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Common Areas of Conflict: Housework

According to my colleague Dr. Cheryl Rampage, housework is “the spinach of married life.” While almost no one like housework, it has to get done! What’s worse, chances are pretty high that intimate partners will have different beliefs and needs when it comes to cleaning and household chores. (My therapy mentor once tried to convince me that there’s an actual biological difference between men and women in perceiving when the garbage can is full. Hmmm…) And, because it’s a part of daily living, conflict over housework can also become part of daily life.

For many heterosexual couples, or couples with gender differences, housework is often made more fraught because it carries the weight of gender expectations. A woman may feel both pressure to take care of the home and resentment that she automatically has this role, while a man may feel a sense of incompetence while it comes to housekeeping and also frustration and confusion if his partner does not want to take on the chores.

What I have learned over the years, and what many others have said as well, is that division of housework works best when it is

1) fair, or feels fair to both people

2) utilizes each person’s inherent interests and/or skill sets.

Now when I say fair, I don’t mean exactly fair, but fair enough that neither partner feels resentment about their share of the work. This is important. However, the more critical piece here is number two—utilizing each partner’s strengths. I’ve seen many couples that for whatever reason, be it gender norms or what their families did growing up, split up tasks in ways that do not suit their interests or skills. This is a recipe for conflict. Instead, I recommend that couples write down a list of all the household chores and divvy them up based on who “enjoys” which task more and who will have the easiest time completing that task based on schedule or skills. One partner may find that they actually like grocery shopping, while another may realize that they are bad at remembering to sweep every day, but great at deep cleaning the bathrooms once a month. No matter the arrangement, creating a structure and routine helps household chores get done more smoothly and helps partners feel good about what they have contributed to their home…creating more time and energy for the non-spinach parts of life.