Is The Argument Really Over The Dishes?

Everyday bickering between couples is common. But what causes these arguments? Are you really upset about the dishes, or is there something else on your mind?  

By Jaunai Staton, BBA and Lauren Grossbach, LMFT

Couples often argue about cleaning, division of labor, and hours spent working outside the home. Disagreements about the dishes quickly turn into arguments about dissatisfaction in the relationship, unmet needs, and how frustrated each partner is with the other. Conflict happens because our entrenched emotional needs will find a way to be heard, even through seemingly silly arguments. In addition, past experiences and unconscious thoughts impact how we communicate.

In order to change these patterns, we need to address the root cause of these arguments. As a relationship therapist, I explore with my clients the real reasons why they are arguing. If you’ve found yourself saying “I know it’s stupid,” or “we shouldn’t be fighting about this,” there is a more extensive conversation to be had.

There Is No Way to Escape “Stupid Arguments”

Believe it or not, “little, stupid” arguments can help you and your partner improve your relationship. Remember that some communication is sometimes better than no communication. But what happens when your partner thinks your complaint is little or stupid? What if you want to resolve the underlying issue but you feel rejected by your partner? Have you ever dismissed your partner’s concerns as silly or unimportant? Couples often try to avoid arguments over minor issues. But even seemingly minor issues show up for a reason, and they’re worth exploring. Whether in a long-term relationship, marriage, or casually dating, miscommunication will enter a relationship sooner or later.

Decades of research and articles have proven that couples, whether married, partnered, separated, or divorced, share one thing in common: they eventually have issues in their communication.

Example: James and Mary

James and Mary just moved in together and have not agreed on how they would like daily chores to be split. James believes that Mary should do most of the cooking but doesn’t mind cleaning up. Mary doesn’t have the time to cook with long work shifts, but she would like to manage how the cleaning gets done. 

When Mary gets home from work, she decides to cook, even though she does not think it is fair. After a long day of working and cooking, she leaves dishes in the sink and feels tired. James is home from work and just that morning had cleaned their apartment spotless. He is tired, too. They have a heated argument over who should do the dishes. Mary feels that she shouldn’t have to clean up, because she worked all day AND cooked. James doesn’t think he could either, because he cleaned the apartment from top to bottom AND worked all day.

This disagreement happens almost daily, and they can’t figure out the best solution. Someone eventually gives in, but it still creates building tension. 

Why This Happens

James and Mary, as a couple, might be recreating what they saw in their household growing up, whether it be from their own parents, a depiction from a movie, or television show. They may unconsciously expect their partner to live up to this standard. Either way, they’re stuck and can’t resolve this ongoing issue. Their situation could be improved if James and Mary had a safe space to explore these arguments and their real root causes. 

Past experiences, like childhood memories, often influence how we argue. If you grew up with the fear of not being fed or nurtured, you might be bogged down by an unconscious fear of deprivation and emotional starvation. Sometimes when we’re angry, it could be challenging to recognize that you’re actually feeling scared. Strong emotions like anger and fear are hard to confront. Focusing on the dishes, rather than the feelings, is a way to avoid managing difficult feelings. So, when you think about who should put away or clean the dishes, remember that your partner might be asking for a need of theirs to be met. 

You often hear that couples fight the most about finances. You might think finances are a more significant issue than the dishes. As it turns out, dishes join finances on the list of topics that couples disagree with most. It makes up about 57% of what couples are getting into a spat over.

Treating the problem as “little” or “stupid” doesn’t create space for couples to resolve it until it becomes explosive. So even when you think a topic of discussion is trivial, there is always a deeper root cause.

Don’t Let the Small Stuff Break You Apart

“Don’t sweat the small stuff.” But in this case, don’t let the small stuff break you apart. Arguing over the “little things” is an unmet attachment need, not the dishes or chores. More often, there is a deeper pattern at play. What do the dishes mean to your partner? Do the dishes validate their deep-rooted fear of abandonment and therefore, they need comfort? Is your partner coming to a catastrophic conclusion because they’re worried about something else they can’t talk about? Understanding the primary emotions and deeper parts of the negative communication cycle can help de-escalate conflict and validate both partners’ perspectives.

What You Can Do

Unhealthy patterns happen when you think your expectations are the same, but they’re not. Unmet expectations means unmet needs. Often we think there is a “right” and a “wrong” way of handling a conflict. Truthfully, effective conflict management means actively listening to your partner’s needs while also advocating for your own. 

When the cycle of repetitive arguments changes, it creates a new communication pattern for a couple to explore. Disclaimer: this is not going to happen overnight. The goal is to start the conversation between two people— having ways to collaborate, be heard, listen, and understand. These conversations can help identify past experiences influencing your current feelings.

Before you act, think about what emotions are showing up before you react. Is this really about the person or sink dishes? Or are you responding to an older, unresolved issue from the past?

Dale Carnegie said “The only way to get the best out of an argument is to avoid it.” But in reality, couples often have difficulty avoiding arguments. You can only hide how you feel for so long because it is difficult not to want to express yourself. So I can’t entirely agree with Dale Carnegie. Sometimes the best way might be to understand just why you and your partner are by having these arguments.  

Are you and your partner struggling with constant arguments over “stupid or little things”? Why not try something different? Schedule a session at Mindful Connections Counseling and let us help you find some relief.

Our therapists support the mental health of kids, families, teens, couples, and adults of any age. To learn more about our services, contact us here.


Brech, A. (2020, September 9). This is why you’re really fighting with your partner, according to a psychologist. Stylist. Retrieved September 29, 2022, from 

Bureau, I. N. Q. U. I. R. E. R. N. E. T. U. S. (2020, December 16). Doing the dishes causes the most spats among couples. USA. Retrieved September 29, 2022, from

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