It was after dinner and there were three bowls in the sink sloshing oily puddles of soap suds, the residue of steak, barbecue sauce, and a few lone peas. I had the baby strapped to me in a Baby Bjorn, and he was starting to fuss, but I thought for sure I had enough time to rinse these few dishes and get the dishwasher started before I started the bedtime routine.
But then I opened the dishwasher, and it was empty.
My husband David had put them all away, which normally would have been great, the kind of thing for which I’d give him a kiss and a thank you. But this time I whined. “David! You put away a load of dirty dishes!” Our silverware drawer and cabinets were now full of dirty cups, plates, forks, and spoons. To make it worse, we’d just had a houseful of guests and I’ve always been a bit of a germaphobe. My mom remembers me at the age of four telling my siblings to get their hands off my sippy cup—“Germy! Germy!” I’d exclaim.
At this point the baby was fussing more, and I needed to get this blog post written. I feared that even if I got the baby to sleep, I’d have to write this post in staccato intervals of 20 minutes because it seemed that that’s about how long the baby would actually stay sleeping on his own at night. I was tired and thirsty, and wanted a glass of water but I didn’t know which glass I could trust. Now I felt like I needed to unload my cabinets and rewash everything.
The longer I stood there looking for a clean glass the more agitated I got. My voice rose and my complaints grew longer and meaner until I was almost yelling—even though I knew that it was just an accident and that David wasn’t purposefully trying to make my life more difficult.
But there’s something about ripping into someone that feels so great in the moment. Any little stress, anxiety, guilt seems smaller when I’m blaming someone else for my problems.
I gave up and just kind of stormed out to put the baby to bed. As I lay there beside him—nursing him to sleep—a rush of oxytocin ( the “love hormone” women get from breastfeeding and sex) must have mellowed me out, because I started to feel really sorry for how I’d treated David. When baby’s fluttering eyelids had closed I tiptoed out to apologize. I was envisioning a long hug and a rush of warm fuzzy forgiveness feelings. But thats not what happened. Instead David put up a stiff arm when I tried to go in for a hug. He said he forgave me, but he looked hurt and there was something unpleasant between us still.
“I forgive you,” he said. “But forgiving is not the same thing as not remembering. I remember your stinging words and the stinging tone in which you said the stinging words.” His point was that even though I apologized, my actions still had consequences—I had hurt him and even though he was choosing to forgive me, he didn’t really feel like forgiving me.
This reminded me of a similar problem we’d recently had with our dishwasher. The dishes were coming out all spotty with a cloudy coating of who knows what. It struck me that David and I were now experiencing another kind of gunky residue—not on our dishes, but on our relationship. The fight was over, he had forgiven me, but the hurt lingered like that cloudy residue.
One of David’s pet peeves is when I leave dishes in the sink without rinsing them. The food hardens into crusty fixtures that become semi-permanent and require Hulk-like strength to remove. I think that’s what can happen in relationships. If you don’t address the little problems as they happen, the residue of past hurts sticks around and eventually causes bigger problems.
An apology is absolutely the place to start in this kind of situation, but getting the relationship back to its lemony fresh sparkle requires more than that—it also requires love in action. So tonight David and I took a little time goofing off in the kitchen, laughing together, and moving those dirty dishes he had put into the cupboards back into the dishwasher again.