everything will change.
He may still paper-cut you accidentally now and then. But when you say so kindly, the moment won’t turn into another fight.
It will turn into a moment that brings you closer together.
Because he knows what he didn’t before, and because he’s a good guy, he’s going to try hard to not hurt you.
And because you know that when you do feel hurt, it will be safe to tell him, and you can trust he will always have your best interests (and those of your future family) at heart.
Sometimes, he’ll disappoint you and you’ll be upset that you have to end your relationship. It will hurt. But hopefully one day that pain will be replaced by gratitude for avoiding a toxic marriage.
But othertimes, he’ll surprise you. In a good way. Because he passed the Marriage Litmus Test.
Because you found the one for you.
And that’s where Happily Ever After — at least the real-life, non-fairytale version — begins.