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Those Dirty Socks
Mom with a View

Those Dirty Socks

Don't over analyze your marriage.


“When couples experience these big challenges (job loss or sickness in the family), they actually come together and support one another,” says Terri Orbuch, as psychologist and research professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, who is the director of the Early Years of Marriage Project, one of the longest-running studies of married couples in the country. “Instead, it’s the seemingly small things that pull them apart.”

This piece of information was quoted in Elizabeth Bernstein’s recent Wall Street Journal piece, “Honey, Do You Have to…?” According to Ms. Bernstein, we should definitely sweat the small stuff.

While it’s hard to be empathetic to the woman who didn’t like the way her husband buttered English muffins (puhlease!), I understand why women (and sometimes men) get frustrated about dirty socks on the floor, untucked sheets on the bed and that ubiquitous toilet seat. I just think they’re making a mistake.

Wait. Hear me out before you start yelling.

Are we frustrated because some of these things mean extra work for us? Yes, but it is frequently totally without perspective. I, like one of the women in the piece, find myself getting annoyed every time my husband puts his coffee cup in the sink instead of the adjacent dishwasher. How much time does it take me to put it there instead? A few extra seconds – maybe. The negative thoughts definitely occupy more time and space. Is it really worth adding even one drop of tension to my marriage over a dirty cup?

Does it really mean that your spouse isn't listening to you?

But, you will argue, it’s not the coffee cup; it’s what the coffee cup means (cue dramatic music). It means he’s not listening to me. It means my wishes aren’t important to him.

Does it really? If it’s true that when you are discussing big questions like where to send your children to school or how you can fully achieve your work and personal potential, your husband is non-responsive, then I agree, it’s a serious concern. If he shows no interest in your life or your goals or those you have for the children, your marriage may benefit from professional intervention.

But if he’s there for you on the important issues but awol on the dirty socks, maybe something else is going on. Maybe it’s not about you or your marriage.

For some people, how nice the towels look neatly folded in the bathroom is completely irrelevant. Towels are functional -- they dry hands and other wet body parts. It’s not that your spouse didn’t hear your words; it’s just that they were spoken in a foreign language. It’s not a way of looking at the world that he understands.

But he could learn, you counter.

It’s certainly possible that with enough effort and enough reinforcement (either negative in the form of screaming or positive in the form of praise), you’ll get those towels straightened out. But it seems a high price in time and effort.

Let the small stuff go. Things are not always symbolic. Sometimes a dirty sock is just a dirty sock (or something like that). We don’t need to over analyze or over invest in small actions or omissions.

Based on the studies read and the interviews conducted, Ms. Bernstein concludes that we need to sweat the small stuff. After all, it impacted all the marriages described in a negative fashion.

But perhaps she has drawn the wrong conclusion. Perhaps if these women hadn’t allowed themselves to “go there,” perhaps if they hadn’t sweated the small stuff to begin with, their marriages would have survived intact -- maybe even healthier and happier. There’s small stuff in every relationship we have in life. The wisdom and growth lies in knowing when to just let it go.

May 1, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 15

(15) Anonymous, May 13, 2010 4:51 PM

Be happy with what you have.

There is dog doo in my back yard. I scoop it up with joy because it means I have a dog. How cool is that? If I had a loving husbands dirty socks to pick around the house I would consider myself blessed.

(14) Nancy, May 6, 2010 9:33 PM

What do you call fair?

When the wife is doing 90% of the tasks around the house, and the husband lets her without offering to help, is it really fair for that situation to continue without the wife saying something to him about it?

(13) Anonymous, May 6, 2010 2:07 AM


im confused. i thought the article was brilliant. but it seems to have hit a nerve in many women's hearts. marriage is about two people learning to live together, not one person creating a clone of herself/himself and then living with it peacefully. thats easy. marriage is a challenge in which we have to learn how to live with a DIFFERENT person. and those rewards are incredibly greater than just a peaceful relationship. thats passion. thats love.

(12) Anonymous, May 6, 2010 1:53 AM

Language problem

To #4 - anonymous. Your husband likely has a language problem that has plagued him since childhood and he can't make the fine distinctions that you do with respect to double negatives and incorrect verb tenses. It's unlikely to change at this point - the patterns are too ingrained.

(11) , May 6, 2010 12:10 AM

Yael wrote: If I find that the issue is really important, then I'll speak to him about it. Susan E, you said you'd "get rid of him?" Is that a husband you're talking about, or a disobedient puppy?""" ____ Oh I'm not talking about a puppy. The puppy can't help wetting the floor and it will never be able to clean up after itself, it's a dog. . I'm talking about a grown man who won't clean up after himself. It is a disrespect to himself and to his wife. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- John wrote:"" Smearing peanut butter on a windshield? Where are we? Preschool or kindergarden? Remember the persons you thought was the most wonderful person in the world? Go ahed, smear the peanut butter, then think, how am I going to feel about thet if he were to die on the freeway on his way to work. """ ----------------------- Ahh ...die from p-nut butter? OK John one could put it on his dashboard instead. We are neither in preschool or kindergarten. That is the point. The man is an adult acting like a child with dirty socks and not cleaning up after himself. The peanut butter is responding to him in kind.

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