A primary trait of healthy couples is their ability to solve their solvable problems. This may sound obvious, but there’s a hidden caveat: statistically, about two-thirds of relationship issues qualify as perpetual problems. This means they’re “unsolvable” and will likely linger in your relationship for years to come. The key with unsolvable problems is to learn how to have dialogue around your differences. This is a lot easier if you can first solve your solvable problems.
Dr. John Gottman’s research has revealed that the six most common causes of marital conflict are work stress, in-laws, money, sex, a new baby, and housework. Housework is one of my favorite metaphors for the marriage relationship, primarily because it includes the word work.
A couple's ability to work together—in this case, to clean the house—is a strong indicator of their relational health. This gets tricky because many couples assume that the best way to split the chores is fifty-fifty. It seems to make sense, right? Splitting work in half is “fair.” But what if one partner enjoys housework more than the other? What if one is simply better at it? What if one has more time because the other works longer hours in the office?
I intentionally left gender out of the last three sentences, because it’s different for every couple. Maybe she’s the primary breadwinner; maybe he’s the neat freak in the house. Still, even in 2014, traditional gender roles persist—it’s usually the woman who is expected to carry more of the housework burden.
Sadly, we are still on the front end of the curve when it comes to comprehensive cultural change. As a result, men generally overestimate how much housework they actually do. At the very least, we want to be acknowledged and rewarded when we take out the garbage without being asked, but we often fail to recognize the converse—when we don’t take out the garbage, even when asked, it’s a sign of disrespect and a lack of support for both the wife and the relationship. It’s a wicked problem.
The good news is that it’s solvable. But it’s not as simple as splitting the chores down the middle. While very unlikely, it is possible that one partner could do a hundred percent of the housework and the relationship could still thrive (highly unlikely, but possible). What's most important is that both partners agree about who does what and when.
In order to get there, you have to do some work. The agreement work comes before the housework. Try this:
1. Make a list of all the chores that have to be done in your house. If you need help, shoot me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll send you a list.
2. Go through the list individually and write who is doing each chore now, and who would ideally do each chore.
3. Compare your lists. Some items will be irrelevant because you’ll be in agreement about the ideal situation and it’ll align to your current reality. Others will require dialogue. That’s where the work comes in.
4. Agree about who is expected to do what and when. Again, this is work, but it pays off. It’s the definition of solving your solvable problems.
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. Sometimes 50/50 isn't the perfect balance.
Photo by Taylor McCutchan