About half of my counseling practice is marriage counseling. In those sessions, I sit with couples grappling with the important issues of life. One such issue—probably in the top five—is how to properly load the dishwasher.
Picture a couple cleaning up the dishes after dinner. The situation goes something like this:
He places a pot in the rack. Without looking, she comments, “It works better if you turn it sideways.”
“BUT,” he replies, “this way, you can put more cups in.”
“BUT,” she says, “it won’t get a clean. Trust me.”
“Humph,” He says, wedging in more cups. “See.”
“You won’t listen,” she says, thinking he never listens. She never admits when she’s wrong, he thinks, counting cups out loud, “5, 6, 7…”
She rolls her eyes. He forces the dishwasher closed and exits without speaking.
She rolls her eyes again, opens the dishwasher, and rearranges the rack.
He hears the rattling and thinks, Whatever I do, it isn’t enough.
She hears ESPN and thinks, All he cares about is himself.
How did they get from loading the dishwasher to feeling inferior and unloved?
It is because they weren’t fundamentally fighting about the dishes in the first place. The tension in the argument wasn’t really about the details. The tension occurred because they were fighting for their dignity.
In fact, most fights in your marriage are basically the same fight repeated. The details change, but the core issue remains eerily similar. This is why you often end up feeling the same each time. In the story above, he feels unvalued and she feels unloved.
Each marriage has its own version of this cycle. Sometimes the roles are reversed. Sometimes the issues of dignity are described differently. Some couples are loud in their conflict. Some are quiet and icy. But everyone wants a sense of dignity; I want to know that I matter, that I am important, that I am respected, that I am loved. And that is what the cup-counting and eye-rolling is all about.
Often our fight for human dignity doesn’t look dignified. We yell, “Well, you load the pots then!” We call each other names like “Cup Accountant!” and “Dishwasher Dictator!” We shut down. We pout. We look to get even.
Many couples start describing their difficulties to me by saying, “I feel silly telling you. Usually it’s about something stupid.” They are right, of course. And wrong. The fights about how to hang toilet paper and best route to the grocery store aren’t all that important. But the fight for dignity is of the utmost importance. It is why we get married: to bestow honor, worth and love onto each other, onto our children, and into the world. Human dignity is God’s first gift, His image. Human dignity is what Christ died to restore.
Dignity is the core issue. It is worth fighting for, but not the way we do it. We need a different kind of fighting.
I’ll suggest two first steps: *
- Assume your spouse is seeking their God-given dignity.
- Try to find a way to give it to them.
You may be right about the best dish-placement design. You may be wrong. Your marriage will survive a dishwasher-placement error, but if you get the dignity-placement wrong, it is hard to recover.
Think of it. If together, you can find ways to bestow dignity, then you might attain the same victory over and over. Clumsy and awkward perhaps, but a repeated blessing.
Your dishes may not sparkle, but your hearts will.
*There is more to it than that, of course, but these steps are a start and will require a deep dependence on God.
Roger Edwards joined The Barnabas Center in 1991. He works with both individuals and couples, helping people confess their need and embrace their available choices to lead healthier lives. Roger also teaches and leads discussion groups and retreats applying the Gospel to everyday life. He is a licensed clinical mental health counselor (LCMHC), holds a master’s degree in biblical counseling from Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana and a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is married to Jean; they have seven children and nine grandchildren.