Most of us complete chores without thinking deeply about why we’re doing them. And they don’t necessarily pull for overthinking—even the word chore has a connotation of just-push-through-it mindlessness. When you’re out of clean clothes, you fill the washing machine. You don’t get philosophical about potential underlying reasons why you’re filling the washing machine!
If you’re married or in a committed relationship where you share a home with your partner, I’m asking you to step back for a few minutes and think about the chores you and your mate share. Whether we’re aware of it or not, most of us adopt a pattern when it comes to getting the “necessaries” done. Sometimes those patterns work well for both individuals, but sometimes they get accepted without examination and could stand some tweaking.
For instance, why do you always unload the dishwasher? Why does vacuuming seem to be your spouse’s/partner’s default job?
I worked with one couple where the wife would literally point out a piece of popcorn on the carpet with her toe before she turned on the vacuum cleaner. “That’s his job!” she said.
“Maybe so,” he replied. “But you could’ve at least picked it up with your hand. You were the only one that had popcorn last night, after all!”
Some possible explanations for the way you and your partner share household chores:
Spoken and unspoken contracts
When my wife and I got married, she had one cat (now we have three). I’d had dogs all my life, but never a cat. Although my wife never said this aloud back then, she just assumed the chores around caring for the cat because she’d always done them and because she wasn’t sure I knew how (not that I was making a beeline for the litter box scooper). She only articulated that recently, when I was working on this article and asked her to think about why we split the chores the way we do.
Even now, though, many years later, when I occasionally get to the litter box first (if I know she’s had a long day, for instance, and if I think of it before she does), and if she sees me doing that chore, she’ll say, in a dismayed voice, “Rich, I was going to do that! I didn’t expect you to.”
She’ll joke that her day isn’t complete without that chore, but obviously that’s not true. So again, in the spirit of this article, I asked why she has that reaction—she seems to feel badly (for me) that I’m doing “her” chore.
“I’m not exactly sure,” she admitted. “I mean, I’m grateful to you, for sure. But I also feel guilty. It may be irrational, but because I introduced cats into your life, I feel like I should do the brunt of the work associated with them.”
You and your partner might be operating under more overt “contracts” (and without the guilt my wife referenced) where you each decide, “This is what I’ll do, this is what you’ll do.”
But it’s good to reassess things at some point. Sometimes the decisions you made about chores at the beginning of your relationship still work well, further into the relationship. But sometimes they need adjusting as time goes on. So don’t be shy about examining them in light of the present day.
Division of chores along gender lines
Although many of us like to think that we’re “progressive” and that we don’t make decisions based merely on gender, the fact is that “traditional” thinking can operate behind the scenes in our mind, where we’re not fully aware of them.
For instance, I worked with a couple once that was battling over chores. She wanted to change the oil in the car and mow the lawn, and he resisted that, saying, “What would the neighbors think if they saw a girl doing my jobs?”
He eventually admitted he didn’t like changing the oil or mowing the lawn, but he did them because he was “expected” to. He would’ve preferred to cook more of the family meals, but again, he cited a rule he held: “Isn’t the kitchen the woman’s domain?”
This couple needed to make some changes because they were in conflict about the division of chores. However, if they had decided on who had which task based on gender stereotypes, and if that division worked for them, that would’ve been all that mattered.
As we’ve been saying, it’s a good practice to look at why you and your mate split life maintenance the way you do—it doesn’t mean there need to be changes made. It all might be working for the two of you as-is.
Playing to particular strengths
The “strength” here might be a physical one (for example, your husband does the heavy lifting around the house because he lifts weights around the gym, and you might not be able to lift much since your back surgery), or it might be a non-physical one (you might be better with numbers than your husband, so you’ve assumed the chore of paying the bills).
“What?” you might be saying. “Who enjoys chores?”
When you live a mindful life, you can enjoy anything. (Trust me, I’m not there yet, though I would like to be, and I practice mindfulness when I can…which means when I remember.)
Focusing on the present moment, no matter how small or inconsequential it may seem, can infuse that moment with peacefulness and contentment. Yes, even when you’re doing something that typically would be seen only as a means to an end and not valuable for the process itself.
However, most of us are not at the place where we can feel deep contentment while scouring a grease-burnt pot. But on a more practical and more relative level, we can admit to enjoying certain aspects of certain chores more than others. Or disliking some chores less than others. You and your mate might’ve chosen chores based on those likes/dislikes.
Repeating family of origin roles
This is quite common, and there is often some overlap with the division of chores along gender lines. If you always saw your mother dust the furniture and your father rake the leaves, you might be the one to pick up the duster and hand your hubby the rake.
This is not a bad thing….unless it turns out that you and/or your partner are not happy with this division.
We learn by osmosis, and nowhere more powerfully than in childhood, when our brains are thirsty sponges. Some of what we absorbed that way will serve us well in adulthood, some of it will be neutral, and some of it will need re-examining and bringing into the light (because it might not be doing us any good).
Just because it’s “always been done that way,” it doesn’t have to continue that way if you and your spouse/partner would like to update your roles according to what works best for both of you.
So…how do you know if the way the chores are divvied up are working in the best interests of your marriage/relationship? Here are some questions to get you started in thinking about it:
Do we fight about chores? Are there repetitive issues we fight about in regard to household tasks?
Do I feel resentment building toward him/her when I do my chores and see him/her doing chores? Do I think the word “unfair,” or has my partner ever said it to me?
Am I unclear about why I’m “stuck” with certain chores and why s/he “gets” to do certain chores?
Does it feel like one of us bears more of the burden of life maintenance tasks? Do we need to achieve more of an equitable balance?
Do we need to re-negotiate the spoken/unspoken chore-contracts in place?
You can start by just thinking about these questions, and then, if you feel comfortable, you can discuss them with your partner. It may be that the way you divide the chores is working just fine for both of you. But, if it’s not, it behooves you to see where changes can be made. Your relationship will thank you for it!
(Top featured image courtesy of Stuart Miles; 2nd photo courtesy of Artur84; both at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)