The Great Dish Brush War

The Great Dish Brush War

In May 2018, we took a big step in our relationship – moving in together. Bryan’s lease had ended the previous month, and he was staying in a friend’s basement. When Lisa’s roommate moved out in May, we decided it made sense for Bryan to move in. With our big trip on the horizon, and the number of paychecks in our future quickly approaching zero, we figured we might as well cut our expenses as much as possible.

Most of the furniture, kitchen stuff, etc in Lisa’s place had belonged to her roommate, and Lisa had been storing her own items at the free storage service known as Mom’s Basement. We had also packed up and stored away most of Bryan’s worldly possessions the month before, when he moved out of his apartment. So, moving in was a fairly straightforward process in which Bryan moved his hockey bag wardrobe from the trunk of his car to Lisa’s bedroom floor. However, we found ourselves with a kitchen containing little more than a French press and a couple of coffee mugs.

Although both of us are pretty interested in minimalism and trying to live a frugal lifestyle, this was a bit extreme. We paid a visit to Lisa’s mom and dug out a few boxes of Lisa’s stuff. Knowing that we would have to pack it all up and move it back again in 2 months when we vacated the place to leave for our trip, we only took the bare minimum we figured we would need. This approach had its pros and cons – any time we used a dish, it had to be washed immediately afterwards, which was kind of annoying, but also prevented dirty dishes from piling up in the sink.

Over the next few weeks, we settled in to our new routine. We loved being able to eat most of our meals together, watch Jeopardy! whenever we wanted, and just generally spend lots of time together. Lisa also loved having Bryan around to humanely trap and release all the spiders that were appearing with the warmer weather. Dividing up the chores even came pretty easily – for instance, Lisa doesn’t mind cleaning the bathroom but hates doing dishes, while Bryan doesn’t mind doing dishes but hates cleaning the bathroom. However, sharing our space together was not always entirely conflict-free.

As we mentioned, Bryan usually ended up being the one to wash the dishes. However, little did he know that Lisa had some particular rules about how this should be done. Though he probably should have guessed, based on his observations of her habits around food cleanliness and hygiene, which were much more strict than his. Think about the security level you would find at a maximum security prison, compared to what you have at an unattended roadside stand where they just have a sign asking you to leave the money in a box.

Maximum Security Prison Method:

  1. Wash dishes and place them in the drying rack next to the sink.
  2. Air drying is always preferable, but in an emergency, if a dish must be dried in a more timely manner, it is acceptable to use the designated dish-drying towel (NOT the hand towel).*
  3. Place dish brush, with bristles up, in mason jar next to the sink to dry.

*In Bryan’s experience, even using the Designated Dish-Drying Towel (DDDT) was no guarantee to avoid censure. The only truly safe way to dry dishes was using pristine paper towel. But Bryan hated wasting paper towel when there was a perfectly usable DDDT available.**

**In Lisa’s experience, Bryan’s idea of a “perfectly usable” DDDT is a musty-smelling crusted towel that has been used for all manner of household jobs such as: wiping the counter, drying hands, wiping dirty hands, wiping the floor…***

***Bryan agrees except for the “musty-smelling” part as he hates smelly dish towels. But it could be a bit crusted, sure.

Unattended Roadside Stand Method:

  1. Use dish brush to scrub dish with soap and water.
  2. Leave dish brush in the sink.*
  3. Dry dish with nearest available piece of fabric.

*In Lisa’s mind, this was the worst transgression against the maximum security prison method – the dish brush was left crusted with food, sitting in the sink drain to catch more dirty water and food scraps.**

**In Bryan’s mind, the act of using the dish brush to clean dishes cleaned the dish brush. And leaving it in the sink was fine, as long as it was able to dry out overnight. In Bryan’s book, dryness is the epitome of cleanliness.

The first time Lisa noticed Bryan placing the dish brush in the sink, she gently asked him to please put it in the jar next to the sink to dry after using it. Bryan then continued to wash the dishes and leave the brush in the sink, as per the Unattended Roadside Stand Method which, as far as he knew, had worked really well for him for all of his adult life.

As this pattern continued, this seemingly innocuous misalignment soon blossomed into the single largest conflict in the relationship (so far).

Every time Lisa walked into the kitchen and saw the dish brush in the sink, she seethed internally and the pressure built. How hard was it to just put the brush in the jar?

Meanwhile, like that unsuspecting fish you see in Blue Planet II swimming around and minding its own business, before being snatched by the bobbit worm and subsequently devoured, Bryan faithfully washed the dishes every day and patted himself on the back for being such a good team player.

One day, as the dish brush was again left in the sink, it was too much for Lisa to take. So she killed Bryan. The end. Thanks for reading our blog!

Just joking. One day, as the dish brush was again left in the sink, it was too much for Lisa to take. She told Bryan to put the dish brush back in the jar. Bryan could tell that he was in dangerous territory. He had a feeling there was a bobbit worm lurking in the shadows, perhaps just around the corner.

But he also felt defensive, so he told Lisa that at least he had done all the dishes – wasn’t that the point, anyway? And that the dish brush was fine drying in the sink; it’s not like the mason jar really did anything particularly important.

Lisa wondered why Bryan couldn’t do this one simple thing – if he really cared about her, couldn’t he make the minimal amount of effort required to move the dish brush to its home where it could properly dry and avoid further contamination?

The disagreement quickly grew legs, with neither of us backing down from our positions. We were soon doing the normal relationship argument things.

The normal relationship argument things:

  • Raising voices
  • Liberal use of absolute statements, like “you always do X” or “you never do Y”
  • Bringing in unrelated past disagreements or past slights, real or imagined
  • Attributing the other person’s actions to some sort of malicious intent, or at best a lack of caring

This conflict alternated between simmering and boiling for a few days, before we had a really constructive conversation about it. The key to everything here was something called the Ladder of Inference, which is the way that we as humans take in information, process it, come to conclusions, adopt beliefs and take action.

Here is a graphic of it:


Lisa’s ladder looked something like this: out of the available data (Bryan washed the dishes and then left the brush in the sink), Lisa filtered the data to focus on the brush sitting in the filthy sink. She interpreted the data to mean that Bryan wasn’t listening to her concerns. Her thought process led her to the conclusion that he didn’t care about something that she had made clear was important to her, or respect her wishes. Ultimately, that must mean that he did not care for her as much as she cared for him.

Bryan’s ladder looked something like this: out of the available data, he filtered to focus on Lisa being mad at him about the dish brush. He interpreted this as her being mad about something not very important, since the really important thing was that he had done all the dishes. And he also figured that the dish brush was just fine in the sink, and there was no need to get upset about it. The conclusion he drew from this was that Lisa just needed to get over the whole dish brush issue and be happy that he was washing the dishes, rather than getting caught up on technicalities. Ultimately this led him to become defensive.

Of course, neither of us were thinking about our ladders while this argument occurred. That’s what makes the ladder so difficult; it’s human nature to run up it time and again, without thinking through each individual rung. That happens subconsciously. And it’s not to say that the ladder is bad – this is the normal process for how we think and act with most things we do in our life.

So after some amount of time being mad at each other, and up our ladders, we had a constructive conversation about this conflict. We were able to reflect on our own thought processes and assumptions, and explain to each other what we had been thinking. Bryan learned that when he left the dish brush in the sink, it actually meant to Lisa that he did not care about her. Lisa learned that Bryan was trying to be helpful by doing the dishes, but was following habits ingrained in him from years of using the unattended roadside stand method, and was not purposefully leaving the brush in the sink. It turned out that there was neither malicious intent nor a lack of caring on either side!

Once we got to this understanding, we were better able to see each other’s perspective. At that point, the conflict dropped in intensity from all-out-war to one of mild disagreement. Bryan worked harder to try to remember to put the dish brush in the jar (with the help of some strategically placed sticky notes above the sink), and Lisa cut him some slack when it was left in the sink. By the time we moved out of the place, the dish brush conflict was not really an issue anymore. But don’t worry, we have had other conflicts since…

If you want to learn a bit more about the ladder, here’s a useful link from Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline.

Illustrations by Bryan.

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