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0 Comments | Dec 30, 2009

Over the Top

toilet paperNotwithstanding all the tremendously rich and important debates and arguments that take place each day between couples—married or otherwise—about cheating, slovenly relatives, wanting or not wanting children, or whether to work or stay home, I strongly suspect that more relationships fail over one topic than any other, i.e. whether the paper towels and toilet paper should unroll over the top or out from the bottom (hereinafter referred to as the Toilet Paper Issue or TPI). I offer no heuristic data with which to support this assertion[1], relying instead on personal observation and more than a few anecdotal statements provided by relatives and personal associates. Don’t misunderstand me – the premise in what follows is not that mismatched decisions about TPI are, in and of themselves, an insurmountable source of conflict and ultimate relationship failure. Rather, it is the failure of individuals to maturely and directly discuss and resolve these conflicts, as opposed to engaging in a tit-for-tat pattern of passive/aggressive behavior, that too often leads to conflict and breakdown.[2]

I should state from the outset that I am a lifelong over-the-top acolyte[3]. My personal view on this important societal matter does not, however, matter much to the central thesis of this essay, which is concerned more with transparent communication than one’s actual preference one way or the other. I simply feel compelled to get it out there so the reader can decide from the get-go how much credibility to give me as an author, and can thus place the forthcoming comments into an appropriate personal context. I will forego expounding here on my reasons for feeling the way I do, though they are many and compelling, and focus instead on the reasons I believe this to be such a debilitating problem in modern society and relationships especially.

Let me begin with an assertion that will likely engender no little amount of controversy, to wit, everyone has a distinct preference in this matter, and to profess agnosticism about it is to not only be disingenuous but indeed to deny one’s true nature[4]. I concede though that there are degrees of fervor associated with TPI. These range from those who prefer, say, over the top, but who, when they encounter the alternative in a friend’s bathroom, simply utter a tongue click or head shake, and then limit their subsequent behavior to discussing the matter with their spouse in the car on the way home (“Can you believe such people still exist?”). At the other end of the TPI spectrum are those so obsessed that they have little or no control over their actions, changing every errant roll they encounter to accommodate their preference, be it a hotel room, the office, or a friend’s house. Those in this latter camp can be further subdivided into the truly fearless, i.e. willing to effect the change even when they are the only houseguest and will easily be discerned as the offender, vs. those who feel strongly about the matter but are only willing to effect a change at a party or other multi-guest affair where they can plausibly deny having done so.

At risk of sounding for a moment like a management consultant, there is a helpful two-dimensional graphical way in which this phenomenon can be presented and analyzed. On one axis can be plotted one’s fervor on the subject, ranging from rabidity at the upper end to quiet acceptance at the other. On the other axis we plot one’s willingness to act on one’s convictions, ranging, as described earlier, from the most timid (unwillingness to modify even the arrangement in one’s own home) to the most daring (changing any and all offending installations, no matter where they occur). It is an enlightening exercise in personal discovery to draw this simple chart on a napkin and objectively determine into which quadrant you fall. Such an analysis can be a valuable relationship management tool as well, but more on this a bit later.

Difficulties naturally arise when the two individuals comprising a couple have opposing views on TPI (more so the farther apart are their opinion/action positions on the previously described graph). As this nuance of everyday life frequently manifests itself only upon a relation reaching some stage of co-habitation, i.e. when kitchens and bathrooms are being shared, it is by then frequently too late to engage in reasoned discourse on the issue. Many will, in those rare instances where the subject even comes up prior to cohabitating, dismiss it as a trivial consideration, claiming either agnosticism on the matter or the personal strength and flexibility to adapt, in the spirit of sacrifice, to the preferences of one’s partner, both of which views invariably turn out to be at best hopelessly naive and at worst wantonly destructive.

The conflict, if there is to be one, invariably begins the same (we will focus for the moment on the TP scenario, with paper towels unfolding, as it were, in more or less the same manner). One member of the couple uses their companion’s bathroom for the first time[5] and discovers, in passing (if you will), the mismatch in TPI preference. During that period of a relationship during which each individual spends only a portion of their time at the residence of the other (i.e. in the weeks/months preceding committed cohabitation), both will have, of course, noted the difference in preference, but more often than not, will have, in the interest of advancing the relationship, said nothing about it, though the seed of discord will have been well and truly planted. In rare instances the matter may be brought up in a joking manner, but almost never will someone on the cusp of pushing a relationship forward to the next stage risk upsetting that trajectory by waxing even remotely serious about the TPI matter, by for example vigorously espousing the benefits of the over-the-top approach vs. under-the-bottom, or vice versa as appropriate. As there is no established protocol for addressing this matter, it more often than not goes undiscussed, and frequently with tragic results.

Once cohabitation has begun[6], the next phase of the tragedy inevitably ensues, the seminal event being the first time that one party, without the benefit of discussion or agreement from the other, unilaterally changes the direction of the roll. It is worth noting here that the dynamics of what follows are affected somewhat by the conditions precipitating the first roll change, viz whether the change was effected in mid-roll or at the terminus of the original roll, said switch being effected only upon installation of a new one. This latter state of affairs affords the offender, should the matter unexpectedly be brought up, not only the entirely plausible excuse of simply having made a mistake during the otherwise considerate act of changing the empty roll, but also, in the far more likely event of it not being explicitly brought up, a certain status quo in the matter that will become important in the inevitable subsequent arguments (“Well you should have said something the first time I did it, etc, etc.”). This is a dubious moral ground upon which to found one’s position during the early cohabitation stages of a relationship, what with it being (until recently) the other person’s domicile and all. Once, however, it progresses from being his or her place to our place, all too often the sovereignty rights attending first occupancy are quickly cast aside.

Once the first mover has effected the initial switch, the battle is, as it were, joined, with the second salvo being the changing back of the roll to its original position by the other party, the critical point here being the complete lack of conversation preceding these changes, but, with only two persons in the residence, there being no doubt on either party’s part as to who they are at conflict with. The pace with which things escalate from here is a function of several exogenous variables such as the average rate of TP consumption (which gets to diet, hygiene, and other elements beyond the scope of this analysis) and less predictable elements such as the frequency with which one party is, either accidentally or intentionally, within hearing distance of the other when the bathroom is in use, in which case overheard utterances of “fucker” or “stupid shit-for-brains” or simply “goddamnit” comprise valuable bits of intelligence in the burgeoning conflict. In some cases, having an ally in the company of one’s companion’s group of friends can be a handy advantage as well, as such matters are, paradoxically, more frequently discussed with groups of close friends than with spouses/companions. There can be enormous tactical value in learning from a friend of one’s companion (employing whatever subterfuge that may require—another slippery slope upon whose precipice we will refrain from dancing at the moment) about an incipient source of domestic malfeasance.

The details vary of course from here to the final denouement, but a couple of important points are worth making at this juncture. First, it is rare that this topic will arise as the precipitating item in an otherwise broader salvo of invective. Rather, some other (presumably more major) behavior or utterance will initiate the conflict (see, for example, the list of representative issues provided in the opening sentence of this essay), during which discourse the TPI conflict, festering frequently for weeks or months by now, will arise for the first time explicitly. In response to the initial mention, the other party’s response is typically to feign a complete lack of knowledge of this aspect of the conflict, easily accomplished with a deflective remark such as “well why didn’t you say something about it sooner?” or any of a host of other acceptable utterances, all of which afford the accused the mutual benefits of ignorance and, more importantly, a feigned willingness to have happily adapted one’s behavior had one only known, the critical element here being the rhetorical skill to smoothly and plausibly deflect the blame onto the other party.

In the end, the conflict over TPI is, more often than not, simply emblematic of far greater sources of disagreement and, ultimately, incompatibility, most especially the general failure to discuss any otherwise minor items until it is too late and the volume of rancor has swelled to unsustainable levels. The tragedy is that failure to address each of these bits of minutia[7] immediately upon discovery leads to an otherwise avoidable situation whose final outcome can be in little doubt, but which usually involves lots of shouting and throwing of breakable, frequently irreplaceable, objects. The point here is that it is not the differences that matter, but the arrogance that assumes one can unilaterally inflict one’s views on another and/or the failure to discuss the situation like adults that results in the entirely predictable outcome.

Which brings us to solutions, absent which this entire diatribe borders on irrelevance. Short of subjecting all potential companions to some sort of pre-relationship SAT-like examination (which option I am not prepared to dismiss as entirely ineffective and which can in fact now be undertaken, in remarkable detail actually, on some dating web sites),  the simple expedient to solving the conundrum described herein is honest, forthright, interactive communication[8].  That means two intelligent and reasonable people saying things to each other like:

“Why is the toilet paper suddenly coming over the top of the roll when I had it coming out the bottom?”

“Oh, that would be me. I changed it this morning.” (resisting the temptation to add the disingenuous “because the old roll ran out—it was just a mistake and it won’t happen again.” In favor of the more forthright and constructive “because that’s actually the way I prefer it.”)

“Really…interesting…well I prefer it the other way” (resisting, as well, snide but gratuitous additions such as “as was evident by the fact that that was the way I had it when you got here.”).

At which point the discussion, effective and more-or-less adult-like to this point, could go in one of two directions, the less effective of which would be each trying to convince the other of the many advantages of their own preference and the equally numerous failings of their partner’s preference, or the more effective approach of some sort of compromise, which might sound like:

“Okay, just to keep from driving each other crazy, how’s about the master bathroom stays over the top, but the guest bathroom and the one off the kitchen can roll out from the bottom?”

…or perhaps some other creative compromise involving a trade-off between the toilet paper and paper towels, the point being not in the details of the actual agreement but rather in the fact that is being discussed and acted upon in a mutually beneficial and transparent manner rather the passive/aggressive way that got this whole discussion started and which leads to so much agita in the world.

Going back for a moment to the pre-relationship examination suggestion tendered earlier, it occurs as well that there may be a role in pre-Cana or <insert your own religion-based pre-marriage ritualistic educational ordeal here> for a more formalized discussion of TPI and related topics, but as that begins to border on the ecumenical, it is, again, beyond the scope or ambition of this discussion.

In summary, it is difficult to avoid feeling as though the communication challenges identified herein are but a microcosm for the broader problems of the world. It may not even be much of a stretch to suggest that had Archduke Ferdinand not taken that extra few seconds in a Sarajevo men’s room to wonder at the lunacy that could cause someone to install the toilet paper roll the wrong way, he might have escaped the assassin’s bullet. Similarly, had Hitler not had so much pent-up rage over Eva’s temerity in not only buying single-ply paper towels, but then installing them backwards besides, much heartbreak might have been averted.


Several nuances of this issue, while absent from the foregoing treatment, have been pointed out by associates and should be acknowledged as additional factors in what may have come across throughout this writing as an over-simplification of a complex societal issue. These include, but are by no means limited to:

  • The role of small children in determining the optimal rotational direction for rolled paper products (which, being without progeny, I cannot knowledgably opine on, but which, I have been assured, make a world of difference in this and countless other matters of household management).
  • How the TPI rolling preference plays itself out when one encounters the increasingly frequent (but largely institutional) practice of mounting rolls sideways on the wall.
  • The pre-TPI behavioral disorder of replacing a spent roll by setting the new roll vertically on top of the roller rather than actually replacing it fully, thus tacitly signifying that one’s time while engaged in this compromising position is somehow more valuable than that of one’s companion.

[1] Being basically too lazy to conduct actual primary research into the topic and uncertain as to whether the NIH or other research organization offers funding for such an undertaking.

[2] Similarly, though arguably less frequently, this failure of communication arises in other related (e.g. replacing the exhausted roll) and less-related (e.g. where to set the thermostat) daily activities as well, again often leading to destructive conflict.

[3] My informal, statistically invalid on-line survey efforts suggest that over-the-toppers comprise a significant majority, in roughly the same proportion as the right-handed outnumber the left-handed.

[4] As to whether that nature is learned or genetic is beyond the scope of this treatise, but doubtless a topic worthy of deeper examination.

[5] Keeping in mind that a relationship must, by definition, have already achieved an advanced state before one would reasonably find oneself in the bathroom of a companion, and most especially when the TP issue is likely first to be noticed, if you take my meaning.

[6] Referring here to full-scale cohabitation, in which one party foregoes their residence and moves themselves and their belongings into the residence of the other, in a manner sufficiently complete as to preclude the later expedient of moving out again at the onset of conflict.

[7] Other common examples include agreement on thermostat settings, open vs. closed windows, how frequently bath towels should be changed, what sort of fabric softener to use, why the goddamned dog has to sleep on the bed, and a host of other items, each inconsequential in its own right, but collectively devastating when employed in the manner described.

[8] Some will offer at this point “What other sort of communication is there aside from the interactive kind.” Don’t even get me started.

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