Division of labor—or “who does what” around the house—can be a frequent source of marital conflict. And not just for newlyweds, but for couples who have been married for decades.
The difference is that veteran couples know each other well and have likely worked out some of the kinks, while most engaged couples don’t spent 5 minutes discussing the realities of household chores before they cross the threshold.
While division of labor may seem minor compared to things like child-rearing, careers, and finances, it can undermine your peace and happiness because it’s directly linked to your daily routine and the environment you create in your home.
When to Address the Topic of Division of Labor With Your Partner
Because the habits you establish early in your marriage will create the foundation for what you will do for years to come, you’ll want to use good judgment in terms of when and how to broach this subject, but not wait too long to do so. If you’re thinking about raising the topic (or it’s already come up on multiple occasions), consider whether you:
>> Argue repeatedly about who-does-what.
>> Feel you handle an unfair amount of responsibilities around the house.
>> Experience a significant change of job, work schedule, or health that limits the amount of time one or both of you have to focus on household chores.
>> Believe your spouse is taking advantage of your being a more neat or organized person.
>> Feel resentful about tasks your partner accepts but doesn’t accomplish or follow through on.
>> Find your house becoming more cluttered (and even unsanitary) as things pile up and aren’t attended to.
If you found yourself nodding “yes” to any of the above, read on for some guidelines that will help you manage the sharing of household tasks in your home and show you how to tackle two sticky situations without creating conflict in your marriage.
Managing Division of Labor
Use a “Divide by Desire” Approach
This method assigns tasks based on likes and dislikes, and it’s a great place to start when divvying up household chores. If you don’t mind washing the dishes, volunteer to do that. If you detest vacuuming but your partner doesn’t mind it, give that to them. And don’t get too stuck on gender-based stereotypes like who “should” take out the garbage or mow the lawn. If you enjoy (or hate) something, speak up!
Meet in the Middle
Maybe you don’t disagree on what tasks need to be done but on how often they need to occur. Be willing to compromise. If your partner thinks a once-a-month scrubbing is sufficient and you’d like it done weekly, agree to do it every 2-3 weeks and reassess after a month or two. If one of you has stricter standards than the other, the person with higher expectations is always free to put in some extra elbow grease to bring things up to par.
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YOU OWE ME: When The Score Is Uneven In Your Marriage.
Avoid Controlling Behavior
When we first married, I sometimes complained that Mike wasn’t helping enough around the house. In reality, he was usually more than willing to help but was driven away whenever he felt I became a domineering taskmaster or too rigid about when and how tasks were done. (And this happens with many a couple). Once we realized what was happening, we agreed to avoid this pattern by adopting the rule “You can tell me what to do or how to do it, but not both.” I short, once you divvy up your task lists, don’t meddle with your spouse’s method of getting theirs accomplished! Does it really matter if they use a sponge or a brush to clean the toilets? Refuse to be a micro-manager. Your partner will appreciate not being nitpicked or criticized and, as a result, will be willing to help even more.
Involve Your Children
Many parents have gotten away from assigning chores to their children with a belief that they should “let kids be kids”. However, part of your role as a parent is to give your children the skills, resourcefulness, and confidence to be a successful adult, which includes being able to cook, clean, and do laundry. This doesn’t happen overnight, but over time. Assigning your children age-appropriate chores will equip them for life, teach them valuable skills, make them feel good about contributing to the household, and take some things off your plate. As an added bonus, their allowance (if given) can be tied to completion of these tasks.
Make it Fun!
There’s no reason why cleaning and other chores need to be drudgery or suck the air out of your marriage. Use a gaming approach and create a contest to see who completes their chores first. Or pick a reward or outing you’ll enjoy together when they’re done. Put on your favorite music and dance or sing along as things get done—often faster than you think when you dive in.
Remember that the demands of your household will vary over time, and your division of labor should change with them. Maybe you’re a stay-at-home mom now but plan to re-enter the workforce. Maybe you live in an apartment now but will eventually buy a single-family home that needs greater attention and maintenance. Or your spouse returns to school in the evenings and you need to—temporarily—pick up the slack. The point is to avoid seeing today’s agreement with your spouse as something set in stone.
For a different perspective, check out this article on Ladies: If You’re Upset
That Your Partner Doesn’t Help You Around the House, The Answer is Simple
When you’ve tried all of the above and things still aren’t working smoothly, you may be dealing with one of the two scenarios below.
1. Your Partner Agrees to Do Things but Doesn’t Follow Through
Good communication is essential here, because it could be that expectations are unclear or being misunderstood. First, just check in casually to make sure you’re on the same page. A simple question in passing, like “The garbage is on your list this week, right?” may do the trick. If you find that this was a minor snafu, that’s great. Let it pass.
If not, and your partner is a repeat offender, you’ll need to address this with them more directly but choose a time that you’re both already in a calm and relaxed state. Try to stay positive and focus on what they have done. As the saying goes, “What gets rewarded gets repeated.” Don’t just wait to catch them messing up: compliment them when they do something right.
Even small comments like, “Thanks for this delicious meal. I’m so tired tonight and this was wonderful to come home to. I can’t wait to see what you prepare next week” will be remembered and go a long way toward your spouse wanting to do even more.
You may also find that you simply need to revisit the list and swap tasks, have someone else (like a contractor) take care of things, or cross them off the list altogether for a time.
If you get a legitimate response, like “I didn’t get time to do it this week with all the overtime I had to do at work”, be willing to occasionally take on the task yourself. When you’re on a team, you sometimes need to cover for a sick or injured teammate and marriage is no different.
However, if this becomes a pattern, you get only excuses, or covering for your mate is a one-way affair, that’s another issue. As a last resort—and only if you can do this reasonably—you may choose to stop covering for your partner. If the chore is something like doing dishes, taking out the trash, or doing the laundry, this typically gets fixed in short order.
2. Your Partner Makes Your Job More Difficult
Maybe it’s your job to do the laundry and you’ve asked your spouse a million times to put their dirty clothes in the hamper (or dirty dishes in the sink, etc.). Instead of angrily demanding that they stop leaving their clothes on the floor like a slob (which has obviously never worked before), sweetly-but-firmly say, “From now on, I’m only going to wash whatever’s in the hamper” and leave it at that. Then stick to your guns.
By avoiding the urge to criticize what THEY should do and focusing on what YOU will do, you will not only avoid conflict but will make your boundaries and expectations clear. They can then decide—in this case—what they’d like to be washed and what they can live without.
Once they run out of socks and underwear, things will no doubt end up in the hamper (or be washed by your spouse) and you will have solved your problem without yelling, criticizing, or nagging. Lovely.
When All Else Fails . . .
Call in the Cavalry!
If you and your spouse simply can’t agree on the division of labor, continue to bicker, or have the means to do it, hire outside professionals to assist you—especially with tasks that neither one of you want to do. There are countless apps and services today (e.g., Angie’s List, Merry Maids, Care.com, Takl) that can pair you with the people and services you need. While this will come with a cost, you may find that the increase in quality time with your family and the decrease of stress and conflict in your home is well worth it.
Division of labor is a common source of conflict in marriage, but it doesn’t have to be! Good communication, flexibility, and good boundary-setting are key and can be very helpful. Additional strategies and suggestions in this article provide guidance to work through these challenges so you and your partner can work as a team and maintain a happy and healthy household.
Do you find yourselves still arguing about how to divide and conquer household tasks? We can help.