Donna’s disillusionment is far from unusual. The historian Stephanie Coontz, who has written several books on marriage and the family, says that a husband’s willingness to share housework and child care is the second most important factor in how happily married she is. (The first is being tuned into her emotionally.)
But your average couple is still not splitting the housework fairly. According to a recent study at Ohio State University, today’s young men are not doing more much more housework than their fathers did.
Given that 47% of women are now working outside the home, what we have is a recipe for resentful, unhappy wives. No wonder so many couples argue about chores.
Actually, what I see in my office is not that dire. I see a lot of men who do their share of housework, and also a lot of men who are the tidier half of their partnership.
But the classic situation of women doing more causes a lot of pain, so that’s what I’m going to address in this article. I trust you’ll take from it whatever ideas fit your household.
Yes, men doing less causes conflict. But another cause is that there’s no easy formula for deciding what’s fair in today’s households. For most families, it’s not as easy as splitting jobs 50/50. On average, women work fewer hours than men, even when they have a full time job. So it makes sense that they do somewhat more. Each person has their own list of chores they hate and ones that aren’t so bad. And their list of tasks that matter to them. And working at home is a big factor for a lot of couples.
What it comes down to is each couple needs to work out what feels fair for them. Here are some ways that I see couples managing the housework battles successfully.
What Men Can Do:
Notice what your wife is doing around the house. Notice if she’s stressed out. A lot of guys take the “no news is good news” approach to housework. That might mean that your wife is just quietly seething, and building up resentment that can be painful to unwind later.
Don’t relax while she’s working. One way to gauge who’s doing more is by looking at who’s the last to sit down in the evening. Donna works outside the house precisely so she can manage the house and kids more. Of course she’ll do more.
But she shouldn’t be doing laundry and making the next day’s lunches while Kyle watches a movie, generally speaking.
Know that a clean house is probably a deep emotional desire for her. For a lot of women, keeping order in the house is a way to feel safe. It’s actually an expression of her primal caretaker nature. That’s why she gets so anxious over what you consider little things.
This means you need to negotiate with gentleness and respect. If you pooh-pooh her concerns, she’ll see you as an obstacle, not a partner. She’ll feel less safe and more anxious. If she feels like she’s the only one keeping the house from descending into chaos, detachment and resentment are sure to follow. And why would you want someone you love to feel so burdened?
So, negotiate, but don’t dismiss.
What Women Can Do:
Watch out for “my way or the highway” thinking. As the historical housekeepers, we usually do have more skills at keeping a house humming. And definite ideas about standards. So, it’s natural to think our way is the right way. But is there really a correct level of cleanliness in a house?
Unless your husband’s habits are really unsanitary or bizarre, you’re dealing with different preferences, not right or wrong. Just like any issue where the two of you differ. As the tidier person, I know it’s a real challenge to keep this perspective.
Don’t correct his work unless it really matters. After all, how would you feel if your husband was following you around criticizing your work? If you HAVE to give him guidance about what a clean counter really means (to pull an example from my own chore negotiations), watch your tone.
Anger over housework can turn women contemptuous. I think what happens is that disgust about the dirt morphs into disgust about the person who caused the dirt. Again, very natural. But being judged hurts men far more than many women realize. Which can lead to them avoiding their wives in general well as the cleaning.
Even when his habits drive you insane, remember to talk to him like you love him. That’s more important than a clean counter, right?
Realize that being the messier one can be stressful, too. I know, it’s hard. At least, it’s hard for me. How can it be stressful to live in an extra clean house? I instinctively tidy up as I walk through a room. I call it de-cluttering the house (and consequently my mind). How can this be bad? I consider it a service to the family. But to my husband, I’m hiding his things and upsetting his routine.
Some men feel like they live in a museum, where they’re afraid to make a move. It feels sterile instead of cozy. I’ve had men tell me they want to live in a home, not a showplace.
Also, if you stress out about your house a lot, you’re probably passing that stress on to your husband, and maybe your children.
As Kyle, said, “I dated a woman who was loads of fun. But I’m married to a woman who’s perpetually stressed about the house.”
At its root, coming together on housework is no different than coming together on any issue. We have to really see and care about what our partners are feeling. It’s just that it’s extra hard when we’re talking about our environment, because it affects our state of mind every day. We’re all attached to our physical comfort zones, however we define them. So finding our own fairness sweet spot takes extra effort.
It’s not a one-time thing. If you really have different styles, learning to meet in the middle will be something you do little by little, step by step. But you CAN do it as a team and leave the battles behind you.