Turn off the tap, put the toothbrush down and slowly back away from the sink. Look to your right. Is the toilet seat down? Good, now get out, and never come back. You may not realize it, but sharing a bathroom could be killing your relationship.
Admittedly, this is largely according to the homespun wisdom of Michael Caine, who has gone on record ascribing his remarkably un-Hollywood-like success in marriage — 44 years and counting, to the same woman — to keeping their daily ablutions well out of each other’s faces. “You start with two bathrooms,” he said in an interview with Esquire in 2014. “You never share a bathroom with your wife,” adding by way of explanation: “Otherwise you have a little tiny corner with a razor and a toothbrush in it, and you never get in there.”
To be fair, this might be just a quirk of Sir Michael’s. But at an intuitive level, it does feel as though there might be something in the idea. Fellow 1970s British screen legend Joan Collins lives by the same separate bathrooms rule (although at 83, she’s now on her fifth marriage, so maybe she’s been confusing “bathrooms” with “husbands”), and it’s been noted that the Obamas groomed themselves to perfection in different bits of the White House throughout their tenancy there. It also appears they’ve continued to do so in civilian life as CNN noted in a piece about their move from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that one of the moving boxes was labeled HIS BATHROOM.
But are those couples who share one bathroom really risking the future of their relationship?
Complaints about bathroom habits “do occasionally come up,” says Stefan Walters, who trained as a marriage and family therapist in San Diego, and now runs couples’ therapy sessions in London. “It could be any number of issues, such as not replacing the toilet roll when it’s finished, forgetting to flush, leaving the seat up, not emptying the garbage, using the other person’s toothbrush or razor, and so on.”
His therapy sessions, however, usually reveal something much deeper dragging his clients down than shaving foam residue. “Instead of talking about toilet paper for an hour,” he says, “we explore the feelings that this issue is triggering.” More often than not, hot bathroom rage turns out to be a surrogate for “a feeling that one person is being selfish or inconsiderate, and failing to take the other person’s needs into account.”
Which makes sense, but it does raise a question: Why does the bathroom specifically emerge as such a popular battleground for this sort of proxy war? “Because a lot of personal and private stuff happens in bathrooms,” Walters explains. “In bathrooms, we create completely natural noises and smells that society has created shame around. We also get naked in them, often in our most primal, un-groomed states. All of this makes us feel vulnerable, so we may feel particularly affronted when it seems like that sacred space is being disrespected.”
Splitting bathrooms Caine- or Obama-style might solve the issue for a while, but according to Walters, the underlying problems will just rear their heads elsewhere. Not to mention, of course, that few people are lucky enough to be cohabiting in homes with enough bathrooms to allow that kind of luxury.
So what’s the real solution? More general relationship upkeep than an addition onto the house: “Try to put yourself in your partner’s shoes and think about things from their perspective occasionally,” says Walters. “Think about how they use that space, and how their needs may differ from yours.” The key to most relationship issues, he advises, is “finding the right balance between having your own needs met, and meeting the needs of your partner, so that both of you feel fulfilled.”
Or you know, something a little more nuanced than the old cliché about making sure you don’t leave the toilet seat up.