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Rethinking Laziness

Why you shouldn’t use “lazy” to describe someone you love—even yourself.

Last weekend, I went on Instagram and posted an image from my bathroom. Before you freak out, it was an image of the new roll of toilet paper resting comfortably atop the empty roll of toilet paper. My caption read, “If you look up heterosexual marriage in the dictionary, this is the picture. Yeah, I said it.”

Although there’s plenty of research to back my claim that women in straight partnerships do most of the domestic heavy lifting, I knew I was being cheeky. What I didn’t know is how many people would respond to my cheekiness. Mostly, I began hearing from women in same-sex partnerships complaining about the same thing happening in their bathrooms, despite there being no man in sight.

Of course, I knew that gender was too simple an explanation for the tendency of one partner to leave this task for the other partner, but I was intrigued. If gender roles didn’t explain the toilet paper rolls (see what I did there?), what did?

Although it would never pass muster with an institutional review board, I decided to do a little “research.” I asked my 80,000-plus audience this question: What’s the factor that dictates which partner leaves the full roll atop the empty one?

The range of theories was fascinating, but one response stood out from the rest: A full 30% of respondents said that “laziness” was the trait that determined which partner left the toilet paper task incomplete.

I have been a couples therapist for over two decades, and what I know for sure is that the word “lazy” needs to be banned from our relational vocabulary. Why? It’s a curiosity killer! When we chalk our partner’s behavior up to laziness, we’ve written the entire story — beginning, middle, and end — and left no room for our partner to co-author with us. Labeling our partner (or our roommate, sister, or teen) “lazy” leaves us with only options, neither of which promotes connection:

  • Option A is to accept our lot in life as the one who has to “do everything around here.” The problem with this option, over-functioning to cover for our “lazy” partner, is that it will surely leave us feeling resentful and bitter. Martyrdom is just not a good look!
  • Option B is to show our partner the error of their lazy ways. The problem with this option is that our change effort is founded in our belief in their inadequacy, and it is therefore destined to trigger their defensiveness and resistance. The classic “you’re lazy/you’re neurotic” fight has never left anyone feeling happy!

Our best and bravest approach requires that we do two things at once: Honor that we feel frustrated and disrespected and stay curious enough about our partner’s behavior that we can invite them to a conversation, not a lecture.

The way you do this is by first noticing the rise of frustration. Where do you feel it in your body? What is that feeling saying to you? What is the story you attach to the feeling? Pause. Let yourself be present with the feeling. Pausing gives you a chance to practice discernment. You get to decide how big a deal this toilet paper situation is and what you want to do next. You are at a fork in the road.

  • Path 1: Honor your frustration and raise your concern.
  • Path 2: Remember all of the ways in which your partner tolerates your peccadilloes and let it go.

Neither path is right or wrong, and either path can be walked with love, gentleness, and the healthy dose of humor that intimate partnerships require!

If you choose Path 1, approach your partner with curiosity. Resist the urge to say, “You didn’t put the fresh roll of toilet paper on the thingy. You’re so lazy!” Instead ask what therapists call a constraint question: “What keeps you from putting the fresh roll of toilet paper on the thingy?” This question positions you and your partner on the same side of the issue. You are inviting your partner to explore with you the blocks to what you perceive as a simple behavior.

Let’s look at Path 2. If you grew up witnessing a marriage with a tremendous power imbalance, you may be understandably fearful about replicating the same in your relationship. This vigilance about not becoming a doormat can make it hard to trust that in a healthy intimate partnership, people pick up the slack for each other in all kinds of ways. When you choose Path 2, as I ended up doing, you have to commit to really letting it go. Trust the overall give and take in your intimate relationship, remember that you aren’t perfect either, and practice gratitude for the ability to be interdependent. Note that by choosing Path 2, you forfeit the right to bring the toilet paper back up in the heat of a later conflict!

I also don’t want you calling yourself lazy either. If you’re struggling with motivation, this word is just going to keep you stuck because it will prevent you from exploring the root of your procrastination or avoidance. Just as we did above, when you feel tempted to stick this label on you, don’t! Figure out whether this is a moment to ask yourself the constraint question or a moment to practice fierce self-compassion.

The word “lazy” is ultimately a blinking indicator light, alerting you to slow down and pay attention. Rather than sticking this unhelpful descriptor on yourself or someone else, dig a little deeper so you can ask for what you need or accept the inevitable messiness of loving and being loved.

Before you go, I want to share with you some of the creative and compelling alternate theories that people offered in response to the question: What’s the factor that dictates which partner leaves the full roll atop the empty one?

  • Attachment Theory: An anxiously attached partner will refill the toilet paper to mitigate fears of abandonment.
  • Social Loafing: Someone posited this behavior as a version of social loafing, which is the concept that people are prone to exert less effort when working collectively as part of a group compared to performing a task alone.
  • Spatial Reasoning: A bunch of people pointed to design flaws that make the task more difficult for some people and recommended that an open-ended spindle or a cardboard-less TP roll would level the playing field.
  • Agency vs. Communion: The partner whose behavior tends to be more communal versus agentic will refill the toilet paper. This is, by the way, the answer that resonates most deeply for me. Although I talked about agency and communion in my TED talk and wrote about it in my new book, I hadn’t applied the framework to this housework dilemma and was so glad this respondent did!