On Whether a Dishwasher Is a Luxury or a Necessity

Last month, the dishwasher in my apartment conked out.  The maintenance man said that owing to the holidays, it would take about a week to order a new one and install it. And so, during the last week of December, I had to wash the dishes by hand, something I had not done in fifty years, back when I still lived with my parents while going to college.  What a chore!  I had completely forgotten what that was like.  First, I would fill one sink with hot water and liquid dishwashing detergent. Then, after soaking the dishes for a bit, I would scrub them, if necessary, rinse them, and then dry.  It all made me appreciate what a luxury a dishwasher is.  Right now, the dishwasher is churning away as I write this, and what a pleasant sound that is.

My next door neighbor saw the maintenance man removing the dishwasher from my apartment, and she called me to find out what was going on.  When I told her, she said she never used her dishwasher.  She lives alone, and she said she just washes the plate and utensils as soon as she is finished eating. A few days later, I brought the subject up while playing bridge, and the one man and two women at the table all pretty much said the same thing:  they never use their dishwasher, but simply wash everything by hand as soon as they finish eating. The man did allow that he used the dryer in the dishwasher rather than dry the dishes by hand, but that is all.  I don’t like to ask people personal questions, so I do not know this for sure, but I think they each live alone.

That, I suspect, is a critical feature.  I have never been married nor even lived with anyone, but I believe an arrangement in which each person would be responsible for washing his or her own dishes would be not work.  And then there would be the problem of the utensils used in common, such as the pots and pans.

Taking turns might be one solution, but there is the problem of asymmetrical personalities.  I knew a couple guys who were roommates while in college. They agreed each would do the dishes on alternate nights.  But one was neat, while the other was a slob.  On the first night, Mr. Neat did all the dishes, but on the second night, Mr. Slob just never quite got around to doing them, and so they were still in the sink the next morning. Mr. Neat decided he would teach Mr. Slob a lesson, so he let the dishes go unwashed the next night as well. Problem was, Mr. Slob didn’t care, if he even noticed at all.  The only one who was taught a lesson was Mr. Neat, and not long after that he moved out.

I found that story amusing enough when I heard it, but it is with a sense of dread that I broach the subject of married couples.  From what I gather, it usually one person who does the dishes, whether it is the wife (because it’s woman’s work) or the husband (because she cooked the meal, after all), but I suspect there is a lingering resentment about the arrangement however arrived at and by whatever justification.

I once knew a woman who said that when she was single and in hopes of getting married someday, if she went to a man’s apartment and the sink was full of dirty dishes, that pretty much ended the relationship right then, because, she said, she had no intention of cleaning up that mess on a regular basis. Of course, a man who would bring a woman to his apartment with a sink full of dirty dishes would also likely be messy in other ways, it being just an obvious indicator of a general situation.  After she had been married for a few years, presumably to a man with tidier habits, she started having an affair.  Her lover typically had dirty dishes in his sink, but she would walk right by that pile and go straight back to the bedroom.  “I knew I wouldn’t have to clean up after him,” she said, “so it didn’t bother me one bit.  As long as there weren’t any cracker crumbs in the bed, I didn’t care.”  (I knew a guy who did have cracker crumbs in the bed the night he brought a woman to his place, and he just got out the broom, stood on the bed, and swept it out.)

In any event, I suspect that much of the marital tension over doing the dishes is greatly alleviated by the presence of a dishwasher.  Though they were not married, I suspect Mr. Neat would have just put the dishes in the dishwasher and turned it on, if they had had a dishwasher.  But when the dishes have to be done by hand, that is when the trouble begins.  A friend of mine said that one night after dinner, his wife started doing the dishes by hand, for they had no dishwasher, while he sat on the couch and started playing his guitar.  After a few minutes, his wife, who worked same as he did, and who had been the one to cook the dinner they just ate, said, “If you loved me, you would offer to do the dishes.” He stopped playing the guitar, thought for a moment, and said, “Then I guess I don’t love you.” That was not the only reason she eventually left him, but I am pretty sure it made a major contribution to their estrangement.

After she left, the dishes piled up in the sink.  For a few months, he would take the top dish off the pile along with some silverware he could dig out, wash them, use them to eat his meal, and then put them back on top of the pile again. Finally, the absurdity of the situation became too much.  So, he set aside one dish, one glass, one fork, spoon, and knife, and threw the rest away.  His wife said that when she heard about that, she felt as though he had thrown her away. All hope of a reconciliation was dashed.

But suppose they had had a dishwasher.  Their marriage might have been saved. She would never have felt the need to challenge her husband’s love for her, because the dishwasher would already have been doing its job before any ill feeling could accumulate.  And had she left him anyway, for whatever reason, he would never have needed to throw the dishes away, and they might have patched things up.

I doubt if I would have reached the point of throwing most of my dishes and silverware away if I did not have a dishwasher, but after a week of doing them by hand, I suspect the temptation to let them pile up in the sink would ultimately have prevailed.  And that brings me back to these people I know that live alone and do not even bother to use the dishwasher, who were as surprised to find out that I did use one as I was to find out that they did not.

And so it seems that if you live alone, a dishwasher is a luxury that you may or may not care about, depending on the kind of person you are.  But if you are married, I believe it is a necessity.  So, just in case you were looking for a little marital advice from a bachelor, there it is.

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