Negotiating housework in a relationship

Living together has many pleasures, but one of the biggest areas of conflict can be who does which aspects of housework and when. Tania O’Donnell looks at how you can negotiate the chores in a relationship.

There’s a female friend of mine who, whenever she completes a household chore such as the dishes or mopping the floor or putting out the rubbish, tells her husband she’s done it and waits for him to thank her. Yeah, no, that’s actually a massive lie. I know several men who do that, but zero women. Countless surveys have discovered that women still take on the lion’s share of the housework, even if both partners work and share childcare. There seems to be a sexist notion still doing the rounds that housework is primarily a woman’s remit. This is especially prevalent in couples over the age of 40 since many of them will have grown up in houses where mums did all the work. Obviously same sex couples also negotiate these issues, but with gender playing less of a role in the yelling about it.

“It may seem strange, but little things like who empties the dishwasher or who puts the rubbish out for the weekly collection, can often be a cause of series strife and conflict in any relationship,” says Michael Kallenbach, couples therapist working in Harley Street, London and in Marlborough, Wiltshire.

“These days when men get more involved in domestic chores and help bringing up the toddlers, it means that areas like the kitchen or the laundry room are not necessarily the domain of the woman alone in the partnership. While I do not necessarily give advice to couples coming to me for counselling, I think it is a good idea to split up the tasks so that confrontation can be avoided. There’s nothing wrong with one person agreeing the mow the lawn, while the other will do the dishes or the laundry. Often men can’t be bothered to sort out the laundry properly – i.e. coloureds from whites, so it’s best if in that case they don’t do the laundry but find other tasks they can be comfortable and competent with.”

‘Male incompetence’
Janine (not her real name) spoke of her irritation at this idea of ‘male incompetence’. “My partner managed to live by himself for 15 years before we met and I don’t recall him wearing dirty shirts when we were dating so clearly he can do it, but chooses not to now we’re living together.” My own issue with this is being asked “What do you want me to do, babe?” by my genuinely helpful husband. I don’t remember applying for the position of CEO of Housework at any point and we’re both grown-ups so perhaps just do what you see needs doing, in the way that I do. To be extra, extra fair to him though, I do suffer from OCD so oftentimes he can’t win as he doesn’t know to do things the way I need them to be done in order to feel “right”.

Mr. Kallenbach again: “I think if both partners in a relationship are not particularly good at one task e.g. the laundry, or DIY, then it doesn’t really matter too much as this won’t cause any arguments or strife – some people don’t mind living in a bit of chaos – the trouble arises if one is super tidy and the other super messy, then it’s negotiating the differences, and I imagine the super tidy person just gets on with his or her chores. But the most important thing is that these things need to be talked about and discussed in a calm manner, before they escalate into an argument.”

Therapist, mentor and coach, Lynn Anderson emphasises “I would say that one of the best ways to delegate household tasks is to emphasis the payoff ie: spend more time doing something together or, once the cleaning is done, it would make for a more pleasant environment; positive communication comes across better than threats.”

Values and beliefs
“Relationships are complex in that we get many of our individual needs met within relationships, yet often we have not discussed our needs early on in the relationship,” explains Lorna Cordwell, head of counselling at Chrysalis Courses UK. “Thiebault and Kelly proposed that there were stages of a relationship, a most significant one being a bargaining stage. This occurs shortly after starting dating and involves the couple discovering whether they share values and beliefs. Sometimes instead of these conversations happening, we just make assumptions about how our partner is, which might not be correct.  Our values and beliefs are largely determined by our upbringing, so if your partner was brought up in a traditional household then this is most likely what he will expect for his own.”

Values and beliefs can demonstrably impact the way each of you approach the household chores. For example, I am obsessed with guests not visiting a dirty house, but I can live with a sinkful of dirty dishes after a dinner party if I’m too tired to do them the same night. Thankfully my husband shares my view on this. Mark (his real name) hates the idea of going to bed with dirty dishes, while his wife is not too bothered either way. So he ends up always doing the dinner dishes. However, Mark and his wife aren’t at each other’s throats about it because she does more or less everything else in the house.

Ms Cordwell again: “Psychotherapy shows us that relationship issues manifest in many ways.  If you are really struggling with fair distribution of chores, it is unlikely to be the only problem in your relationship, there may be other underlying issues. Take time together to discuss these problems and work through them yourselves or with the help of a counsellor.”

Here are Lorna Cordwell’s tips for negotiating household chores in your relationship:

  1. Communicate clearly.  Assertiveness training teaches us a method that involves stating facts of the situation, acknowledging the other viewpoint, and being clear on how you feel and what you want, using ‘I’ statements.  An ‘I’ statement is ‘I need you to hoover while I am washing up, instead of ‘people should be helpful you know’, or ‘everyone else’s partner helps’, which are abstract and not actually stating what you want to happen.
  2. Agree tasks and goals that you will do together at the same time.  Put on some music and make it fun.  Be competitive with each other if it helps, or alternatively be competitive with yourselves.  Set a completion time – we’ll clean until 12 then go for lunch, giving yourselves a nice reward.
  3. Don’t blame or criticise your partner, it will not motivate him.  A more rational way, having agreed on chores is to lead by example and do your chores well.  Don’t be cajoled into doing his too.  Be proud of your work, show that it means something to you.  This will encourage him to take pride in his part too.
  4. Recognise acceptance might be necessary.  Modern psychotherapy theories propose that we cannot change anyone else, only ourselves.  If you have become irritated by your partner’s unwillingness to help, you may be pushing against a brick wall.  You need to ask yourself, how important is this to me?  Is it important enough to be a relationship breaker?  If not, better for your stress level to accept your partner’s unwillingness.
  5. Employ a professional cleaner – it may be easier to agree to share cost of employing a professional than sharing the chores.  Even if you decide that this is not for you, it might be helpful to make enquiries about fees.  Your partner may be more willing to take on his share of chores if he can see in black and white what doing this same work would be worth to someone else.  Alternatively you might agree that he can pay for a professional to do the chores he doesn’t want to do and you can decide whether you want to do yours yourself or not.  Offering a job to someone else more capable might be the motivation your partner needs.


Comments are closed.