How to Avoid Bickering Over Who Does the Housework

Don't let this common area of conflict threaten your marital happiness.
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Sophie Caldecott
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Don't let this common area of conflict threaten your marital happiness.

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Art Credit: Stefany Alves

I always knew that building a good and lasting marriage would take a lot of hard work, but I thought that it was the big things—like infidelity or ideological differences—that threatened a marriage. On some level, I thought that because my fiancé and I were so insanely compatible it would be pretty easy to navigate our way to perpetual marital bliss.

But after two and a half years of marriage, I’ve realized that, while we were pre-armed to fight the big relationship killers, we still didn’t know how to handle the “little stuff”—like who does the housework. And, just like sweeping dirt under the carpet, if you don’t tackle those small issues head on, pretty soon they turn into a big deal.

It turns out a little thing like chores has a major impact on young married couples’ day-to-day happiness. According to one study, more than a quarter of young couples report that they argue about the housework several times a month. The question of housework is not just a simple question of who does what; it’s an issue rooted in communication. Tension around cleaning the house is most typically a result of adjusting to living with someone else and adapting to each other’s different habits, standards, and expectations.

The good news is, with a little practice in communication, many couples have worked these issues out to a happy resolution. Newly married couples can deal with a “little thing” like housework expectations by arming themselves with these five tips.

01. Talk about expectations.

I’ve often thrown my hands up in exasperation and said, “What on earth would your house be like if you lived by yourself?” I think the answer is pretty filthy by my standards and, what’s more, he probably wouldn’t care.

It’s easy to forget that everyone has different priorities and standards for their living environments. My preference, for example, is that things are clean, but I don’t mind so much if they are a bit messy. My husband, on the other hand, will obsessively order and tidy our book collection but rarely (if ever) notice that the shelf needs cleaning.

Sit down and talk with your husband or fiancé about what your expectations are in the first place. This way you can better anticipate one another’s needs and hopefully avoid the “But it matters to me!” argument right from the get-go.

02. Make a plan.

OK, so now that you’ve talked about your different expectations, it’s time to reach a compromise and work out how to create the kind of home you both ultimately desire. Verily contributor and certified Gottman therapist Zach Brittle wrote about the importance of working out your needs as a couple and agreeing together exactly which household chores need to be done regularly, as well as who will generally do them. This will be different for each couple, and will obviously depend on what hours you both work.

Brittle explains, “Any time you can adapt to your partner’s needs—i.e. you do the dishes the night the other has to hurry out for a work meeting—you communicate an abundance of honor and respect for your partner, which is always a good thing. It’s important to remember that the meaning of the promise is more important than the math.” It’s not always as simple as splitting the chores exactly down the middle; being loving, flexible, and adaptable is the key.

03. Realize the plan may need adjusting.

Now that you’ve got a plan of action, it’s important to talk about how you’re going to stick to it. With 57 percent of women and 69 percent of men working outside the home, it’s not surprising that housework can start to slip. The fact that—despite having an equally busy work schedule—women still do almost double the amount of housework, tells me that men and women are having a hard time putting their theories into practice. When it actually comes down to it, maybe your plan is not as practical as you thought. Maybe you have slipped into doing everything yourself because “it’s just easier.” Check in with one another and adjust your plan according to your lifestyle. This will prevent frustration from piling up and help you to settle on a plan that works for both of you.

04. Ask for help.

Just because you have discussed expectations and have a plan in place, doesn’t mean that you won’t sometimes need to ask for help.  Relationship expert Lauren Gray gives advice to women saying, “If you want help, you need to ask for it. Men are great at fulfilling a specific job description.” I find this to be very true of my husband who is definitely not a self-starter on the chores front. Of course everyone is different, but usually one person in the relationship is more aware of the housework then the other. It's not that my husband is being lazy or deliberately avoiding chores to make me miserable. He genuinely doesn’t see what needs to be done. I find that if I don’t ask him to do something because I’m secretly hoping he’ll do it without my prompting, I usually end up disappointed and resentful, and he ends up wondering how I expected him to read my mind.

Maybe one of you is consistently forgetting something on your to-do list  or maybe one of you has a lot going on and needs the other person to help pick up some of the slack. Either way, it’s not needy or nagging to politely ask your spouse for help.

05. Prioritize your spouse's needs.

One of my favorite scenes from the movie The Break-Up is when Brooke (Jennifer Aniston) comes out with the seemingly absurd idea that she wants Gary (Vince Vaughn) to want to do the dishes. But, as Gary points out, who really wants to do the dishes? What Brooke really means, however, is that she wants him to make her feel loved, appreciated, and valued.

It’s not intrinsically wrong to leave the dishes until later, but it is wrong to ignore your partner’s needs and make them feel like those needs are absurd or don’t matter. At the same time, becoming obsessed with the idea that your way of doing things is right and the other person’s is wrong is extremely toxic, and will get you both into a deadlock situation where neither of you feels like your perspective is being listened to or respected.

Give these tips a try and you will see that, even in little things like shared chores, if we make the effort to communicate our needs more clearly and kindly, without judgments or subliminal accusations attached, it will become a lot easier to build homes together that bring everyone joy rather than angst.