Sometimes, I have days in my practice where there’s a theme that comes up over and over on my sofa in a single day. It doesn’t happen often that the same issues weave through like that but it happened recently and it’s an issue that comes up A LOT. I want to talk about it.

I want to talk about doing the dishes and what happens when a wife asks her husband to do the dishes (or when the dynamic is reversed).

This may not seem like an important issue but it’s more important than you think. Sometimes, husbands (or wives) respond with “I will do it in a little while,” and then sometimes they forget and the dish fairy comes later that day and the dishes magically get done anyway so it works out just fine as far as they are concerned.

But this is an illusion.

It’s not fine.

And it really doesn’t have very much to do with the dishes at all.

When someone asks for help doing the dishes, what they are really saying is this: “I am feeling overwhelmed and I need some help and support here. Could you please show up for me?” When the dishes don’t get done, the answer feels like a “Nope, you’re on your own, do it yourself — I just don’t care enough to be bothered to help you” and that often feels like abandonment and far more overwhelm than a sink full of dirty dishes.

The underlying issue is not the dishes. Or whatever the chore is the subject of fairy magic.

The underlying issue is needing a partner to show up and get dirty doing the stuff that isn’t fun that has to get done.

The underlying issue is feeling like you are not alone in this.

When the dish fairy has to take care of the dishes, it feels like you’re on your own and that you don’t have a partner. Resentment builds along with a painful dynamic that eats away at even the best of relationships in which one partner (the dish fairy) eventually feels like they have to nag their partner in order to get them to do anything and so they give up and resent their partner for abandoning them. This often leads them to view, or even treat, their partner as though they are another child they have to care for and nag. Their spouse inevitably feels the sting of the resentment, their bitterness and hostility, and often doesn’t understand why. Nothing they do is ever good enough so why bother. They stop trying. Their partner treats them like a child. It creates disconnect and builds tension in the relationship which is the opposite of what either partner wants.

There is no dish fairy. There is just a partner who feels alone and maybe even abandoned.

Little things like the dishes that need to get done, the toilets that need to be cleaned, and the trash that needs to be taken out are opportunities to show up for your partner and remind them that you’re in it too. When one partner doesn’t show up, it create walls in the relationship. That may sound silly. But it’s never about the dishes or the toilets or the garbage — it cuts deeper, it’s more important.

And so if you don’t want this dynamic to erode your relationship, my advice to you is simple — take out the trash before you’re asked, do the dishes now and not later, surprise your partner by cleaning the toilets without being asked at all. You may be surprised by the pay-off in this — your partner feels supported, loved, and connected.

You’re showing up for them. They will want to show up for you too.

And if this dynamic has taken hold and it feels like too much to overcome, couples therapy can help. Couples often wait years before addressing these issues because they fear going to couples therapy means there’s something wrong with their relationship. In my work, I find the opposite is true — couples who come to therapy do so because they value their relationship so much that they will do whatever it takes to keep it.

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