Personal Connections: Dividing the housework — and the leisure

Every family has to figure out how to manage hundreds of tasks: grocery shopping, laundry, cooking, dishwashing, childcare, errands, lawn mowing, scheduling, gift-buying, car maintenance, and on and on.

There’s no one right way to divide those chores among family members, so figuring out the best approach for your family will require some conversations.

Some couples choose a traditional model, where one person earns all or most of the money and the other does most of the domestic labor. In other couples, both partners work full-time and divide the household chores fifty-fifty. Then there are infinite other variations.

How do you make sure things get done in a way that feels fair to everyone?

Both the traditional model and the split-everything-evenly model work for some couples. But don’t assume they’ll necessarily work for you. It’s best to talk with your partner about what makes the most sense for you as a unique couple or family.

Here are factors to consider:

Balance paid and unpaid work

Add up the amount of time each partner spends at paid labor, including commuting and work done at home (things like checking emails in the evening, maybe). If one person spends considerably more time working, they should spend correspondingly less time on household tasks. (But not zero time, in my opinion: Everyone in the household should contribute.)

Do things you like (or don’t mind)

Most people don’t mind some tasks and really hate others. Maybe you hate doing laundry but are okay with vacuuming, say. Maybe your partner would love never having to touch the vacuum, and you can each take responsibility for one of those tasks.

Both of you can make a list of which tasks you find satisfying, which you wish you never had to do, and which you’re neutral about. Compare lists to see obvious ways you might divide the work.

Caution: If one partner hates most household tasks and one is a good sport, you may end up with an unfair situation where the good-sport person takes on more than their share of the load. Over time, that can lead to resentment, which isn’t good for your relationship.

Both people need to step up to keep the household running.

Divide the unpleasant stuff

For tasks neither partner wants to do, you have several options. If you can afford it, pay someone to do it for you. If not, either alternate (you clean the bathrooms one weekend, your partner does it the next) or each of you takes charge of different unpleasant tasks that take a comparable amount of time (you always clean the bathrooms, say, and your partner cleans the cat box and mops the floors).

Compromise if necessary

Often, one person is much more of a neatnik than their partner. Some people can’t sleep if there’s a single glass in the sink; others can be surrounded by dirty plates in the living room and not even notice. Obviously, this is likely to trigger conflict and blame (“You’re such a slob. I can’t stand living in a pigsty.” “Well, you’re just obsessive; you need to chill out.”).

Instead, talk about your preferences without blaming. This is the person you love; you just have different styles. Even if you think your partner is too rigid or too sloppy, you can both adjust.

You can practice not being bothered by that glass in the sink; or you can practice looking around the living room each evening for dishes that should go to the kitchen. Try to find a middle ground you both can tolerate.

Stay in the know

Even if your partner is good at a certain task and happy to do it, you should still be capable of dealing with it if necessary. If one of you was in the hospital for a month, the other should know enough to keep the household running.

This is especially true when it comes to finances. Far too often I’ve met couples where one person handled everything about money and the other person was up a creek when the spouse suddenly died or became ill. Both people should know where you have accounts, how the bills get paid, passwords to access accounts and approximately how much you spend for basics like utilities and car payments.

If you find your family in a medical crisis, the last thing you need is also being worried about how to handle the bills.

Including the kids

If more than two people live in your home, the other people can also pitch in, even if they’re children. Of course, you’d give kids tasks appropriate to their abilities, and their schoolwork comes first. But even young kids and super-busy teens can and should make a contribution to the wellbeing of the household.

Even preschoolers can help with tasks like sorting laundry and setting the table. Older kids can learn new skills and take on increasing responsibility as they get older, especially during vacations and less-busy times of the school year. It takes time for parents to teach kids household skills, but learning them takes some of the burden off parents and builds kids’ sense of competence and accomplishment.

Division of leisure

As you’re talking with your partner about who does what around the house, keep in mind not just the division of labor, but the division of leisure.

If leisure time isn’t fairly balanced, you risk undermining your relationship. The partner who’s working more is likely to become resentful.

You both likely do a lot of work, paid and unpaid; do you both also get time to play?

Think about how much leisure time each person has: time to watch TV, go out with friends, read, nap, enjoy a sport or hobby, play games on their console or phone, etc. If you’ve got a lot of work and family responsibilities, there may not be much downtime available for either of you, but the division needs to feel fair. Over the course of a month, the amount of time each person has for rest and recreation should be about even.

Your unique mix

Likely, sorting all this through will take multiple conversations. How you and your partner divide paid work, domestic work and leisure will change over the years as the situation changes. And that’s all good. Talking with your partner about your needs and preferences, and listening sincerely when they talk about theirs, will bring you closer.

You’ll know each other more fully, you’ll work better as a team and you’ll come to a balance of tasks and leisure that’s the best possible for your unique relationship.

Jill Whitney is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Old Lyme who blogs about relationships at KeepTheTalkGoing.com.

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