Letters: Who Handles The Dishes?

Readers consider whether doing dishes is, in fact, the worst.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Doing Dishes Is the Worst

Last week, Caroline Kitchener wrote about a new report that examines the strain dishwashing can have on heterosexual relationships.

I always love reading The Atlantic, but today I take issue with some of the wording in your article “Doing Dishes Is the Worst.” You say (both in the article and in the Facebook status promoting the article), “Women who wash the vast majority of the dishes themselves report more relationship conflict, less relationship satisfaction, and even worse sex, than women with partners who help” (emphasis added). While your article points out that women traditionally are the ones doing dishes, using phrases like “partners who help” reinforces the idea that women are managers in charge of household duties, and the best men can do is “help”—rather than take an equal role in both the mental and physical labor of chores. This excellent comic explains it perfectly.

At one point you say that a woman might see a “male partner handling or helping with the dishes,” which is slightly better phrasing but still problematic.

If you want to support the teamwork your article admires (and I’m confident that you genuinely do!), you can start by paying attention to how your words enforce existing power dynamics.

Sara Loy
Bloomington, Ind.

I am a married, college-degreed male. I do the bulk of the dishes in our household. I was on the brink of despair in regards to this chore when I discovered that the soap dispensers my wife had glued above the sink were the perfect distance apart to accommodate our tablet. As dishes are a mostly mindless task, with little chance of losing a fingertip (unlike with meal prep), I discovered that visual, streaming media was the perfect accompaniment to the previously odious burden. Now, I have no problem washing piles of dishes if it can help me catch up on Oscar nominees and some of the best HBO dramas ever produced.

Dan Garcia
Mount Prospect, Ill.

Nice article about dishwashing and having couples share the work. However, you fail to mention that there might be one party so obsessed with the process and procedure of doing the dishes that such sharing becomes, itself, a source of stress.

For example, does the cutlery have to all be oriented in the same direction? Or does it really matter since the water is cleaning everything anyway? How about bowls: Can they go in the top drawer with the dishes, where they actually fit nicely? Or do bowls need to go on the bottom drawer with the other larger plates? What about pre-washing? If the pre-washing is so thorough that the item is essentially already clean, then why bother using a dishwasher? Instead, just “pre-wash” the item, dry it, and put it away!

I like the concept of sharing the duties, but I am not completely sold on sharing the duties, “together”!

Mark Thaller
Gainesville, Va.

I have washed dishes, dried them, and occasionally been allowed to put them away. I am now 80. I grew up in Chicago, lived in New York and Toronto, and after my divorce lived in the UK. There I learned to iron, and I love to do that. My wife loves when I do it also.

I now find that washing “toughies” is what I enjoy. For example, big glass pitchers, ordinary frying pans, and sharp knives. These are items that I believe don’t belong in a dishwasher.

Dick Swenson
Walla Walla, Wash.

Women have been working outside the home in droves for over 25 years, yet they’ve been expected to handle the majority of household chores in addition to their regular jobs.  Of course there’s resentment; it’s not about the dishes, it’s about keeping the patriarchy intact by devaluing women’s work inside and outside the home.  It’s about exhausting and overwhelming women with responsibilities to drive home the notion patriarchy is still alive … and strong.

My guess is divorce rates are highly correlated to couples where women are expected to do it all—not just dishes!

The old patriarchy is dying but not “going gently into that good night,”—it’s raging against the end of male dominance.

MB Slack
Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Your article on doing dishes has me shaking my head. Who waits till mold has time to form on the dish before washing it?

Everyone shares chores. Household rule: No one goes to bed with dirty dishes in the sink. Mom will not be happy if she comes into the kitchen in the morning and there are dirty dishes. And heavens knows if mom isn’t happy, no one will be happy!

Be considerate, do your share. It does not hinge on your gender, just your humanity and consideration. Be kind, be helpful. Be happy!

Margaret Kaiser
Lafayette, Ind.

Several readers responded on Facebook:

Chris Klaes wrote: Correlation isn’t causation. It’s likely that the type of relationships where women carry the majority of household tasks are indicative of a relationship dynamics that aren’t conducive to healthy, fulfilling, and equitable partnerships.

Kelly Hill Kretzer wrote: I have also felt this resentment, as the dishwashing usually falls to me. The problem is less about the grossness level, but more about the frequency. Mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, and taking out the garbage are tasks that do not have to be done every day. If the dishes don’t get washed tonight, then there will be twice as many tomorrow—and they will be grosser. And if my husband is “too busy,” then the choice is left to me. When the dishwasher went down, I thought I was going to lose my mind! A minimum of 20 minutes of my life was lost to dishwashing, sometimes when I was too tired to stand. Thankfully, I have a new dishwasher. Sigh.

Wendelyn Wood Anderson wrote: I admit that my relationship with all three of my cats does suffer a bit due to the fact that not only do I do ALL the dishes in our household but clean the litter boxes as well.

Caroline Kitchener replies:

Who knew dishes could drum up so much controversy! First, kudos to all of you who wrote in to say that you enjoy this task. I’m impressed. In my house, even when it’s my turn to wash, I will strike all manner of deals to get out of it: “I’ll vacuum the whole apartment!” “I’ll run out right now to get your favorite candy.” Dan, I am going to try your HBO-dishwashing combo strategy. It could be revolutionary.

Sara, I want to address your point about the language I used. You are 100% right. “Women with partners who help” implies that the dishwashing responsibility falls, automatically, on the woman. I can assure you that’s not how I feel. Who knows—maybe that phrasing is indicative of some antiquated ideas about gender and chores that I have, buried deep within my subconscious. (Let’s hope it was just a poor phrasing choice.)

Thanks for reading, everyone. Happy washing.