Why Couples Still Fight Like Crazy Over the Dishes

And some tips for how to avoid it.


They say nothing is certain in life except death and taxes, but heterosexual couples might amend that to nothing is certain in life but sex and dishes — or, rather, fights about both. But a survey on family dynamics found that dishes have taken the clear lead in the battle as the biggest source of strife between straights.

The Atlantic reported in 2018 that “Dishwashing causes more relationship distress than any other household task”. It was the dishes that broke us! “Women who wash the vast majority of the dishes themselves report more relationship conflict, less relationship satisfaction, and even worse sex, than women with partners who help,” The Atlantic continued. With lead study author Dan Carlson from the University of Utah revealing that doing dishes is uniquely brutal: it’s not just gross, what with the rotting food and bad smells, but nobody even notices when you’ve done them.

Carlson also thinks dishes are more likely to cause trouble because they are perceived to be lady work more so than other tasks.

Barring people who actually like doing dishes (yes, we know you exist, and you are also in the minority no matter how loudly you protest this article), no one really wants to do it, just like no one wants to clean a toilet. (In one study, the lower earner in hetero couples was the one more likely to do the kitchen stuff, and — bingo — the lower earner is often the woman.)

The problem here is that even though men and women both work full time, women still get stuck with the lion’s share of cooking and cleaning. Partly, this is the result of highly gendered conditioning many of us still experience in spite of massive change. Girls are still far more likely to be raised to help mum in the kitchen with shopping, baking and cleaning. Boys are still far more likely to be raised to do none of that.

Now, let’s talk solutions.

Women Should Just Lower Their Standards
If women could just like, lay off that stuff and let it be messy this would not be a big deal, man-people argue. Why can’t they just lower their standards and “care less” about cleanliness so as to avoid the fight and the dreaded nagging that comes with it? But if we’re operating on really dumb stereotypes, this is basically like telling a man to “care less” about the Super Bowl. Plus, men don’t get judged for being slobs the way women do, so it’s a moot point.

Pay Someone Else to Do It
Studies show that it is worth every penny to pay someone else to do the housework you hate. Even something as little as £75-£150 a month, researchers say, will dramatically improve life satisfaction — over that amount and it may actually reduce it. In other words, there may be a sweet spot for couples’ happiness that involves paying a little for a lot more free time and peace of mind (to fight about sex). This is obviously not an option for everyone, but the research at least suggests that if there is anywhere to put your disposable income if you have it, hiring a cleaner is a good spot.

Life coach Laurie Gerber claims that couples should delegate their domestic labour as if it’s a small business or department store where people are in charge of clearly designated tasks and sections. The metric? Based on “who is clearly best at something and cares about it the most,” she writes. But guess who is best at cleaning and cares the most? Say it with me: a woman. Bananas.

Follow the Golden Rule
Apparently, this is where whomever cooks doesn’t have to do the dishes. Some people swear by this. But what if your partner always cooks? What if they just make simple, fast meals that use way more dishes than what’s needed, making the cleaning more effort than the cooking? Fight city.

Realise It’s Not Really About the Dishes
Some folks argue it’s really about “how much you matter to each other.” This is the same issue that comes up for couples wherein someone nags them a lot — at some point, the issue is not that they won’t take out the trash so much as it is the fact that you asked them to and they agreed, and they didn’t. That’s fine, but uh, still, who’s going to do the dishes? “He really loves me, he just won’t do jack around the house,” is not a good Hallmark card.

Just Focus on What Feels Equitable
Probably the best approach is to sit down and come up with something you can live with, which may or may not be 50/50, but for reasons individual to you, are tolerable and make sense. As always, this is something same-sex couples are better at, because they are able to organise divisions of labor based on something other than gender roles. In other words, there’s no such thing as a stereotypically feminine chore between two men.

The other key thing they do that straight couples don’t? They negotiate this stuff more often when they first move in together. Because no one is the man or the woman as a straight couple would think of it, they can just be in the domestic mess together and solve it like a team. Either one of you does them, or both of you do them. The key is to do them. For the love of God, do them. Or as the Atlantic puts it, “You wash; I’ll dry.”