This month, Northern California marriage therapist Kurt Smith is working with three couples who are fighting about unfair division of child care and housework.
Invariably, their complaints ― and the complaints of all the housework-quarreling couples that came before them ― hit on all the same notes: One spouse ― usually the woman, if it’s a heterosexual relationship ― is sick and tired of shouldering the lion’s share of housework and needs that dynamic to change, pronto.
Since most couples have never sat down and actually discussed how to divide up their family responsibilities (or if they have had the conversation, someone doesn’t seem to recall the specifics), they fall into some version of the stereotypical gender roles.
“He handles the outside of the house and she owns the inside,” Smith told HuffPost.
But defaulting to this frankly archaic split isn’t usually very equal ― work in the house, including child care, is far more time-consuming ― and doesn’t cut it for most people today where both partners are working.
That’s especially true during the pandemic, where spouses and partners are oftentimes trying to balance working from home while supervising the kids (especially when they’re remote learning or having to quarantine).
“An imbalance in the sharing of joint responsibilities, whether in the areas of parenting, finances, household chores, or elsewhere will inevitably lead to problems.”
There was a reassuring period early in the pandemic when it came to housework: In the first wave of lockdown, men actually did step up with household chores and kid care. Unfortunately, that trend didn’t last.
According to a McKinsey poll conducted with LeanIn.Org, since the pandemic began, mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to do the majority of household and parenting labor. And they’re 1.5 times more likely than dads to spend an extra three or more hours on chores and child care.
Given all this, there’s no time like the present to have that crucial conversation about splitting up the household work.
“A lot of couples skip having this talk but it’s a necessary one for relationship health and happiness,” Smith said. “An imbalance in the sharing of joint responsibilities, whether in the areas of parenting, finances, household chores, or elsewhere will inevitably lead to problems.”
If you’ve never had the “equal work” discussion with your S.O. — or you’ve been together a long time and need a refresh ― here’s how to broach it.
Control the tone of the conversation and use the pandemic as a conversation starter.
Sure, your partner is majorly slacking on the chore front, but you want to try and ease into this conversation in a casual, non-disgruntled way, said Becky Whetstone, a marriage and family therapist in Little Rock, Arkansas, and co-host of Curly Girls Relationship Show.
“Tell them you have noticed a change and ask them if they have noticed it and what is driving it,” she said. “Kindly express that you still need them to do their part.”
You also might use the pandemic as a conversation starter: Ask them, how has the pandemic changed our family dynamic? How has it improved your lives? How has it weighed you down? How has it changed our delegations of responsibilities? (Like a good, inquiring journalist, leave the hardball question for last.)
“Take stock as a couple and see what adjustments can be made to lower the stress on the individuals and family,” Whetsone said. “You might even invite your kids into the conversation: Have each person describe what is going on with them these days and what do they need.”
Use “I” language.
The key to discussing chores (or any difficult topic, really) is to share feelings in a diplomatic way that considers the other person’s ego, said Elisabeth LaMotte, therapist and founder of the DC Counseling and Psychotherapy Center.
To that end, use ‘I’ statements that acknowledge that you’re communicating from your own point of view and willing to negotiate. Avoid ‘you’ statements that lay all the blame at your partner’s feet.
“You have to be willing to own your part of the equation,” LaMotte said. “It is much more productive to say: ‘I am aware that my cleanliness standards for our home are higher than yours and that must be challenging to live with. But if the dishes could be taken care of each evening without a reminder, that would be awesome.’”
It’s considerably less productive to say: “You’re such a slob, you can’t even clean a dish without my constant reminders.”
Try to make it easy on each other.
Let’s be honest, household chores are not tasks any of us are typically eager to do. Chances are, there are chores you prefer to do over others and those may or may not align with your partner’s preferences ― but you’ll never know unless you ask. (OK, you might already know if your partner gets huffy and takes a deep, dramatic sigh every time they’re on dishwashing duty.)
If you take the time to divide the tasks with preferences in mind, an acknowledgement of the length of time a task takes to complete and the level of difficulty and frequency, both of you will likely feel that the work is more evenly distributed, said Danielle Marrufo, an associate marriage and family therapist at Kindman & Co in Los Angeles.
“Think about what you and your partner are actually good at or enjoy,” she said. “Try to identify the things you both have natural strengths and inclinations for and support each other to do more of those things! This can make it feel less tedious or intimidating to try to do your part.”
After the conversation, have faith that chores will get done.
Your partner is not a mind reader: Communicate what you’d like them to do and what you’re more than happy to do, then stick to your guns, said Samantha Rodman Whiten, a psychologist in Potomac, Maryland.
If you no longer want the laundry to be your chore, directly communicate that you will not be doing more than half, and follow through. Have a little faith that your partner will follow through with their assigned chores, too.
“Many times, people think that if they stop doing a given chore, it will never get done, but this rarely happens,” Rodman Whiten said. “The chore may not be on your timeline, but it will get done if there is no alternative.”
Rodman Whiten used an example from her own marriage.
“Personally, I don’t do any laundry and I never have, but I do all the cooking. The laundry can get done whenever my husband does it, and meals are served when I cook them,” she said. “If people don’t criticize one another’s performance of tasks, then they can have a much happier team-like partnership!”
Show them how working as a team benefits all.
Make a point to tell your partner how you feel when they help more, Smith said. If they’re reminded of the inherent perks of doing their fair share, they’ll be more inclined to put in the work.
“When you feel more positive and connected to them, it can result in more physical affection or time together having fun,” Smith said, before adding that the cliche of men being “highly motivated” by the possibility of sex is fairly true.
“Men are often surprised to learn that women can find a man cleaning the toilet a turn-on,” he said.
Offer praise for good work and remember that this conversation might be ongoing.
Daily tasks and chores can feel like a thankless job and are often overlooked ― unless our partner notices they are forgotten.
But note a job well done, too. Actively praising and thanking our partner tells them that we see the work that they are doing and we recognize their effort, Marrufo said.
Remember, too, that these conversations are ongoing, not necessarily a one-and-done thing. (Just ask anyone who’s been married for years.)
“Continuing to have the conversation around expectations and responsibilities helps to foster dependability and security in relationships,” she said. “I mean, we’re stuck at home with our partners ― let’s work toward making it a comfortable environment for everyone.”