My wife squeezes toothpaste from the top of the tube. I squeeze from the bottom. And even though we have been trying for almost 30 years, we can't figure out how to meet halfway. "Never the twain . . . "

For most of our life together this has been a back-burner problem. We have known it was there, but tacitly we gave it low priority relative to matters like herding three sons from infancy through college. Now, however, we have the time and the inclination to do something constructive about this blight on our otherwise idyllic togetherness. In fact we have been working on it for the last three years. But we don't seem to be getting anywhere.

We learned recently that we have a lot of company in this problem. An informal survey indicates that in the United States, among couples who have stayed together for more than 25 years, 73.4 per cent have this particular incompatibility.The survey further indicates that in 91 per cent of these cases it is the husband who squeezes from the bottom, and that almost 23 per cent of the wives who squeezes from the top add insult to indignity by consistently neglecting to replace the cap. No examples were found of men who were chronic cap non-replacers.

(Digressing a moment, there is undoubtedly some important significance to these statistics. Both the proponents and the opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment would do well to investigate. It would be interesting to see how the two schools of thought start with the same premise and arrive at opposite conclusions.)

Returning to my wife's and my particular problem, my first major attempt to achieve a solution involved simple and direct expostulation with her. It didn't work. Her counterattack: "Only a person with a small mind would let something like that bother him." Oddly, she doesn't really believe that. But I do . . . evertheless . . .

My next approach was to buy my own tube of toothpaste and leave hers alone.

She didn't have the grace to return the courtesy. She would empty, by her standards, her tube, and then throw it away and pirate mine. My reaction was to fish her discarded tube from the trash basket and get three to four weeks more use from it. I also got scolded however I was detected, which was every time.

I have already mentioned that we have never been able to meet halfway in this problem. This is in part because she ordinarily uses three times more toothpaste than I for each brushing. For a while I tried to stay even with her by brushing three times as often, but I had to give that up. After only a few days, everything I ate or drank, even a martini, tasted like a soggy mint julep.

I then tried buying her three tubes to my one. The trouble with this was that we agreed that only the jumbo size made economic sense, and that left no room in the medicine cabinet for aspirin.

There was a short period when I tried to discourage her from using my tube by buying brands and flavors for myself that, hopefully, she might not like. That was a lost cause. It turned out that in toothpaste not only was she easy to please, she was impossible to displease.

The main reason why this overall situation is a problem, of course, is that it involves the kickoff to one's awake hours. It amounts to starting the day on the wrong foot. And my wife and I agree that no one reasonably can be expected to take anything in stride if he's out of step to start with. In this vein she adds, when I pin her down, that she really would like very much to cooperate, to humor me, but that when she gets up in the morning she is not fully awake until she has showered, which happens after she has brushed her teeth. She also says that she has tried many times to shower first, with the thought that if she were fully conscious when she attacked the toothpaste tube she might hit it from the bottom, but that that just doesn't work. She and I both feel that to start the day with any operation other than brushing teeth would be unAmerican. Along this line neither of us has ever understood how anyone could possibly want breakfast in bed.

Incidentally, there is no connection between our toothpaste habits and intrinsic personal neatness. For example, it's my wife who insists, in the interests of elegant grooming, that my undershorts be ironed. I think that's a waste of time and effort.

For a while I thought of approaching the Colgate people with the idea of a toothpaste tube equipped with a spout at each end. I figured they would be receptive to the concept because presumably it would lead to more empty tubes sooner, and therefore to more consumption of their product. Ultimately this was why I discarded the idea.

Of course I have tried the "if you can't lick them, join them" approach. It hasn't worked, even though it's the best ploy I have developed to date. The trouble is that it leads to what the psychiatrists call negative sublimation of my personality. It also leads to an overexpenditure of funds for toothpaste.

So what I am reduced to at the moment is envying my wife for her ability to treat small matters with the disdian they deserve. There is a consoling feature. Opposites attract, and very possibly if she squeezed the tube the same way I do I wouldn't like her as much. The only trouble with that is that I know a sour grape when I see one.