Bond through life passages — 11 December 2008
How to get your partner to help you shoulder the load

A common source of discontent in relationships is the perceived imbalance of shared responsibilities. When one, or both mates feel disgruntled about doing more than their fair share, the relationship is seriously impacted. Creating a mutually satisfactory balance in task distribution is essential to the individual happiness of each mate and to the preservation of the couple’s connectedness.

Historically, the traditional family structure with the male working outside the home and the female being in charge of the home and family delineated the roles very clearly. Today’s model of dual-earners, with or without children, leaves the rest of life’s chore division unregulated. This uncertain state creates confusion and hurt about unmet expectations that often breed disappointments, overwhelm, resentments and chronic ill feelings between partners.

Some mates bitterly complain about a partner who is viewed as an insufficient contributor by labeling him/her, “irresponsible, immature, selfish, lazy or simply disrespectful.” The unhappy spouse often asks, complains, gets frustrated and angry and may even resort to name calling and character assassinations.

Why should house chores be such a source of animosity and fights? It may not be the lack of participation that is the source of trouble, but the meaning it has for the overworked mate. When anyone feels overwhelmed, the natural response is to seek help, particularly from a loved one. When this is not forthcoming, feelings of hurt, resentment, abandonment, and insignificance are evoked. These emotions may cause the slighted one to attack, shame or demean his/her beloved, as the partners become disconnected.

Gender differences also play a role in evoking different emotional responses by men and women. Patricia Love in “How to improve your marriage without talking about it”, describes it as follows: “Men have an instinct to provide and to protect. Males hone their survival skills by competing, ordering, directing, confronting, doing, bragging, and threatening. When a man cannot provide and protect, he usually feels inadequate and shameful.” When a woman criticizes her male partner for insufficient participation, and the man experiences deep shame and inadequacy, he is more likely to become angry, resistant and confrontational, rather than cooperative and accommodating.
Dr. Love describes women as having “an instinct to tend and to befriend” and in conflict they tend to feel “stressed, upset and fearful”. Women connect through talking. Being accused, disapproved of or discredited by a partner is likely to make a woman feel displeasing, isolated, very fearful, and silenced – not a state conducive to habit change.
Dr. Love found the major cause for divorce and/or separation to be disconnection between the mates caused primarily by resentment, which follows withdrawal of interest.
To prevent a loss of connection, women who are dissatisfied with their man’s participation are wise to:
• Abstain from accusing, name-calling and berating. It evokes shame, which creates withdrawal and blocks motivation for change.
• Avoid using demanding, controlling language, tone or posture, it makes him recoil.
• Appeal to the man’s need to provide and protect you by appreciating what he does do and asking him to extend it as away of caring for you.
• Underscore your forthcoming appreciation for his future participation and be effusive when you receive it.

Men who seek greater participation from their female partner are wise to:
• Abstain from showing anger- it frightens and distances her.
• Avoid questioning her about time management and efficiency, or demand explanations. It will only make her feel inferior and defensive.
• Tell her how much you value her and avail yourself to listen to her with respect and caring.
• Express how well cared for you will feel and how much emotionally closer you can become with greater participation on her part.
Understanding what hurts and what heals your mate and acting accordingly, can secure a more equal relationship with an enhanced intimate connection for both of you.

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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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