When the dishes mean war: Couples share their fights about the home

Battles over furniture, how to hang the toilet paper, and which way to load the spoons — these are the headaches of cohabitation

Two hands place forks in a dishwasher in different directions.
(Illustration by Elena Lacey/The Washington Post)
13 min

Living with a romantic partner can be wonderful. It can mean always having a date for a Netflix binge, and never having to host your insufferable stepmother without an ally. But it also comes with an implicit understanding: To make it work, you’ll have to overcome some annoyances. Maybe he just doesn’t have it in him to trifold a bath towel. Maybe she’ll always struggle to understand the purpose of a hamper.

We asked readers to divulge their worst (or most ridiculous) domestic squabbles. Here are some of our favorite submissions, lightly edited for length and clarity.

All the small things

My husband and I, along with our two kids, moved to London and needed to furnish our place. A delivery truck pulls up and unloads an authentic Guinness oak barrel (the purchase of which my husband had neglected to mention to me). He thought it would make a nice “side table” by the couch in our living room. I told him to send it back, but he refused. Thankfully, the barrel was very smelly (it reeked of musty booze and lacquer) so after a couple days of stinking up our house, my husband moved it to our backyard. I still want to get rid of it.

— Amy Radon, London

The biggest argument my husband and I had about our home was a small thing: He did not close kitchen drawers or cabinets all the way, so they were always ajar. It made me especially crazy when the drawers directly below the countertops were open because then any spills would also end up in the open drawer, making the cleanup much harder. So one day, I went through the kitchen and opened every drawer and cabinet. When my husband saw it, he said “Okay, you have my attention.” Thus began the Kitchen Closure Summit of 2013.

— Kathy Napierala, 62, Silver Spring, Md.

The first major fight that my now-wife and I had was over whether a window should be open or closed. We lived on the ninth floor of an apartment building and the window opening started at about shin-height and went up to about head height. To open it, we had to lean over a plant, and the previous tenants had removed the safety stop, so it swung all the way open rather than just opening a crack.

Being the risk-averse (and completely reasonable) person that I am, I was concerned that one of us might trip and fall out. My partner said I was being ridiculous and that it was a beautiful day out. We should enjoy the breeze (but at what potential cost?!?!). Neither of us gave any ground and things escalated quickly. We’re not big yellers when we fight, but there were certainly some stern words exchanged followed by a couple hours of not speaking. I don’t remember whether we ended up opening or closing the window, but given that we’re both still alive, I’m guessing that I won (and rightfully so).

— Doug Abbott, 36, Washington, D.C.

Four rules to make talking about money with your honey easier

Bacon! Sweet, crunchy, melt in your mouth glorious bacon! How could such a wonderful food cause so much trouble? It all came down to bacon grease. I don’t like messing with it, and so I cook the bacon and pour the grease into a jar and keep it under the sink. Maybe I’ll cook with it. When my partner cooks bacon, he lays 10 paper towels over the grease and rolls the entire thing up to go in the trash. He usually cooks.

One day, he sees me pouring the grease in the jar and freaks out. I mean like, “This is fundamental to our relationship, if we can’t agree on the simple things (like how to clean up bacon grease), how will we move forward? What kind of future do we have?” This did turn into a huge fight, which ended with me taking the jar of bacon grease and throwing it in the trash. We talked it out, and as is often true, this fight was about something else entirely. We got to the meat of the issue and moved forward, our relationship stronger for it. I still make bacon, but Adam does the cleanup his way, which is fine by me.

— Lessie Sargent, 46, Provincetown, Mass.

Absolutely the biggest, most annoying recurring argument my husband and I have had over the years (30+) is about cutting out the lights — all the time! I will leave a room and he follows in after me and cuts out the lights, and I’m still using that room. For me, ambient lighting helps my overall well-being (especially on cloudy, darker days) and I’ve mentioned this over and over again — til it leads to an argument about the same old thing. It’s exhausting!

— Catherine, 65, Fredericksburg, Va.

Drama over dishes

Two people, two sinks, no dishwasher. Both of us worked full-time, often put in overtime, and had a long commute. Neither of us liked to wash dishes. So, to be fair, his dishes went in one sink and mine in another. If either of us let our dishes sit for days, no problem — until the day a juice pitcher was empty. I knew he’d had the last glass of juice. He thought I had. He put the pitcher in my sink. I put it back in his. Day after day, neither of us mentioning it, the pitcher commuted from sink to sink. After weeks of this, black mold grew in the pitcher. I think I was the one who finally threw it out. It looked like a kid’s science project gone bad.

— D. Bernard, 68, New York City

You never know how much the daily struggle of the little things weighs on you until you actually dive in and figure out what’s wrong and why. My wife and I wound up spending an entire counseling session just talking about the dishwasher. And it wasn’t the loading or the running of the dishwasher — just the act of emptying it. There was tons of frustration over who was emptying it more (both thought ourselves), as well as when and how it was emptied.

This dug deeper into personal styles of motivation, clutter and priorities of spending quality time with family versus cleaning/managing the household. I was truly shocked that we spent the entire session talking about something as potentially trivial as the dishwasher! But we left with a healthy level of understanding and agreement on how to make both of us happy going forward: Don’t take care of it right after dinner so we have more time with the kids (wife’s preference), but make a point to do it first thing after putting the kids to bed (ensuring it’s important and gets done right away — my preference). AND we agreed to do it together!

— Theo Schultz, 34, Woodbury, Minn.

My husband and I were in a never-ending battle about whether to rinse the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. I am a lifelong rinser. I know it uses more water, and I know that the dishwasher is designed to wash dirty dishes, and I know that it just catches the food debris in the filter. But I hate, hate, HATE cleaning the filter. Just the thought that there is old, wet, half-eaten food rotting somewhere in my kitchen severely disturbs me.

And I truly believe that cleaning it out is quite possibly the grossest activity in which I have ever partaken (plus you have to practically disassemble our entire dishwasher to even get to the filter). And yet, it has always been my chore. After another heated dish-rinsing dispute, which arose when my husband caught me sneaking dirty dishes he had loaded out of the dishwasher and rinsing them in secret, things came to a head. I relented, but told him I would only do it his way if he cleaned the filter. The following day, he tried his hand at the absolutely vile and soul-crushing task of filter-cleaning for the first (and last) time. And ever since that day, we have lived in peace, thoroughly rinsing our dishes together as one.

Lynzi, 37, Chattanooga, Tenn.

We fight over how to put spoons in the dishwasher. I put them in so the handle is down and scoop is up. My husband does the opposite. It’s gotten so bad that we will turn them around when the other person isn’t looking.

— Elisheva Beller, 54, Chicago

My husband wanted clean dishes taken out of the dishwasher before bed, I wanted clothes (especially sheets) taken out of the dryer as soon as it stopped. We fought for 14 years until things reached a climax one afternoon as I opened the dryer and found wadded sheets just as he yelled “Who left these dishes in the dishwasher?” We decided the dishwasher was his, the dryer was mine. We could each “help” the other occasionally by taking out dishes or clothes, but the responsibility lay with the one who cared. Fourteen years of marriage wasted on clothes and dishes! The next 20 were far more peaceful.

— Patricia Sprinkle, 79, Raleigh, N.C.

My partner moved in with me during the coronavirus pandemic and she prefers doing the dishes immediately after eating, while I would wait until I have more energy to do them, usually first thing in the morning. I also have grown up not using a dishwasher to wash dishes, but as a drying rack instead (Asian household). Hand-washing dishes for one was never really that bad, but washing dishes for two when you are working from home and eating all your meals at home got to be a lot. We fought a lot about the mess, and eventually I caved and we started using the dishwasher. In retrospect I feel silly that the answer was so obvious, but it took a lot for me to unlearn years of seeing it as a drying rack. It helped when I learned that a dishwasher uses less water, and now I am so grateful for it.

— Karen L., 34, Philadelphia

My husband and I have been married for 35 years. We have a great relationship and usually get along very well, except when it comes to loading the dishwasher. I rinse the dishes before putting them in the washer. He insists that the dishes do not have to be rinsed and puts them in straight from the table. Then the food adheres to the dishes and silverware and I go crazy when I am unloading the washer. If he unloads the washer, he just puts the dishes and silverware in the drawers and when I set the table, I go crazy when I find food baked on. I even solicited his mother to help me change his mind, but he still believes that the dishes do not have to be rinsed. My solution is to not let him load the dishwasher. It is okay because he does most of the cooking (he used to be a chef), and I love him!

— Kathy Marcove, 59, Santa Barbara, Calif.

Luckily, my partner and I don’t have huge fights. But oh my goodness do the dishes drive me crazy! I have asked many times over the six-plus years of our relationship that he please deal with his own dirty dishes. He is almost 41 years old and leaves dirty, crusty dishes in the sink without rinsing or soaking them constantly! I’m the type who makes sure the dishwasher is emptied every morning before we go to work so the sink can be free of dirty dishes. I always clean up after myself and our 5-year-old child. It drives me bananas that a fully functioning adult doesn’t clean up after themselves.

— Megan R., 38, Golden, Colo.

Wars of words

My spouse and I have the most inconsequential disagreement about what to call that little square piece of fabric that you use to wash up in the shower. I (like a normal person) call it a washcloth — because it’s a cloth I use to wash myself! My husband insists on calling it a rag, only because it’s shorter to say than washcloth. For me, calling it a “rag” evokes a sense of dirtiness for some reason. I don’t want to use a rag in the shower, I want to use a washcloth! I’ll say this — we have a beautiful relationship and he is incredible at doing all of the domestic chores while I attend law school. But this is one disagreement that will probably never get settled.

— Rowan Bienes-Allen, 25, New Orleans

My wife refers to the vacuum as “the sweeper” and will tell me to “sweep” the floor. However, I remind her that it’s called a vacuum, and that I’ll be able to vacuum the floor but I will NOT sweep the entire floor!

— Kaiser A., 33, Salem, Ohio

Clashes over the commode

I like the toilet paper under. My husband likes it over. For years, we were constantly changing the direction to our liking. Then we made a bet. Would our friends get married? (It was a LONG relationship for them.) At the time, they were engaged and planning a wedding. Whoever won the bet would also win the toilet paper dispute. Our bet lasted five years. The wedding didn’t happen. I lost. And for the rest of our lives, the toilet paper hangs over the roll. Sigh.

— Donna A., 60, Silver Spring, Md.

A toilet seat has a cover for one reason: to close the toilet. My boyfriend refuses to close the toilet cover. While staying with him, I use the guest bathroom only. This drives him crazy.

— Nellie Bracker, 64, Tubac, Ariz.

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