Why Dirty Dishes Are the Biggest Threat to Your Marriage

Dirty dishes have killed more marriages than extramarital affairs ever did. Because they’re boring, repetitive, monotonous. And we have no idea what to do with boring. If we want our marriages to survive, we must find a way to reclaim the extraordinary lying just beneath the surface of our monotony…

Dirty dishes

Photo Credit: Andres Nieto Porras (Creative Commons)

My boys and I are playing zombie apocalypse and my three-year-old daughter is looking on with big, expectant eyes. I ask her to join us. “Caitlin, do you want to be a zombie?”

“Yes,” she replies, “a princess zombie.”

I try again. “Caitlin, do you want to be a soldier instead?”

And again she replies, “Yes, a princess soldier.”

I get the point, and so we play zombies and princesses, all at once. My boys love war stories. And my daughter loves princess stories. What do they both have in common?

Storybook endings.

THE STORYBOOK DECEPTION

In the final scenes of any good story, there is triumph and ecstasy and satisfaction—conquering heroes vanquish the zombies and princesses ride off into the sunset with prince charming. We are drawn to stories with blissfully happy endings. The only problem is, our lives don’t work that way, do they?

Our stories don’t end at the penultimate scene.

My family attended a beautiful wedding last weekend—two days full of joy and celebration and hope for this blooming romance. But then we had to get into the car for the six-hour ride home. And unpack. And do the dishes. And the laundry. And herd crabby, over-tired children into bed.

Again.

I want to see the Disney princess movie that depicts life after Flynn Rider marries Rapunzel. I want to see them trying to share a sink in the castle while the kids bang at the bathroom door. I want to see them picking up the horse’s poop for the umpteenth time so the neighbors don’t get pissed. I want to see Rapunzel clipping her toenails and having to sit on the can. I want to see Flynn wake up the day after the honeymoon to return to his day job ruling a kingdom. I want to see them arguing about whose job it is to fold the laundry if the other one ran it through the wash. (Can you imagine how much laundry there is with all those big puffy dresses?)

But I’ll never see that movie, because in a culture of smart phones and instant entertainment, we believe all of life should be thrilling, and we avoid boredom like the plague. With Facebook over morning coffee, and email at stoplights, and YouTube videos filling the nooks and crannies of life, and on-demand television at night, and iPad flicking until the eyelids droop.

And, in doing so, we leave ourselves completely unprepared for the repetitive monotony of one of the most important endeavors of our lives: marriage and family building.

I know I write a lot about conflict and anger and shame, but the truth is, boredom is just as corrosive to our marriages. We must learn to live our boredom well, or we will search for excitement elsewhere. Maybe even in the arms of another person.

A MARRIAGE LESSON FROM A PHOTOGRAPHER

A photographer recently told me the story of his photo shoot at a local forest preserve. While other photographers and pedestrians hustled around him in the gathering dusk, hunting for increasingly beautiful shots in the withering light, he sat.

And watched. And waited.

Because he knew beauty would be found not in the quantity of trees photographed. He knew beauty would be found in nuance—the infinite array of hue as the light changed angles minute-to-minute, and the slowly morphing shapes of shadows come alive.

He faced the boredom of attending to one seemingly uninteresting event, and just beneath the surface of the monotony, he discovered extraordinary beauty and wonder.

The pictures were breathtaking. 

I think the same could be true for our marriages. If we want to discover breathtakingly beautiful love and sacrificial living, we will need to learn how to stay in our boredom long enough to unearth the riches buried just beneath the surface of our monotony.

ORDINARY STITCHES IN A BEAUTIFUL TAPESTRY

Could the boring-repetitive tasks of marriage and family life—dishes, laundry, ironing, vacuuming, picking up clutter, chauffeuring—be the birthplace of joy and wonder?

I think they are, because they are the stitches in the complicated, beautiful, gloriously messy tapestry of life.

They are the strands that hold it all together. If we have lived well, when we step back in the end and look at the beautiful stories of love and loss and joy and sacrifice we have woven with our lives, others will not notice these mundane stitches, this thread that keeps all the beauty together. But without them, the beauty we created would be impossible.

If we can behold the boredom in this way, I think will find gratitude welling up like a geyser. Not heave-a-sigh-I-probably-shouldn’t-complain-other-people-have-it-worse-gratitude. But real, overwhelming, bursting-with-joy gratitude.

Gratitude. That this now dirty bowl will tomorrow be the place of my child’s sustenance—he will tip it up it to his mouth when the Cheerios are done and gleefully drink down all that sweet leftover, while we say a benediction for the day and the girl with the curls babbles and the boy with the insights expounds.

Gratitude. That love is just a word, but a clean bowl is love and sacrifice in action.  Grateful for this one opportunity to provide respite for a war-weary spouse. And in the end, what will we desire more, that we had done less dirty dishes, or that we had done more love and sacrifice?

Gratitude.

For the stitches that hold up the glorious tapestry.

And our gratitude will be the spade, unearthing the moment-to-moment wonder beneath the surface of the boring: the slick soap on hands and warm water rinsing food clean and the shimmer of light on bubbles and that favorite song playing in the background and kids screaming and pummeling each other in the bedroom and a spouse who wanders in and begins to lend a quiet hand.

With your choices, you can weave something beautiful with your life. But every tapestry requires stitches. Boring, repetitive stitches.

May you be deeply, joyfully grateful for yours.

Questions: What bores you about married life? What do you do to enter into the boredom and experience at something beautiful? Share your experiences in the comments section.

DEAR READER, Tuesday’s Tip will delve more deeply, yet practically, into the ideas articulated in the last section. How can we become attentive and mindful of our boredom, such that it actually becomes a very rich experience? As always, I’m grateful for your reading. It is truly a gift, a part of my tapestry. Warmly, Kelly

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist, practicing at Alliance Clinical Associates in Wheaton, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Arka

    Behind feeling bored or feeling entertained with external experiences, lies perhaps the attitude towards oneself. For those who are bored doing housework or feel bored in the relationship, there might be a possible feeling of ‘loneliness’. Instead, those who are not bored in a relationship or doing house work, at an internal level, it may exist a feeling of positive ‘solitude’ in the relation with oneself. They are two similar terms, but ‘loneliness’ describes negative connotations and depression, while ‘solitude’ perhaps describes a creative attitude in the relationship with oneself, and eventually, with whatever happens around us at various moments, moods or tasks. Whether leisure or boring tasks, solitude is perhaps the right attitude towards life. I think that the key issue here, is to choose whether to feel alone or live in positive solitude within oneself. From there on, no matter what happens in the outside world if we cultivate an inner peace in the relationship with oneself. At least, I try to experience it like this. From inwards to outwards…

    • Lisa

      So sorry! I tried to ‘like’ your comment but I was reading on my phone & my chubby finger pushed the ‘dislike’. I think your distinction between lonely & solitary is an important one. Well said. Sorry about that!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Couldn’t agree more, Arka. Henri Nouwen write a lot about how our “alone-ness” can be lived as either loneliness or solitude. Thanks for adding this perspective!

  • Scott

    Thank You Dr.Kelly for another good piece that was quite timely.I have recently been reflecting on how my life is so scheduled leading to so much boredom.I am encouraged to anticipate what is to be birthed from this seemingly endless routine.A good lesson on gratitude………..

    • drkellyflanagan

      Scott, Your comment made me think of a quote I heard recently (don’t know the source): May you be structured and orderly in your life, so that you can be violent and original in your art. I liked it because it balanced this need to be scheduled and learn gratitude in that, while also keeping in mind that the scheduling has a place of its own, and we all need to get a little loose and messy and unscheduled, too. Blessings as you seek that balance!

  • Catharine Phillips

    Your words (particularly the last paragraph) remind me of Carrie Newcomer*s song: Holy as the Day is Spent: It begins: Holy is the dish and drain….
    We are now doing dishes in the bathroom sink. It looks like the kitchen won*t be done until after Thanksgiving. Inconvenient? Yes. Boring? On occasion. But still… a massive change-up in routine is allowing us to see one another in different light.

    • drkellyflanagan

      That’s beautiful, Catharine, thank you.

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  • Jennifer Newell

    The first part of this blog brought back a very happy memory for me. My oldest son was about 6 and my daughter was 3. Alex would race home from school every day to play Star Wars. He loved all his figures and ships. My daughter would always want to play with him but would only want to play Little Mermaid with her figurines. She would get very upset if he would not play with her. So being the great big brother that he is, he came up with a new game called Star Wars-Little Mermaid. He found a way to make it a win-win for both of them.
    I enjoyed the blog and I will wait for Tuesday’s for more clarity on the last section. This year has been a difficult one for me due to health issues. I find it funny that I would want to high 5 on the completion of some of those so called boring tasks. For me they have been indications that I am getting back to normal that I can grocery shop alone, do 3 loads a laundry in one day, or even cook dinner almost every night of the week. They are not so boring when being able to complete them you feel like you are able to help take care of the family.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Jennifer, I had a herniated disc about 16 months ago, and I can attest to what you are saying. The boring seems absolutely sublime when you are physically unable to do it. So glad to hear you are recovering and able to enjoy the mundane again. :)

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  • ozlem

    I just want to say thank you for your writing. I recently discovered your website and I am enjoying it very much. Your words are very refreshing, original, insightful and beautiful. God bless

    • drkellyflanagan

      Blessings, Ozlem.

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