There’s a classic scene from the 2006 movie, The Breakup. Jennifer Aniston’s character has just finished saying goodbye to the last guest, and is heading into the kitchen to do the dishes, after a day spent working, cleaning the house, and cooking the meal. Meanwhile, her partner has kicked back on the sofa and is playing a video game. She gets angry he’s not prepared to help her, and when he finally, grudgingly, says he will, she retorts that actually, that’s not what she wants. What she wants is for him “to want to do the dishes.”
He replies, “Why would I want to do the dishes?”
And the reality is that not many people do want to do dishes. Or to wash laundry. Or to cook dinner. But most of us do want clean cutlery, clothes that don’t smell, and food in our bellies. And for some reason, it seems that the weight of these tasks often fall more heavily on women, to the tune of almost an extra hour a day (Check out these statistics from the United States Department of Labor if you want the breakdown on how that time is spent).
I don’t know why this is. I don’t think researchers know 100% either. But I only have to look at the blogs I read to know that women seem to care about these things more. After all, it’s women writing articles on how to declutter the bathroom or clean out the fridge. In addition, I’ve lived with a few men, and I can tell you that none of them ever said anything like, “That skirting looks dirty- I think I’ll clean it this weekend,” or, “It’s spring time, so time to make that spring-cleaning checklist.” I did ask my husband the other day as to why he thought that was, and he said to me that he just doesn’t see it as important. He’s more concerned with how the house looks from the outside- if the garden is neat or the lawn is mowed (a reason that fits into the motivational hypothesis) Other reasons may be epistemic (they just don’t see what needs to be done the same way we do) or structural (they want to help, but factors outside their control don’t allow them to).
And that’s all well and good- until it isn’t. Until you’re tired, grumpy, stressed, and all of the above and you’re just sick of the fact that the both of you work all day and yet everything seems to come down to you.
So how do you change all that?
Firstly, check your assumptions. Is he really doing less? It used to drive me crazy that I was always waiting on my husband in the mornings (we work and commute together). Then he went away for a couple of days and I had to do all the morning tasks he does: unload the dishwasher, make coffee, make lunches, pack bags, feed the animals… Suddenly I realised how much he was doing in the morning compared to my contribution of making the bed.
Secondly, let go of some of your expectations. I heard once the saying that “expectation is premeditated disappointment” and does this resonate in this scenario or what! Your husband loves you and doesn’t actually want you to feel like a slave in your own home, so give up the idea that him leaving stuff up to you has some great meaning. Also give up any resentment that you are the one putting in the mental work related to housework. Accept it, and think about what you can change instead. Same thing with the word help. It doesn’t mean everyone thinks it should be your job. It just means it’s bothering you and you’re choosing to take action.
If you’ve done this and there’s still a problem, it’s time to make everything transparent. Make a list of the tasks you are talking about. For example, cooking tea, doing dishes, laundry and other daily tasks, as well as those weekly tasks like dusting and vacuuming. Make sure you also put on the lists things he might do as well. For example, mowing the lawn or cleaning the car (tasks I have never done in the time my husband and I have been together).
Now pick a time to sit down with your husband and discuss how you are going to split these tasks. Assuming he says yes, there are various ways you can do this. You can select personal preference (one of you might like cooking, the other might like ironing), or tasks that fit into your day better (maybe you get home before him so it’s easier to start dinner, whereas he gets up earlier, so he can unload the dishwasher). Make sure you think about how long each task takes and the regularity with which it has to be completed so you end up with an even distribution. In this conversation, allocate times for tasks to be done in your week. For example, if you are going to give the house the weekly cleaning, you might decide together that you’ll do this on Saturday morning, when he is mowing the lawn.
Once you have worked these things out, consider whether it would help to have these written down and in a public place, such as on your fridge or somewhere else.
Now, of course, that’s not the end of it, because, despite the best of intentions, things might happen to derail your system. The biggest one of those is your interference.
If it is your husband’s job to put away the laundry then do not go and check to see how he has done it, refold it, and make any comments about how he got it wrong. There is no right or wrong; there is only your way and his way. Your way may have been the way so far, because back when a decision had to be made you had an opinion about it and he didn’t. I’m thinking about towel folding here. I like to fold the towels a particular way. When my husband first moved in with me, I wanted him to use my method, which he did, because it wasn’t something he felt strongly about. But if you really want the mental load to be less, you have to distance yourself from his tasks and how he executes them. Don’t even have them on your list anymore. Let it go and don’t fix anything. He will never get better without practice.
At the same time, there are things he may need your help with to start. Be patient and encouraging, even if you feel anything but.
When he has done something, then express your appreciation. Not in a super patronising way, but in a “Dinner was delicious tonight- thank you,” or, “thanks for putting that laundry away.” Appreciation is a great motivator.
But what if the problem is that he wouldn’t agree to share the chores? Or maybe he said he would, but a month’s gone by and the toilet has colonised a new bacteria?
To be honest, if he won’t agree to share, and it’s not because he really doesn’t have time, then you may not be in the healthiest relationship. Couples that care for each other want to help and support each other, not be selfish assholes. You could go back to the list you made and put what you’re currently doing on one side and what he’s doing on the other. Ask him if he thinks that is fair. If he does, you’re doing to have to talk about why. If the answer is not something you can live with, you need to say, “Okay, but I can’t keep doing all of these, so I’m going to stop doing XXXX.” And then you actually need to stop doing it. Maybe you were doing all the ironing, so you stop doing his stuff and just sort yourself out. Or you leave his washing for him to deal with. Not to be mean, but because this is what you can cope with. You need to set some boundaries, and possibly consider if couple’s therapy is in your future.
If he initially agreed, but consistently doesn’t do his allocated tasks, you could do one of several things. Maybe it’s not happening because he is rightly or wrongly assuming other things are more important. So you could go back to the list and rejig who is doing what, so what he doesn’t do has a natural consequence. For example, he takes over cooking half the meals, and if he doesn’t, you don’t step in and bail him out. It is a lot easier not to dust than not cook when you are both starving.
You could also look at Gretchen Rubin’s four tendencies to see what type your husband is and leverage that to assist you. For example, my husband suddenly upped his game after he read a well-publicised article about how women are more likely to cheat if they don’t get help with chores. I would never dream of cheating, but it’s the kind of thing that might motivate a Questioner.
And finally, if he’s occasionally slipping up, remember to be flexible. Everyone has rough days and part of being in a long-term relationship is to accept the ebbs and flows that both of you will experience. Having been divorced, I’ve been in the position where I’ve had to do everything on my own, and I can tell you that chances are your man does a lot more than you realise. Take a breath, think what you’re grateful for, and remember the end goal is a happy home life, not a winning scorecard.
To sum up…
As a working woman, it’s super hard to come home from a busy day and feel like you’re starting what’s often called the second shift. Remember that you and your husband are a team. Check your assumptions are real. Accept you are the one to deal with this because it’s bothering you more, and make things explicit- get them out there on paper. Once you’ve distributed your tasks, it’s time to get his jobs out of your mind. But remember, change takes time, so don’t expect things to be perfect straight away. Anticipate it, so you’re not disappointed. And good luck!