Loading the Dishwasher: A Metaphor for Marriage

December 17, 2014    BY Karen Maezen Miller

A couple negotiates the day-to-day messes of married life one dish at a time—and learns what truly sustains them.

He studied the models, rated the features, and compared the prices. He did what he does best and what I ask him to do in circumstances like this. He ran the numbers, and then he picked out the new dishwasher. 

I was happy with the size (it fit), the color (it matched), and the delivery (in two days). He was happy with something else. “The best thing is you don’t have to rinse the plates,” my husband said.

Things have to break. This is a marriage, you see.

For the record, you have to rinse the plates. You have to scrape them to within an inch of their lives. You have to scrub them, yes, even though that constitutes a complete washing before you load the machine. And sometimes, you have to throw them. Things have to break. This is a marriage, you see. Something’s got to give.

“When will you write about marriage?” I hate when people ask me that. I just don’t know what to say. I’ve been looking at a blank page for months—all right, years—and I just don’t know.

After the courtship, after the kid, after too many conflagrations to count, I just don’t know how marriage is supposed to work. There are no experts in my house. More and more it seems to me that every question in life is how and every answer is do. And do, and do, and do.

You can try tidy formulas and messy compromises. You can soak the splatters overnight and hope they loosen by morning. You can stick religiously to the nonstick surfaces, and after a while, even those start to stick. You can try all the methods professionals recommend, and you still have a mess on your hands.

I’ve never found an easier way around it, so let me save you from expecting to find it. Forget the advertised claims. Drop the romantic illusions. Let go of your cherished ideals, the hoped-for bonds held intact by lifetime glue. For a marriage to last, you have to scour it yourself every day until not a fleck of fettuccine is left behind, and it gleams like a mirror beaming back your own reflection. Then, put it in the dishwasher for good measure and go to bed.

I’ve noticed that how we load the dishwasher says everything about the difference between my husband and me. I have a system that I rather like. I put the plasticware and glasses on the top and the plates and bowls on the bottom. I use the prongs on the racks to prop things in place so that the blast from the sprayer arm reaches each piece. I don’t put my stainless, restaurant-quality pots and pans in the machine, because the instructions said not to. So I wash them by hand. I wash a lot of things by hand. Like when my husband loads the dishwasher, I wash many things that come out of it by hand. I do it my way.

As you might have guessed, he doesn’t fully rinse the dirty plates or cruddy bowls before he loads them, because the instructions said not to. He doesn’t always use the prongs to prop things the way I think is right. He might squeeze a wineglass into the lower rack, crowd an oatmeal bowl beside it, and cantilever a stew pot over both. Then he might take the cutting board and put it crossways on the bottom, against the door, so the blast from the spray arm bounces off, pulsing out the side of the machine and soaking the kitchen floor. He does it his way.

Miraculously, it works. In the morning, I take the dirty dishes caked with dried food out of the machine and hand wash them. The miracle does not occur in the machine. The miracle does not occur in the second wash. The miracle occurs when I don’t say a word about it. It’s not only what I do or don’t do; without me knowing, he silently performs a million miracles himself.

Truly, the miracle of marriage lies in what we don’t say and, deeper still, in what we don’t know. Marriage takes one dishwasher and two miracle workers.

Sometimes people think I’m telling them they have to keep a marriage together at all costs. Phooey! That’s something else I never say, because nothing stays put, intact, and inert forever. I only say that you have to keep waking up and washing the dishes, rinsing away your unmet expectations and stubborn resentments. That’s what helps me see my marriage for what it is: not the roaring flame we ignited, not the seamless partnership we promised, not the friendship we fantasized, and not quite what we were thinking.

More and more it seems to me that every question in life is how and every answer is do.

It’s taken me a long time to admit that my husband and I aren’t each other’s best friend, although friendship has never been our lot. At the onset of our midlife, long-distance courtship, after that fling as frisky strangers on vacation in Italy, I was uncompromising about our prospects. “I don’t need a friend in Los Angeles,” I said on the phone from Houston, a fair warning about the biological time bomb that had sent me hurtling in his direction.

The bomb went off, and shortly after our daughter was born, I spent a good bit of time assessing the collateral damage. Having a newborn is more than enough reason to break down and call it quits, but she wasn’t the problem. While the baby napped, I parked myself in front of the TV to watch a hypnotic loop of The Wedding Story, which back then ran in repeats throughout a cable network’s afternoon time slots. The episodes impaled me with doubt, because the real-life couples on the verge of their vows always had a dreamy sense of destiny, adoration, and friendship that was unlike anything I’d experienced in my own life. I worried myself heartsick. Did everyone marry a best friend but me?

My best friend was back in Texas, and if I called her and said I had a flat tire in the pouring rain in rush hour on the 405 freeway, she would climb on a plane with two umbrellas and a jack. My husband would more likely counsel me with a cool head while never leaving his engineering cubicle, “Call AAA.” My marriage was not the stuff of white-horse rescues. Of course, it never rains in Southern California, and I didn’t fall in love with a tow truck driver. You think my expectations were off course?

That was before I decided to give myself a break. It was before I decided that marriage—at least our marriage—wasn’t about friendship at all.

Come to think of it, why would anyone want to marry a friend? I have plenty of friends, and I do not want to marry any of them. I want to go have coffee with them and talk about how my husband infuriates me. That’s the place to bring it up, if at all.

I only say that you have to keep waking up and washing the dishes, rinsing away your unmet expectations and stubborn resentments.

No, ours is not a marriage of friends making nice. Ours is a marriage of adversaries making peace. I wonder if that’s what makes this odd and uncomfortable convention so transformative: not that we marry our friends, but that we marry strangers—indeed, opposites—and then remarry one another everyday. Perhaps that’s what creates lifetime peace, love, and harmony: the honest effort, not the butterflies and moonbeams.

“So you mean there’s no reason to get married?” says a friend whose very ceremony I performed. She is stumbling, dazed and defeated, through the scorched earth of her fourth year.

“There’s no good reason at all,” I say. There is no good reason to make any of the promises we make, and that’s where the magic occurs. Marriage is not a choice you make like picking the glass tumblers from Crate & Barrel that promise to be dishwasher-safe. (Mine cracked anyway.)

Marriage shows us how flimsy and meaningless the reach of reason can be. It teaches us to go beyond what we think we can do—we can do more—and reexamine just exactly who we think is going to do it for us—each of us, by ourselves.

Truly, there is not much two people can share. My husband and I do not share the same opinion about many things, except certain U.S. presidents and Academy Award nominees. We don’t share tastes in music or reading; we don’t have the same habits; we don’t favor the same religion; we don’t have the same inclinations about money, except we’d both like the other to make more of it. It doesn’t take very much self-awareness to see that it is impossible for two people to share the same point of view.

We seem to disagree just because we can. It’s another mindless habit. In the split second after one of us speaks, there is a choice to be made: accord or discord? Acceptance or rejection? A nod yes or a shake no? What you do or don’t do in that second is the source of all second chances.

When the going gets tough, he’ll say something like, “If people could see the way you really are, they wouldn’t think you were so Zen.” That’s one thing we instantly agree on. I remind him that I don’t practice meditation because I’m someone better. I practice because I’ll never be anyone else.

A marriage is a lot like a silent meditation retreat anyway. In both cases, you come face-to-face with the most unlovable aspects of yourself, your messy unpleasantness, your selfishness, and the panicked impulse to duck and run. Neither experience is anything like the honeymoon you signed up for. The point is to pitch all that out and stay put. With my meditation practice, I can see that I’m still a cranky person, but I try to be a kinder cranky person. One who says less but always says, “I’m sorry.”

I’ve been married before, and you might wonder how the second time around is better than the first. Surely the first one was wrong and the second one is right? I’ve stopped thinking that way. It seems to me that we have the same fights, the same frustrations, the same salty tears, the same low-grade despair, and yes, even the same loneliness. I’ve stopped thinking that one husband is better and one is worse, or even that my husband is different from yours. Comparisons are inherently false, distorted by our own self-centeredness, and serve no one. 

Besides, the way we tell it, husbands can seem uncannily alike. After two, five, ten years or more of cohabitation, we still complain about the toilet seat.

Perhaps that’s what creates lifetime peace, love, and harmony: the honest effort, not the butterflies and moonbeams.

In the middle of it all, I remember that my husband doesn’t claim to have a spiritual practice, so how could he see things as I do? In the middle of it all, I remember that I do have a spiritual practice, so why don’t I try to see things as he does? I cannot find a different husband, but I can find a different me who looks at things differently, taking more responsibility and assigning less blame, appreciating the whole instead of dividing the parts.

Two people may not share many things, but the truth of it is, they can share everything.

I share my husband’s humbling and terrifying love for our child.

I share his pride and satisfaction when he fixes the sprinklers, his fuming frustration when they need fixing all over again.

I share a refuge until one of us turns it into a war zone.

I share the unpredictable ride in this life of ours: the fits, the fights, the glide, and the cycles. There really are seasons, and they really are different. Take care that you do not measure the autumn by the spring.

I share the shortening horizon and the coming certainty that we will need each other’s strength and gentleness over the steepest ground yet.

I share the blanket of calm, the dark secret of sleep’s mysterious company.

I share his glance, his twinkle, his smile, and his touch.

I share the love that is quiet, patient, and kind, the love that bears all things and surrenders its way.

I share a pot of coffee in the morning and a sink of dishes at night.

I do, honey, I really do.

"Do you want me to load the dishwasher?” he asks, because he so often aims to help me out. “That’s okay, I’ll manage it,” I say and wave him off, so caught up in my own arrogance that I’ve overlooked the gift. I do not say what I mean, what I still mean after all these years, the declaration that serves us without either of us knowing quite how. So I say it here before the assembled guests.

I do, honey, I really do.

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