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Connections

Instead of marriage therapy, wash the dishes

This simple, calming kitchen chore keeps one husband humble and contemplative about pointless disputes.

Illustration by Gracia Lam

FRIENDS TELL ME that family therapy has helped their marriages. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like those pricey bills. So let me share my remedy: I wash the dishes.

That’s right, keeping kitchen stuff grease- and germ-free through hand washing is my ticket to a relatively stress-free, relatively content marriage. For one thing, the task is a lot of work. I do every plate, bowl, and pot, every meal, day after day. And I’ve been “Palmoliving” them for 30 years. By this point, the pile would be about as high as our national deficit. Stack them up, and they’d reach heaven.

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Then there’s the process. The chore is simple and repetitive. There’s the calming flow of motion as I move the wet dish to the drying rack. The view from the sink looks out on the backyard. It’s a period of solitude, not unlike church. The overhead light casts a soft nimbus. Cares drift away. My hands are immersed in warm water — you might even compare it to the amniotic fluid I initially bathed in, which is perhaps where all my issues began.

You’re thinking: That’s not therapy. But look at it this way. Marriage isn’t rocket science. It’s not like putting a man on Mars. It’s a simple proposition of two people being reasonable with each other. For much of history, two strangers were pushed together and told they were a couple — and they remained together for the rest of their lives. Now, by some estimates, more than 40 percent of all conjugal unions in the United States are torn asunder.

Washing the dishes is my reality check. It is saying that much of life is filled with such mundane tasks. Turn up the faucet, and it warbles that dishes are a symbol of a relationship. If I tend to the dishes, then I tend to the relationship. Fill the strainer with kitchenware, and I am preparing for tomorrow. Pour more detergent, and I think back to when I was so angry that spittle formed on the edges of my lips, and how that, too, has passed. Like Melville and his Ahab, I’m a metaphor type of guy. If there was an inflatable whale in the sink, I could harpoon it to drown my troubles.

Or perhaps this is it: Washing dishes cuts me down to size. It reveals, over and over, that I am just another bloke trying to get through the day. So informed, I know any dispute is not about the dispute, but about my reaction to it. Next time I feel impatient or embarrassed or upset, I know that the person on the other side of the table deserves respect. Besides, anyone who opts to wash the dishes by hand when he could buy a dishwasher is no bargain and should appreciate any proffered kindness.

To be honest, my wife and I fought a lot about bringing up our daughter. That is, we argued about principles, but never let it get personal. (Now that our child is a semi-adult, that sport is lost to us.) When I got really angry and was about to let loose a low blow, something stopped me. It was the image of me, stooped over the sink, attired with frilly apron, doing the evening dishes. If I’m so smart, how come I’m doing this, swished through my mind. I would sit down and think about the problem, and the urge to keep fighting would be gone.

Perhaps the key to this self-cure is something my mother used to say when I was a child: “Take a bath and all your problems disappear.” Only I’m downsizing to a sink.

Finally you ask, what does my wife think of all this? She smiles, knowingly, because she’s gotten me to do the most boring job of all.

Howard Scott is a writer in Pembroke. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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