In January 2016, I published an article titled “She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink” which became the most popular thing on the internet worldwide for a day or so and has now been read several millions of times in several languages.
I don’t think it’s anywhere near the best writing I’ve done, and I spend most days embarrassed at how much “Men do this, and Women do another thing” sort-of language is in there. I don’t believe all men, nor all women, do things one certain way, with the possible exception of our respective peeing techniques.
Despite its many flaws, “She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink” resonated with many people and continues to. Surely the click-baity headline has been a factor, but there’s something more important, and it’s the reason thousands of people have thanked me for “saving their marriage” even though I did no such thing.
That article did for many people what the book “How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It” had done for me. It removed the blinders many of us were wearing on the subjects of effective communication and empathy in our relationships.
It’s such a dangerously simple concept that all of the wise and mature people who already figured it out dismiss it as child’s play, and about which the rest of us roll our eyes like “I’m so sure this over-simplified bullshit is the reason my marriage is in shambles and half of all marriages end in divorce! No way!”
But we need the wise people to patiently teach this secret of life to their children, and skillfully share it with their friends and extended family.
And we need everyone else to start paying attention to details that—tragically—fall into a category of things most people don’t talk or think about, and aren’t formally taught.
“She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink”—effectively or otherwise—tried to communicate the most important idea in romantic relationships other than Love is a Choice.
An event can occur—anything, really—and it’s possible for one person to be deeply emotionally or psychologically wounded and feel intense pain because of it while a second person experiencing the same thing at the same time and place never even notices.
This is common. Human nature. The result of individuals not sharing brains and nervous systems.
But it’s also the reason the majority of human relationships fail.
I like the second-degree burn analogy, because it illustrates it perfectly. Lightly touching someone on their arm doesn’t hurt them. Almost never. If they scream out in pain, they’re probably a bizarrely dramatic person with some form of mental illness and questionable sanity.
HOWEVER. If someone has a second-degree burn, and you lightly touch their arm on the burn wound, their painful outburst makes sense.
And what the average person in the average relationship doesn’t understand, but that “She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink” helped some people finally get is that just because being lightly touched on your arm, or a dirty dish sitting by the sink, or a damp towel on the bed, or dirty socks on the floor, or sarcastic jokes, or staying home with kids instead of going to work full-time doesn’t feel or seem like it should be hard or painful DOES NOT mean that another human being with a different mind, heart, body, and life experiences doesn’t experience those same things in profoundly painful ways that are different than yours. Especially when it happens over and over and over. And over. And over. And over. And over. And over, again.
THAT scenario is what ends the majority of marriages and relationships of all stripes, every day, everywhere on earth and probably on some other alien worlds in the far reaches of the universe, but I can’t substantiate that since Mexico is the furthest place from Ohio I’ve ever been—and their shitty relationships look just like the ones I see around here, except it sounds better, because Spanish.
If young people fundamentally understood this basic concept of empathy and learned how to talk about it during their formative dating years, our marriage success rates would improve dramatically and help fix much of what’s broken.
It Feels Like a Code or a Secret
To me and others, it does.
Every human being’s great crime is forgetting that literally every other member of the seven-billion-and-counting human race has a totally different brain and chemical makeup than we do. Since every conscious second of our lives is experienced through our own eyes in the first-person, it seems easy enough to understand how this happens, but I continue to choke on the sheer amount of assholery I see, hear, feel, and dish out myself every day despite the growing number of people maturing into the adults responsible for setting new standards of human behavior in the 21st century.
My parents didn’t talk to me about this stuff.
No one did.
And most people never had a parent or teacher or trusted adult explain this nuanced idea while emphasizing how big the stakes are. No one prepares us for the shit-storm that ensues when we get it wrong.
So when I discovered this “code” on the heels of my life-crippling divorce, I felt a powerful compulsion to share my story and try to raise awareness about this.
After more than four years of writing about it, I don’t feel any closer to a concise and clear method for communicating this marriage/relationship-saving idea.
Commenter: ‘Must Husbands Crack Codes? Why Can’t Wives Clearly State the REAL Problem?’
Brian’s question got me thinking, and motivated me to write for the first time in weeks.
Strictly for pragmatism’s sake, YES—men/husbands/boyfriends, and presumably women/wives/girlfriends as well—must crack this code.
We’re human beings. When we hurt is often when we communicate most poorly, or not at all, running off to pout silently and waiting for an apology we’ll never receive (probably because they never even knew we were hurt by whatever the thing was).
But we also deal with a lot of philosophical questions around here, and Brian asks a fair one:
“If the wife simply came out and said ‘Hey… look, when you leave the glass there, it makes me feel like you’re not even aware that it is hurting me in a way that’s actually way bigger than just the glass,’ instead of hinting around and playing the ‘This issue we’re currently arguing isn’t actually the real issue that I’m pissed off about and fighting like hell over’ game; the guy is now presented with a statement that needs to be digested prior to spewing an emotional ‘WTF? Really? Over a glass?’ response.”
Should We Have to Decipher Coded Language in our Relationships?
Part of me believes the average guy in this “dishes by the sink” situation will respond to her attempts to connect something larger to the “dish” with the same level of dismissal and invalidation that he already exhibits toward the seemingly minor matter of the dish itself. But—BUT—if we are asking men to step outside of themselves and exercise the humility necessary to listen, communicate, behave, comfort, respect, support, love in the ways their wives or romantic partners can understand and interpret accurately, is it not also fair to ask women (or everyone who plays little miscommunication games for reasons few of us understand) to work to more clearly or effectively communicate what is actually hurting or causing relationship problems?
To Brian’s point, if someone seems dismayed at the idea that a dish left by the sink could be significant enough to be worthy of a marriage fight, might there be greater need for the affected person to communicate more skillfully WHY the dish, or the socks, or the towel, or the sarcasm, or whatever, has been elevated into a marriage-threatening thing that could fundamentally change everyone in the family’s lives forever?
I don’t know.
But considering what’s at stake, I hope more people will think and talk about it.