What an Epic Battle Over Laundry Really Said About My Marriage

Turns out the ‘little’ issues aren’t insignificant at all.
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Turns out the ‘little’ issues aren’t insignificant at all.

“I will never wash another article of your clothing again.”

I’ve said these words about nine times—once for every year that my husband and I have been married. I knew marriage would have its ups and downs, but I never expected that we would fight—I mean really fight—about anything so inconsequential as cleaning clothes.

I would consider us to be good at fighting about serious things. Those episodes always end with a deep sense of satisfaction as we breathe in the fresh air of clarity achieved through constructive communication. But when it comes to laundry, we’ve always fought dirty, and instead of clarity and harmony, we’re left with tough stains.

In the event that you too have some dirty laundry that needs airing, I’ll share my story.

When my husband and I were first married, we lived in an apartment building with a communal laundry room. We were on a tight budget, so the need to pay for every load was psychologically problematic for me. Also, I was worried that if I left any clothes in a machine for any longer than the specified cycle, they would be stolen. So I avoided the experience as often as I possibly could. Because of the circumstances, my philosophy on laundry became, “Wash little, wash hard.”

Unfortunately, my husband had his own laundry philosophy: “Wash often, wash gentle.” On top of that, he had a serious fear of shrinkage. He would plead with me. “Never dry anything but socks and underwear because they will shrink. I promise. You have to believe me. I lie awake at night thinking about my clothes shrinking.” (Yes, this was a thing.)

Obviously we could have done our laundry separately to keep the peace, but that would have meant sacrificing our time together and spending more of our precious money. So I would occasionally find myself carrying an armload of wet clothes that weighed more than my own body up three flights of stairs and then hanging every article from a rack that I’d attached to the back of our closet door—a rack which buckled under the weight of said clothing almost as much as my own knees did.

Once we had our first baby, the piling of laundry was so fast and furious that I began washing each newly soiled piece right in the bathroom sink. I filled the peri bottle that I brought home from the hospital with laundry detergent and power-washed with scalding hot water. This was so successful that I developed a deep faith in the power of heat for cleaning. (Wash hard, remember.)

Meanwhile, my husband wanted everything to be washed on cold for the sake of preserving color and integrity. I fought this heresy with guerilla tactics every chance I got. Laundry became downright devious. I would feel a surge of triumph when I set the dial to “Warm” and pressed “Start.” He wasn’t there to see it, after all.

But then suspicion started seeping in. He would ask me what setting I used. I would respond with either a lie or a screaming fit of rage.

I would say things like: “Don’t worry. Don’t think about it. Trust your wife who has a brain enough to do your laundry like every other couple I’ve ever known or heard of, or I will run away from you scattering your cold, wet clothes all across America telling anyone who has ears to hear that you are not a man!”

He responded to this by secretly washing very small loads after I went to bed. This was definitely not what I wanted because it meant that he was spending the same amount of money on five shirts that could have cleaned at least twenty items. When I found out about such trysts, I felt betrayed.

At this point you’re probably wondering, “Was this really such a big deal?” I can tell you honestly that it was.

The reason was because we never really talked about it beyond in the heat of the moment. Neither of us was willing to bring it up because what happened in the laundry room never seemed like an issue worth spoiling a date over. But if one area of a marriage is so fraught with tension, it will inevitably bleed into other realms.

Over time we learned that there aren’t many threads of trust in a relationship—there’s only one. And it goes both ways. The laundry wars unraveled our communication about other things, and we used that battle ground as a place to exercise unaddressed frustrations.

If I felt like he didn’t appreciate the dinner I made, I would wash his white dress shirts with his khaki pants. If he even looked at the cloth napkins a little too long, I figured that he suspected I washed them on warm with the kids’ clothes and I would conclude that he loved the napkins more than he loved me.

Not long ago, we left the apartment building and moved into a house. It has its own washer and drier, so I thought the laundry drama was finally behind us. But alas, bad habits die hard. He took to switching the settings after I had started a load. One day, he told me this to my face. I couldn’t tell what his tone or his expression meant to convey along with this revelation (defensive terror?), but I felt heartsick and helpless.

“I will never do your laundry again,” was all I could think and all that I said.

Then, one bright and fateful date, I happened upon a Verily article about saving money and the planet. For the first time, I heard another voice—one that presumably was not tainted with irrationality. At the words “cold-water detergent” scales fell from my eyes. I did some research about its effectiveness. Suddenly, hope was restored. Perhaps this was the compromise that we so long awaited.

I bought some. It works. Finally, our disparate laundry philosophies have converged into one new mantra: “wash well.” And now when I clean my family's clothing, I do it out of love and not spite.

My husband and I didn't actually talk much about the miracle of cold-water detergent. On the day that I brought it home, we exchanged some chuckles and shared a hug which washed out a multitude of splotches. We were able to laugh at ourselves and heal in that humility. Honestly, for all the drama that our dirty laundry caused, the hurt seemed to just wash away. I think sometimes things just end that way.

This prolonged dysfunction in our first decade of marriage taught us a very important lesson: no problem is too small to take seriously. If left unchecked, annoyance can shift to hatred in the time it takes to smooth and button each soggy collar. Had we talked about this directly, outside of the heat of the moment, we probably would have found a happy compromise sooner. But now I know, at least when it comes to laundry, we won't get caught up in the wash again.

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