I grew up in a fairly traditional household. My dad worked in sheet metal. My mom stayed at home during the day and picked up shifts at a restaurant at night. At the same time, she was preparing meals, cleaning the house, and carting my siblings and I from one activity to the next. When I was eight, that all changed when my parents divorced. My mom had personal needs to attend to, so my siblings and I stayed with our dad most of the time.
As my dad was a more traditional guy, he felt pretty clueless about how to teach my sister and I to be “good women.” My aunts and grandma stepped in to teach my sister and I how to cook, clean, and sew. While I have fond memories of spending time with the women in my family, I feel some frustration that my brother was never required to be involved in some of these lessons. As I grew older, I vowed to myself that I would never be a housewife. If I chose to marry, my partner and I would share the load.
Flashforward to February 2021. My partner and I moved in together; it was my first time living with someone I was romantically involved with. Over the past decade, I had always lived with other women and was comfortable sharing household tasks with them. I was a bit surprised when the transition wasn’t so smooth for my partner and me. He is a clean person, but the way we went about household tasks was starkly different. Eventually, I had a melt-down which led us to intentionally negotiate how to divide and conquer our household responsibilities.
If you find yourself in a similar position in your relationship(s), know that you are not alone. Our culture has (thankfully) ditched the expectation to uphold traditional gender roles. However, that means household roles are far more ambiguous. In the past forty years, men in heterosexual relationships have taken on double the house work and triple the childcare responsibilities. However, women still complete the majority of household tasks. This lop-sided division of labor is known to lead to relational challenges such as resentment and tension.
There’s no need to worry, however. We can address these challenges and find a more equitable way to approach the division of home labor. Follow these tips from the Better Life Lab below to establish expectations that work for you and your relationship.
How to divide household chores equitably
- Create a non-judgmental space to begin conversation. Often when we notice challenges in relationships, we may approach discussions for change from a place of judgement or defensiveness. It is important to recognize that everyone involved is working toward the same goal. Speaking from a place of judgement or defensiveness may sabotage the accomplishment of that goal.
- Take inventory of the work that needs to be completed to run your household. The Better Life Lab provides this “choreganizer” to support couples and families in beginning to assess who completes what household tasks. In addition to chores, take inventory of each person’s working hours, childcare, pet care, and other tasks as applicable to you.
- Practice observing how the housework is completed in your home. In moments of frustration, I found myself assuming that I was completing more work than my partner in our home. However, when my therapist challenged me to observe what was being done in the home, I realized that my partner was also doing his fair share of tasks. Just because I was overwhelmed did not meant that someone else was not doing their part. Having this knowledge helped me better discuss my needs and difficulties with my partner.
- Engage in effective communication with your partner about how you divide up tasks. After taking inventory and observing tasks in the home, practice communicating about how this division of labor feels. This conversation can lead to making changes to more appropriately divide household tasks. It is natural for some of these discussions to feel emotional and heightened. Avoid engaging in Gottman’s Four Horsemen to support effective communication. The Four Horsemen include engaging in critical language, defensiveness, stonewalling, and holding someone in contempt.
- Practice gratitude. When you notice someone in your family taking on tasks or stepping up, be sure to thank them. When someone receives gratitude, they are more likely to feel acknowledged and continue engaging in what they are being thanked for. Practicing gratitude will also help you in the process of observing what is being done in the home.
- Trust your partner to take on the tasks that you ask them to complete. Sometimes when we ask another person to take on a task for us, we complete it part way to make it easier for them. For example, if I ask my partner to do the laundry, I may find myself bringing the clothes to the laundry room, setting the detergent on the machine, and setting timers. While it may feel helpful at the time, doing this may communicate lack of trust that your partner will complete the task. At the same time, it may make you feel that you are still doing that chore.
Dividing tasks in the home is a complex process. It’s tough to acknowledge and talk about when something isn’t going the way we hope it will. However, by learning to collaborate on completing tasks in the home, each person in a relationship is committing to a healthier and happier relationship.