Whenever one comes across commentary on an issue of broad cultural confusion—for example, marriage amidst American gender confusion and self-centeredness—one has to get used to seeing people realize an important truth while still managing to be completely wrong. It’s like hitting the bullseye on a target you weren’t aiming for; You completely missed despite being dead-on.
So it is in a blog post I came across recently: She Divorced Me Because I Put Dishes in the Sink. In it, the author sets out absolve his wife and blame himself for what happened to their marriage. He explains that while leaving dishes around wasn’t a big deal to him, it was a big deal to his wife, and he should have treated it that way solely for her sake. In her mind, putting the dishes away was synonymous with caring for her, and so her husband now realizes that he should have taken it as an opportunity to care for her.
This is entirely true in a certain context. Putting the dishes in the sink is merely one expression of the kind of charitable love that a husband and wife ought to have for one-another. When a man and a woman are one flesh, what is good for one is also good for the other. Ideal marital love is the kind where each spouse gives himself completely to the other for her true good—where both realize it is better to give than to receive, but each still receives what they need. And so, when bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh really prefers that he do something small like putting the dishes in the sink, love does its best to do so.
This is, by-the-way, how people naturally act during the highly romantic state of infatuation. Infatuation is designed to help prime the pump of loving charity and make it easy to establish the hundreds of small habits that keep a marriage running smoothly. It’s a shame that Americans waste infatuation on having fun with a series of hookups only to settle down in a marriage-like relationship when they’re finally too emotionally worn out to experience it anymore. To be sure, one can love charitably and develop the necessary habits without infatuation, but that particular experience makes it considerably easier and more fun.
What is true in one context, however, doesn’t always hold true in another. And the author brings up this dynamic in a context of conflict as a way to resolve a disagreement—to declare one party innocent and the other guilty. Doing so, however, turns charitable love into a rule by which we are judged, and transforms it into something that resolves nothing at all.
Consider: Should a husband insist on his right to leave dishes by the sink? Of course not. Marriage is no place for rights. But by the “rule” of charitable love, neither should a wife insist on her right for the dishes to go in the sink. Real charitable love should be leading each spouse to accommodate the other. If it existed mutually in a situation like this, the husband would be putting dishes in the sink, the wife would be taking care of those that he misses herself, and neither one would consider either of these things an imposition. If either the wife is complaining about not getting her way or the husband is insisting on getting his way, then that spouse is not practicing charitable love. In such a case, neither spouse can call upon charitable love as a justification for their entitlement—that’s not what love is.
Could one party to such a conflict unilaterally defuse it by sacrificing their own interest? In theory, yes; either spouse could do so. Sometimes that works beautifully. However, charitable love does not act from the expectation of gain—which is convenient because more often than not, it won’t achieve anything in this kind of situation.
Things are not so simple when it comes to ongoing tasks that can be carried out only through habit and to which the other spouse firmly considers herself entitled. The reason for this is inadvertently given by the author himself: “There is only ONE reason I will ever stop leaving that glass by the sink. A lesson I learned much too late: Because I love and respect my partner, and it REALLY matters to her.” That is indeed the only reason, but it’s not the kind of reason that immediately creates habit. Our own desires are immediate and almost always come to mind; we don’t really have to think about it to put them into action. The desires of another, however, are contingent and have to be deliberately recalled until new habits form. In other words, a man may never forget that he loves and respects his wife, but he will never remember every last way of showing it every moment of every day.
Even a husband who resolves to put his dishes in the sink from now on is still going to miss dishes sometimes. Some men will do better than others. One husband might remember 99% of the time while another may only remember 75% of the time. One husband might take a week to form the new habit while another might take months. Nevertheless, every husband will leave dishes on the counter sometimes if putting them in the sink is a contingent desire. Even Mr. 99% is going to leave 3 or 4 glasses on the counter every year if he only uses no more than one glass a day. Unfortunately, the wife who has decided that a dish on the counter means, as the author put it, “Hey. I don’t respect you or value your thoughts and opinions. Not taking four seconds to put my glass in the dishwasher is more important to me than you are” is therefore going to hear that from even the best of husbands multiple times every year.
What this wife who is “literally caused pain” by these dishes is not going to notice are the hundreds of glasses put in the sink. Nobody notices all the times we aren’t struck, or aren’t yelled at, or aren’t called names. We rightly expect not to be harmed by others. The moment a person starts dramatizing the trivialities by treating things like dirty dishes, uncapped tubes of toothpaste, and lights on in empty rooms as deliberate personal attacks and blazing klaxons declaring enmity is the moment they begin turning off their capacity for happiness in a marriage. These little things—so essential as the flesh and blood of charitable love in a healthy marriage—become useless to someone who is so shackled by her own entitlement. Every dish in the sink is business as usual while ever dish on the counter is dramatized as a punch to the face.
When one has such a mindset, there’s only one way such a situation can be perceived—too much harm and nothing else. A wife who turns charitable love into a demand and is looking for grievances to justify her entitlement will never have a hard time finding them. This dynamic of fallen human nature is precisely why the Apostle Paul tells us that love keeps no record of wrongs. Honoré de Balzac was likewise quite right to observe, “When women love, they forgive us everything, even our crimes; when they do not love us, they give us credit for nothing, not even for our virtues.”
And so that brings us back to the ultimate point of the blog post, and the reason it received so much praise in the comments from wives who had finally found something with which to put their husbands in their places. The author’s point is that frivolous reasons for divorce aren’t really so frivolous in the minds of women. However, the context of divorce is always the context of conflict and entitlement—divorce is the ultimate expression of “my way or the highway.”
Such a nuclear option may be tolerable in cases of adultery and literal abandonment (which is not the same as feeling abandoned.) Nevertheless, when it comes to leaving dishes by the sink, burnt toast, and so forth, it is the marital equivalent of fatally shooting a dog-walker who doesn’t clean up after his pet—it doesn’t really matter how mad that sort of thing happens to make you. And if the last thing to go through the vandal’s mind other than the bullet is the thought that “Gosh, I really should clean up after my dog,” well… that’s true, but it’s also no longer the biggest problem with the situation. However it might appear to those who have dramatized the little things in their minds by weaponizing charitable love into an entitlement, in reality, divorce over such things is horrendously frivolous. False and twisted charitable love absolves no one.
The author’s ex-wife did not divorce him because he failed to put his glasses in the sink (although he should have put them away.) She divorced him because she’s so selfish that she would rather cluster-bomb her family than let go of her overgrown sense of entitlement. The perpetrator of a divorce is never practicing charitable love. The victim of a divorce might not be either, but for the perpetrator, it is a certainty.