NYR 19-09: “Be A Better Spouse.” Part 2 – Angry Cleaning.

In last week’s post, things were… messy, to say the least.

My wife and I were in a tough situation. We were both mad, both tired, the place was a mess and it was 9:30 (way past our bedtime these days!) She’d asked me for help cleaning the playroom, and I basically told her that she got herself into this mess, and she can get herself out of it. She responded with deafening silence, and went back to putting the toys away.

I had options. For example, I could have pressed her further for a response:

“I mean, do you think this is somehow my fault?”

I also could have apologized:

“I’m sorry, that was dumb. Here let me help.”

Neither of these options would have been very genuine, at the time.

If I pressed her further, it might look like I’m trying to engage in meaningful dialogue. But it’s more likely that I’m just setting a trap for her, trying to get her to say something that proves my point. I’m already building arguments and counterarguments in my mind, playing out a hypothetical showdown and preparing myself to win.

The second option would likely have been an insincere apology (which most people, including my wife, can see right through) which would have only made matters worse. Even if she bought it, I would eventually become resentful because my original complaint (poorly worded, I admit) reflected my honest perspective, which would have gone unaddressed.

So I didn’t apologize and I didn’t try to talk about it. What did I do?

I started doing the dishes.

Because when I saw her starting to put the toys away I knew… it was happening. I just needed to do my part. We were Angry Cleaning. We were going to be ok.

Angry Cleaning: The Answer To Most Marital Conflict/Maybe All Conflict On Earth.

That night, Liz and I probably spent two hours getting our condo spotless. She got the playroom looking like this:


As opposed to this:


Not easy considering there was a lot of work to do. We still hadn’t unpacked from our trip to West Virginia. We had dirty laundry, dishes, trash… all the usual suspects. Nevertheless, we got after it, all of it, together.

Well, sort-of together. We certainly didn’t say much to each other during the process. Mostly we stayed out of each other’s way. But the next morning, we woke up to a spotless home. We made coffee, sat on the balcony, and apologized.

And that’s all Angry Cleaning is. It’s literally just cleaning while angry. But the devil’s in the details, and so if you’re interested in exploring this strategy on your own here are some important guidelines:

Angry Cleaning Isn’t Something You Do. It’s Something You Let Happen. If you’re in a fight, you can’t just unilaterally say “you know what, let’s just angry clean.” Because while the issue at hand might not seem important right now to you, it could be important to the other person, and to suggest doing something different just to avoid talking about it could make things worse. No, Angry Cleaning is something you see happening… and just go with it. I knew it was happening by the way Liz reacted to my comment. Trust me, if it starts happening, you’ll both know.

Angry Cleaning Should Be A Sacrifice, Directly Serving The Common Good.

When I was drafting this, Liz brought up a good point: some people like cleaning. She and I don’t. And so when one of us picks up a dish, we’re saying “I’d rather not do this, but it needs to get done and I’m going to channel my anger towards something productive that will help the family.”

So it should be a sacrifice, but it doesn’t have to be cleaning. You can Angry Pay Bills, Angry Grocery Shop, etc. I would caution against Angry Working (as in, popping open your laptop and doing work for your job). Yes, doing work ultimately serves the family by bringing in money, which is super important.  But when emotions are high I think it’s better to work on something that more directly serves the common good. From the outside looking in, “doing work” can just look like a dark, bottomless pit that you could hypothetically spend all of your time on, and so shirking a family responsibility (engaging in dialogue) to further a work responsibility (answering emails) might not be as helpful.

Angry Cleaning Isn’t The Silent Treatment.

I say this as someone who has used the silent treatment more times than I care to admit. Over the years, I started to recognize that when Liz and I got into fights, eventually I would say something really dumb. Eventually I learned that, instead of trying to win an argument, I would just say nothing at all. This was a clunky, disrespectful, and pouty solution.

Angry Cleaning is different – just because we’re not talking about the issue at hand doesn’t mean we’re being disrespectful. We still respond to questions, most of which are directly related to the Angry Cleaning (“is this sweater clean or dirty?”) We talk just enough to keep the wheels turning until the task is complete.

Sometimes We Go To Bed Angry At Each Other

 I’m sorry, but the old adage “Never go to bed angry at each other” is something I can’t practically apply to my marriage. I did some math, and my wife and I probably go to bed mad at each other about 5-7% of the time.

Maybe I’m just using a different definition of “angry” than the folks who genuinely apply this rule. Maybe they’ll concede that they might go to bed “annoyed” at their spouse, but that “anger” runs deeper and is more directly related to their spouse’s character than their actions. So I will say that, when it comes to conflicts with my wife, before going to bed I try to remember that I’m not mad at who she is, I’m mad at what she did.

But the point is just because something’s important, doesn’t mean it needs to be addressed right now. The idea of staying up all night and compromising sleep to solve a conflict that night just doesn’t sound practical to me. Sleep is a precious commodity, and I’d much rather face this problem in the cold, clear light of the morning in a clean condo. Which brings me to my final point…

You Have To Talk About It, And That Usually Starts With An Apology

Studies have shown that, when it comes to managing stress, the way your brain reacts to solving a problem is very similar to the way it reacts to planning to solve the problem in the future. The brain doesn’t care too much about the details of the plan, but it feels a lot better knowing that there’s a plan in place. And the only reason why Angry Cleaning works is because Liz and I both know that we’re going to talk about it in the morning.

And we have to talk about it. We have to talk about it because, while on the surface it may be a dumb fight about who is going to put away the presents, underneath that fight are deeper issues. Issues like respect, sharing responsibility, traditional gender roles, consumerism, approaches to parenting, personal finances… the list goes on. We don’t necessarily get into all of those topics – but there’s usually one or two that crop up at the root of the problem.

And the conversation usually starts with an apology. It doesn’t matter who goes first. In almost every situation, the other person immediately apologizes in response.

And it has to be a good apology, something that explains (not excuses) why you did what you did, not just as a result of external circumstances but as a result of who you are and where you are at this point in your journey through life.

  • I’m sorry. I just don’t see why we have to have all this stuff, and I don’t feel like it should be my responsibility to put it away if I’m against buying it in the first place. Not great.
  • I’m sorry. Last night I was just tired and feeling overwhelmed. I appreciate what you do and will try to keep my emotions in check next time. Better.
  • I’m sorry. Having all of this stuff gives me anxiety. It’s easier for me to blame you than to admit that I haven’t helped you with any of this. I just feel like when it comes to buying things for the kids I have no idea what I’m doing, which is actually how I feel about parenting in general. I need your help. Best!

Getting angry happens. To quote one of my daughter’s favorite Sandra Boynton books, Happy Hippo, Angry Duck:

…a difficult mood it not here to stay. Everyone’s moods will change day to day.

If you can have the awareness to recognize when you’re angry, the discipline to disengage and redirect toward something useful, and the trust to know that you’ll eventually circle back to the problem and work through it together, Angry Cleaning can be an effective strategy for conflict resolution, which can lead to less anger in the future.

One thought on “NYR 19-09: “Be A Better Spouse.” Part 2 – Angry Cleaning.

  1. Once again, true to life, very insightful, well written, engaging and useful! Well done, David and your editor-in-chief, Liz!


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