The Battle of the Bathroom Between Husband and Wife
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The Battle of the Bathroom Between Husband and Wife

How to negotiate bathroom behavior when you're married.

The Battle of Bathroom Redesign

My wife and I have been talking about redoing our master bathroom for almost three years now. We've blamed the delays on disagreements over design, budget, cabinetry, fixtures and, of course, tile -- since you now have to choose not only color but shape, texture, heatability and, I think, aroma. But Diane and I both know what's really holding everything up: We have only enough room for one master bathroom. And while married couples need to be able to share a great many things, I'm no longer convinced that a bathroom is one of them.

It's just not natural.

I believe husbands and wives can work out pretty much anything with time, communication, patience, and perhaps full-contact couples therapy. Anything, that is, except peace in one shared bathroom.

I'm not talking about seat-up versus seat-down stuff. That has never been an issue for us. My wife is a petite little peanut, and the first time I left the seat up she literally fell in. I can't live with that. So I always put the seat back down.

Everything else about husbands and wives and bathrooms, however, is up for heated debate. Take the condition of that seat -- its general cleanliness and esprit de corps? All very subjective. A personal preference thing, really. In fact, I foresee a day when the male perspective on this starts gaining more acceptance. Maybe the folks who write those Everyone Poops children's books can do a sequel called Everyone Pees on the Seat.

Or take the question (a favorite in our house) of whether the bath mat really needs to be hung up to dry or can be left to dry by itself lying on the floor all day long. I know Diane believes hanging it up is better, based on certain "knowledge" that has been passed down from wife to wife through the generations. But are there double-blind clinical trials that prove one way is better than the other? I'd be happy to volunteer if some husbands' rights group wants to fund such a study.

I don't mean to minimize the importance of the problems caused by wives trying desperately to somehow re-potty-train their husbands. This is serious stuff. One of my basketball buddies admitted to me recently that bathroom battles almost wrecked his marriage. "Our old condo only had one bathroom," he said. "She hated me when we lived there. She was always banging on the door and telling me that she needed that bathroom!" They finally bought a place with enough space to put a dinky water closet for him next to her nice big bathroom. He even agreed to make it the only room in the house he was responsible for cleaning. But she's still on his back about it. He may have to resort to every teenage boy's fantasy -- putting his own lock on the bathroom door.

Bathroom Behavior

My fantasy bathroom would be a little more elaborate. It would be a completely tiled room, floor to ceiling, that is completely flushable -- push a button and water flows out from up high on every wall and cleans every surface. I would simply sit in the middle of the room, in a customized Barcalounger with a hole under the seat and magazine racks all around me suspended from the ceiling so they won't get wet.

If there were a waterproof high-definition TV in there -- or even better, a DVD player -- I might never come out. Just slide the meals under the door. I'd use paper plates and plastic utensils, and I'd just flush the whole works when I was done.

I've given more thought than I care to admit to why there is so much marital friction concerning the bathroom. Much of my best thinking has taken place in the cramped, reading-material-free guest powder room, only reached by a long flight of steps down from our bedroom, to which I am banished so Diane can be mistress of the master bath.

Part of the friction is obviously just competition over access to the nicest bathroom in the house. And there are, of course, the standard battles over the husbandly and wifely understandings of concepts like "clean" and "dry" or "put away" and "mine." I will admit to sometimes walking out of the shower soaking wet to get more soap or shaving cream and then doing only a cursory job of sopping up puddles afterward, even though I know this is wrong. And I have been guilty of wiping steam off the mirror with my hand although I realized this could cause smudges, streaks, and other forms of reflective sullying.

But I think there's a bigger issue here. I think wives are, at some basic level, deeply offended by everything their husbands do in the bathroom. Diane daintily refers to her time in the bathroom as "being at my toilette," because she doesn't want her endless primping to be confused with what icky boys do in there. Yes, that's right -- we actually sit down. On that porcelain thing. And for much longer than any bodily process could possibly take. Deal with it.

Master of the Bath

Now, discussing this issue is one of the last taboos in most marriages. Guys who have seen their wives give birth have still never seen them going to the bathroom. I know in 20 years I never have.

Diane is willing to talk about these issues, but only conceptually, so that I may learn more about the ways of her gender. Apparently women are conditioned from early childhood to sit for as few seconds as possible in home bathrooms -- and in public restrooms they are supposed to hover gymnastically without actually touching the seat. I guess this is very traumatizing, so wives can't believe their husbands would ever spend a second longer than necessary actually going to the bathroom -- just like we can't believe how much time they spend in there not going to the bathroom.

Interestingly, I think this is one marital battle of the sexes where husbands might be, if you'll excuse the expression, getting a leg up on the competition. Everything I read about bathroom design suggests more and more reasons to spend extended periods of time there. And everything I read about cell phone, BlackBerry, and wireless laptop use suggests that more and more people are multitasking from the throne. Apparently, nearly 40 percent of people answer their cell phone in the bathroom. That number is only going to go up.

As for our bathroom renovation, I'll be curious to see how it finally plays out. Regardless of all the debates over glass tile texture, whirlpool depth, and sink drain feng shui, the only way for us to create a separate little bathroom for me would be if Diane were willing to sacrifice the closet she uses exclusively to store her shoes. I'm afraid that if I ask her to choose between pampering her footwear and having her own bathroom, it could turn out like one of those Star Trek episodes where Captain Kirk tricks a powerful robot by giving it two mutually exclusive commands, causing it to self-destruct.

I really don't want to see my wife's brain blow up -- although, if it happened in my fantastically flushable bathroom, I would know how to clean it up.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, July 2006.