“Shall I wash those dishes or leave them in the sink? Do I care? Will my partner care?” These kinds of questions come up all the time in a partnership, especially when the task is unappealing to the person being asked. When it comes to maintaining a household, partners enter a relationship with their own expectations and values. The outcome of what seems like a simple, innocuous question, “Should I clean it or leave it?” can damage a relationship and generate unexpected anxiety.
Two types of anxiety are common. The first case is where we fear that we’ve either married our parents, or we are going to turn out just like them. I call this “You’re Just Like My …….! ” anxiety. This form of anxiety occurs when our current life is suspended and replaced with how things were done when we were growing up. “Don’t be a nag like my ……..!” or, “You’re lazy, just like my …….!” are examples. Usually, blanks are filled in with parents or other caregivers’ names whom we may love but also resent for the way they treated us in the past.
The second type of anxiety is called “Kitchen Sink” anxiety. This occurs when your partner does not follow through with a request as expected. Sometimes the request has been made repeatedly. Instead of understanding why the partner did not follow-through, the conversation turns to everything the other person has ever left undone and every other imaginable grievance. For example, “You never wash the dishes or clean up around our house! You don’t know anything about parenting and you need to find a better job!” This type of anxiety happens when our partners are perceived primarily in terms of flaws and imperfections.
In my experience as a Clinical Psychologist working with couples, outbursts of anxiety may mean that the upset partner feels invisible. A partnership is in part about recognizing the needs and desires of others. The goal is not to meet every need and desire of the other person, but to try to understand why it is important and to take that into account. A better solution may be if one partner says to the other, “Do you need me to do it right now, or can it wait?” Or, “I’m busy with a task of my own, will you be able to do it this time?”
Responding calmly requires reflection and is difficult to do when a person is feeling anxious. It may be necessary to step away for a time before responding. Yet, when we are able to reflect on a situation instead of letting anxiety prevail, the monster of anxieties may disappear, and left in its wake is a committed partner, complex and complicated, a lot like each of us.