Arguing about chores? Feel like one of you is doing the lion’s share of what it takes to run a household? Try this exercise with your partner!
Arguing and bickering about chores is one of the most common recurring issues I see amongst couples who live together. Emotional labor, which I sometimes refer to as the “mental” labor of running a house, has been getting more and more attention in the media, with many fed up women writing articles about being the keepers of invisible work. While many young couples these days strive to live in egalitarian households, where the physical chores are split evenly, sometimes one partner ends up feeling like they are overworked and under appreciated because of the chores that go unseen- such as scheduling babysitters, dog walkers, ordering cleaning supplies when they run out, signing the kids up for camp, etc. The amount of emotional labor in a household increases with the more shared responsibilities couples take on, especially when having kids.
Because of the ways women and men are socialized differently, and the different expectations placed on them by society, it is more common for women to take on more of the emotional labor. However, I should note that I have seen heterosexual couples in which the roles were reversed, and this dynamic can certainly exist within same-sex couples, as well. Usually it is the partner who tends to be more of a planner who ends up taking on the invisible work, because it often involves thinking ahead.
Many couples I see report that chores were not an issue when they first moved in together. Maybe you naturally gravitated towards the chores that best suited your skills, and therefore maybe one of you took on the emotional labor. But this uneven dynamic can become a problem over time when the overloaded partner feels resentful yet struggles to get through to their spouse what is happening. The other partner may not realize that their spouse is taking on all this extra work, and therefore feels confused and criticized when their partner complains that the chore load is uneven.
Another common thing I see is that the overworked partner is reluctant to give up these duties because it would take longer to explain how to do them then to just get them done. Or, they want them done a particular way, and feel hesitant to let that go. But ultimately, refusing to relinquish the duties leaves you feeling exhausted and resentful and your partner feeling criticized and helpless to change the situation.
So, what is the solution? It’s time to make the invisible visible. Try the following exercise with your partner:
Step 1: Sit down together and brainstorm all of the chores that it takes to run your household. Include cleaning duties, car maintenance, pet duties, childcare duties, yard maintenance, cooking, grocery shopping, laundry, etc. Don’t forget the mental chores like making a list of things you’ve run out of, or calling in your child’s prescriptions or making doctor’s appointments for your kids and pets. It may take you several days to remember all the little things you do, so keeping a running list together can be super helpful. You both may be shocked by the things your partner takes on that you’ve never thought to do yourself!
Step 2: Decide together with what frequency these chores need to be done. Separate them into categories such as “daily” (ie, making the bed, checking the mail, unloading the dishwasher), “weekly” (ie, taking out the trash, making a grocery list), “biweekly” (ie, cleaning the bathroom, vacuuming), and “as needed” (ie, making doctor’s appts, restocking cleaning supplies, etc).
There’s no right or wrong answer for this part, it’s simply based on how you and your partner want to structure your lives together. How often do you each think these things need to be done? Try to compromise on a frequency that works for both of you.
Step 3: Make sure that either of you can complete any chore on the list. This means that you both need access to any phone numbers, online accounts, passwords, etc. For example, both of you should be able to schedule the baby sitter or the dog walker. Create a shared document in which you list out any necessary phone numbers (ie., pharmacy, doctor’s office, etc) and online account logins. Feel free to include any other necessary information that you’d both need to complete every chore on the list. My partner is the gardener in our relationship, so if he didn’t write down how much each plant needs to be watered, I’d have no idea!
Step 4: Now that you have an understanding of all the efforts that go into running your house, you may want to choose to take it one step farther by creating a sort of chore chart. Some people may feel like this method is too much like “keeping score”, but it truly can be helpful in giving you a sense of how much you each need to take on regularly in order to make things feel equal.
My partner and I use the collaborator feature in the Notes App in our iPhones. We included our long list of chores broken down into categories, and there’s a feature that turns text into a check list. That way we can check off what we’ve done and can see each other’s edits to the note. We each picked out an emoji to symbolize who has done what chore (I’m 👩🎤, and he’s 🐢). My partner says he loves the chore chart, because before it was hard for him to think of what needed to get done even though he genuinely likes keeping things tidy. But now he can just refer to the list and it feels super satisfying to check things off.
Another option for less tech-y folks would be to keep the list on a whiteboard or chalkboard so that you can check off items.
Here’s a Sample List:
Day of the week:__________
___Tidy (put away personal belongings, pick up trash/dishes)
___Wipe down counters & stove top
___Check for mail & packages
For the week of: ______
___Take out trash & recycle
___Empty trash from bathrooms
___Look ahead at week to request dog walker if needed
___Make grocery list (look at what we need/plan meals)
For the weeks of: _____ to _____
___Clean toilets & wipe bathroom counters
___Wash towels & fold them
___Wash bedsheets & make bed
___Clean out the fridge
___Clean out the car
As Needed (initial each time you do it):
___ ___ ___ ___ ___ Restock toilet paper & paper towels
___ ___ ___ ___ ___ Restock dog food
___ ___ ___ ___ ___ Find a dog sitter when we go out of town
___ ___ ___ ___ ___ Refill & pick up the dog’s medicine
___ ___ ___ ___ ___ Make vet appts for the dog
___ ___ ___ ___ ___ Replace light bulbs
___ ___ ___ ___ ___ Restock cleaning supplies
___ ___ ___ ___ ___ Car maintenance
___ ___ ___ ___ ___ Filling up the car with gas