Housework can put extra stress on a relationship if one person doesn’t think their partner is contributing enough.
Maintaining a clean house can be tough for anyone, especially if you’re a working parent or balancing a full-time job and a side gig. But as times are changing and households are being redefined, maybe now is the time to rethink how you and your partner divide up the chores.
The nature of housework has changed over the years.
Gone are the days of the 1940s housewife doing all the chores while the husband works at the office. Today, families and gender roles are different, as is the workforce. In fact, as of 2017, an estimated 54.4% of U.S. households were dual-income.
Technology has changed too, making housework different (and sometimes, faster).
Take the vacuum cleaner, for example. First developed in 1901 in Britain, the vacuum cleaner was a massive four-wheeled cart that needed to be pulled from house to house by a horse, and only the wealthiest London neighborhoods could afford a visit.
But over the years, vacuums would get smaller, smarter, and more intuitive. Where it may have taken an hour to vacuum your home before, you can now program a robot vacuum to clean up while you’re away.
When it comes to dividing up the household chores, it can be tough to decide which tasks are equal to one another. This makes finding the perfect 50-50 balance almost impossible.
Sure, washing all the dirty laundry may take your partner several hours to complete off and on, but is it equal to the time that you spent elbow-deep in chemicals cleaning the bathroom floor?
When each task takes a unique amount of work and focus to complete, it can be very difficult to find an even 50-50 split, especially if one partner feels they have less time to complete tasks in a day because of their jobs.
So what do you do?
Equity over equality
Well, you could start lowering the tension by approaching the division of labor with the goal of equity, not equality.
Equity, in this case, means that balance is achieved because both partners agreed on fair adjustments based on each other’s needs and net contributions in the home as well as outside of it.
For example, if one of you is working part-time while the other is working full-time, the person working fewer hours could take on additional tasks around the house.
Or, if one partner’s day job is very strenuous and requires a lot of physical exertion, they may wish to do chores that are more related to planning, paying, and organizing than to physical labor.
This idea seems to have some support in research too. When things feel fair and your work feels valued, studies have shown that you will feel more motivated and committed to your work.
When you both have jobs
Now, all of this may work in theory, but what happens when it’s time to cook and you’ve both just wrapped up a grueling 40+ hour work week, or one parent had to travel for work and the other dealt with a house full of sick kids and a new puppy?
Allow yourself and your partner to rest if you both need it
It’s best to talk with your partner about their needs and be open to sharing your feelings with them. Maybe you both want to just sit and watch a movie and divide up the chores later. This is totally fine and will help to avoid burnout if you aren’t always pushing yourself (or pushing a resistant partner) to get up and get going. After all, the dishes have been waiting this long, what’s a few more hours?
Set realistic expectations each week
It can feel incredibly defeating to aim for a target and miss it. In fact, you are more likely to lose your motivation if you frequently fall short of your own goals. Check in with your partner to make sure that your goals can be reasonably achieved each week.
There’s nothing wrong with being optimistic about how much you think you can achieve, but if you’re trying to pack 25 hours’ worth of tasks into a 24-hour day, you will be disappointed when you come up short.
When one of you is the primary homemaker
When dividing up the chores, remember that not every task is visible and not all tasks are physical.
A stay-at-home parent may spend the day driving their kids to school and back, scheduling pediatrician visits, being a comfort to their crying child, and staying on hold for an hour while calling the insurance company. No doubt these tasks are important; it would be easy to dismiss the mental load paid to them because it wasn’t physically taxing.
If someone is the primary homemaker, it’s fair to have them take on the majority (not all!) of housework while the other person is away at work, but it’s important to keep in mind the emotional and mental output these jobs require.
Candid communication and considerate listening are always key for negotiating anything in a relationship. Talk with your partner about the chores you hate doing and others that you don’t mind as much.
For example, a person who is naturally introverted might find the mental and emotional load very high when calling their internet provider to negotiate a better rate. However, if their partner is more of an extrovert (and maybe enjoys being a bit argumentative), they can make the call instead. In the long run, less aggregate energy will be spent on the task and perhaps the introvert can redirect to another chore.
Everyone has different strengths and preferences when it comes to housework, and being able to divide things up on this basis can help everyone feel less drained.
If you find that your partner is pushing back on a particular chore, try to stop and ask yourself why they’re doing that.
It’s unlikely that they’re refusing to do it because they simply want to be belligerent or difficult. Maybe they feel like they do it too often or can’t do it correctly, or maybe it ties into resentment or an unresolved issue in your relationship.
As frustrating as a stalemate can be, approaching the situation with objectivity, compassion, and understanding will lead to a far better result than approaching it with force and demands.
However, if they don’t have a clear reason or feel like “they just can’t handle it right now,” it may be worth discussing their feelings, as they may be dealing with some deeper internal issues.
In this case, it’s best to consult a mental health professional, because it may be a sign of a mental health issue.
Mental health conditions that make chores difficult
Here are some conditions you may not have known can cause daily challenges at home:
- Depression can spur lapses in both hygiene and home cleanliness, and it can be exacerbated by a messy space.
- ADHD can make it difficult to clean and devote attention to tasks that aren’t captivating to the person living with it.
- Bipolar disorder episodes of mania can lead to spending sprees and the urge to start new projects or endeavors suddenly, which often go incomplete.
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), as it relates to cleanliness, may create an unattainable standard for the other partner, which could lead to conflicts.
No one knows your household’s specific needs better than you do, but here are a few chores to consider owning or alternating that you might forget about:
- cleaning the fridge and clearing out expired food
- scooping the cat litter and cleaning up after the dog
- scheduling doctor, dentist, and home repair appointments
- choosing and purchasing birthday or holiday gifts for family
- filling up the gas tank in the car
- checking that your heating and cooling systems are ready for new seasons
- taking the garbage can out to the curb on trash day (and bringing it back in!)
- washing the bedding and towels
- booking hotel and admission tickets for family vacation
- sorting through the mail, throwing out junk mail, and paying — then filing — bills
- putting the groceries away as soon as you get home
Chores are no fun, and it’s natural for you and your partner to squabble over whose turn it is to do what. But if you approach chores as a battle or something that you dread, that negative attitude will find its way into your relationship.
You can practice being open about your preferences and be receptive to what your partner shares in return. The more that you can build shared task equity the more you will view your partner as a support system and less like an adversary.