Chore Equity

Men Help More Around The House When They Aren’t Told What To Do

The big difference between wanting something done versus done “right”.

Originally Published: 
A man holding a baby on his chest with a baby carrier emptying laundry from the washing machine.
Ariel Skelley/Getty

Men would do more housework if their partners didn’t make them feel like crap every time they tried to help, according to psychologist Joshua Coleman, Ph.D. “In general, men tend to do more around the household when they feel like their partners like and care about them,” says Coleman, who wrote the book The Lazy Husband: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework. “Men who are chronically in the doghouse tend to withdraw, so you have to be careful how you communicate.”

Although Coleman doesn’t lay the blame squarely on anyone, he has found in the research and in his private practice that women frequently fall into the habit of gatekeeping, or assuming that their standards are the only right standards. Men often check out rather than conforming.

Fatherly spoke with Coleman about how couples can work through these difficulties, and why the worst way to get help is to demand that things get done a certain way.

Why do women feel the need to “gatekeep?” Are gender norms at play?

Oh, for sure. I think that even though a lot of people today get married with more egalitarian ideals, when they have children sometimes those more traditional ideas seep in. For example, men have tripled the amount of time they spend with their children over the past four decades, but have only doubled the amount of housework. So a lot of it is just a long tail of expectations about what men and women should be doing, and how a society enforces those things.

What are some examples of these more traditional values?

If little Jimmy or Janice shows up at school with peanut butter all over their face, even if they have a stay-at-home dad, it’s still seen as the mother’s fault. When the house is messy, people don’t blame the guy, they tend to blame the woman. There’s a lot of gender policing that happens that makes the social cost to women higher than men. If you’re going to have people over and dad says he’s going to clean the kitchen, but there’s still crap on the table, from his perspective it looks fine because if people come over, his friends aren’t going to judge him, but her friends might judge her.

Why are men less likely to help when their wives gatekeep or act like experts?

I think men, in particular, are less likely to help because it ties into their masculinity. If their partners are acting like the experts, somehow that means they’re less competent or effectual. There are some studies that show when men complain about their spouses, wives often feel that it’s fine because they’re saying what they want or need and are working on the marriage. Whereas when wives complain about the marriage, men don’t like it because it just makes them feel unappreciated and inadequate. In general, men still have somewhat of an individualistic idea about relationships. It takes men longer to adjust to a we-centered mentality of parenthood.

Do men also “gatekeep” in a way that discourages their wives from helping out?

Sometimes for women in heterosexual relationships, if they don’t feel like the man is doing what sociologists call “the emotional work” — being interested, self-disclosing, empathic — the more likely they are to shut down. So in that way, men are doing the gatekeeping when it comes to emotional intimacy. But they’re not acting like experts exactly, so it’s not exactly the same. It’s not that all women gatekeep or all women have very fixed ideas about the right way and wrong way to do housework or parent.

Do most people know they’re gatekeeping?

I don’t think that most people who gatekeep know they’re doing it. Most people who do it believe this is the right way to do it. They may say derisive things like “I shouldn’t have to tell you how to do this.” They probably don’t see the connection between gatekeeping and not getting help, the same way a guy probably doesn’t see that if he did more his wife would probably be a lot nicer to him. It works both ways.

If people suspect they’re gatekeeping, what can they do to stop?

Be willing to negotiate standards and don’t assume your way is the right way. Make sure you’re working on the relationship. Just like communication, the better the relationship is the more you’ll be able to navigate difficult conversations about different standards. Don’t make it a character assault, but make it about having different ideas and how you can solve that. Don’t call men “lazy” (even though I used that word in the title of my book because that’s what most women were saying).

Why is it not fair to say that men who don’t help around the house are lazy?

Nobody is motivated by being called a name and, from most men’s perspectives, they’re not lazy. They might not do that much housework, but they work on the yard or fix most things. When their spouses use that word, it just shuts down the conversation. It doesn’t go anywhere from that.

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