Conflicts — 04 March 2007
How to best negotiate the household chores

A common area of discontent among couples regards the division of household chores. Usually both mates advance reasonable explanations as to why they feel that they do more than their ‘fair share’, yet both are unhappy about their task load.

It would seem that a division of labor for couples would be a practical matter that can be easily resolved. Regrettably, it baffles even some well-intentioned, kind and intelligent pairs. It may indicate that this type of sharing is not just a simple assignment of tasks but entails greater complexity.

Most couples who are also parents have more responsibilities than two people can possibly accomplish. They often have one or two careers, children, household, bills, homes and yards, family, friends and perhaps community responsibilities. Sharing chores becomes the battleground for two overwhelmed people. What they deal with is not who will vacuum and who will shop, but how to manage being overwhelmed and inadequate at competently conquering all that needs to be done.

The personal frustration about one’s less than satisfactory performance gets translated into resentment toward the partner who seems to contribute less. Demands for more cooperation and assistance cry out of a competent individual’s struggle with personal ineptitude. It is hard to feel accomplished when the undone tasks seem to be forever mounting.

The stress of never completing a day’s demands sometimes gets transformed into an argument about fairness.

Research by Drs. Berardo, Shehan and Leslie found that in dual-career marriages women spent almost three times as many hours per week on housework than did their husbands. Dr. Hochschild reports that women’s work week is 15 hours longer than men’s, which goes along with his other finding that men are much more likely than women to espouse traditional, rather than egalitarian values.

It is, therefore, not surprising that women voice most of the work disparity complaints and men feel unfairly maligned. Men often state that they work all day and thus feel less responsible for housework. However, even if the woman is a homemaker, by the time her partner returns home, she too has put in a full day’s work.

When women ask their partners for ‘help’ they affirm the traditional view of role division. Men need not be asked to ‘help’ but to take part in sharing the mutual responsibilities. A plea for help is usually a request for assistance from an uninvolved party. It is in the realm of a favor. Women and men need to recognize that their home chores are both of their responsibilities and sharing them enhances their family.

Many women view men’s contribution to chores as evidence of their love. Men find the connection between doing more at home and love as perplexing and illogical. They are clear about their love for their wives and unclear about how it relates to shared responsibilities. Women view their mates’ participation in household chores as a considerate, supportive and intimate act.

So, is the chore war about equality, love, feeling overwhelmed or inept, or could it be about appreciation?

The greatest reward for any accomplished task is the contribution made. Other people’s positive feedback about one’s work serves to validate the worker’s personal worth. In employment, job satisfaction is related to received appreciations even more than to the monetary compensation.

Many chore-feuding pairs complain about not receiving appreciation for their efforts. Being taken for granted reduces self-esteem and leaves partners feeling demanded upon rather than cherished.

• Couples should list all the chores. Each partner can then volunteer to do certain tasks. The most disliked jobs can be done together, or by alternating weeks or by hiring them out.
• Consider the time involved in each task to balance the chores.
• Assess whether you can reduce the frequency of less essential tasks.
• Once chores have been divided, trust that your partner will do his/her tasks well. This allows you to concentrate solely on your part.
• Do not nag, remind, cajole, or complain about how the chore is done. You agreed on ‘what’ needs to be done not on ‘how’ it should be executed.
• If you are displeased, talk about it as a joint issue rather than as evidence of your partner’s failings.
• Abandon the ideas of ‘equal’ or ‘fair’. Concentrate on the idea of ‘manageable’.
• Provide appreciations to each other for tasks accomplished, even if they are part of one’s list.
• Validate each other for competency despite overwhelming responsibility and feel blessed to have a life mate.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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