The sink is full of dishes. A basket full of laundry is overflowing in the bedroom. In the bathroom, the toilet sits unscrubbed, and the mirror is pockmarked with toothpaste stains. Surveying this situation, one partner remarks to the other about the state of the house and is met with a response in the vein of “I’ll get to it when I get to it.” Knowing that “when” will likely never arrive, the other partner heaves a sigh and takes care of the tasks themselves. Soon, however, resentment begins to burn. Eventually, another sink load of dishes becomes ground zero for an household labor argument that is about way more than caked-on lasagna.
Now, more than ever, as we all stay at home during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s even more urgent to identify the causes of these arguments and make new plans to ensure they don’t happen. Otherwise, quarantine is going to be even more tricky to navigate.
The imbalance of shared housework is a common one in marriages, and it boils down to couples not setting expectations at the outset. Whether they realize it or not, men and women bring with them preconceived notions about how a household should function, ideas that have been formed from what they witnessed in their own homes growing up. The idea of emotional labor — more properly called the mental load — otherwise known as the invisible work that needs to be done to keep a household in order, is also at play.
“Because expectations are often assumed, it can lead to frustration,” says Dr. Jim Seibold, a marriage and family therapist in Arlington, TX. For example, Seibold says, a wife may feel frustrated that her husband does not do laundry. She then makes the assumption that he sees this as ‘women’s work,’ when it may be that, while he did assume that she would take care of it, it wasn’t necessarily because he’s a man.
Additionally, says Seibold, the argument can also stem from a basic lack of communication within the marriage. Even if the division of labor was understood and agreed upon at the outset, changes in the household can affect them. New careers, more kids, a change in schedule — all can cause the balance to shift. If not discussed, they lead to problems. Particularly right now, as coronavirus has us all at home and confronting these imbalances, it’s important to take note and make changes.
“I think a lot of times, couples just don’t think to check in with each other occasionally and go, ‘Hey, is this still a good balance?’,” says Seibold. “And, then, rather than saying something about it, they just kind of grit their teeth and move on. By the time it does come up, it’s such a frustration that it no longer becomes a request, it becomes a criticism.”
What Are the Short-Term Solutions to Household Labor Disputes?
When the housework argument arises, there are obviously underlying issues at play, from respect to validation. As such, it’s not something that’s going to be resolved right in the moment. (And let’s be honest, even if one partner agrees to do the dishes in the moment, those dishes are going to be done begrudgingly and whatever concerns were voiced aren’t going to be heard.) So it’s best to put a pin in the conversation, but do so in a way that lets the partner know that you will revisit it. Seibold says that it’s important to validate the other person’s feelings in the moment and acknowledge that you recognize that their complaints are valid. “Because,” he says, “if you just say, ‘We can’t talk about this right now,’ and you’re saying that to someone who already feels frustrated, they’re going to feel even more invalidated.”
The key to understanding why it is that your partner is so upset, Seibold says, is to recognize where the criticism is coming from. John Gottman, considered by many to be the father of marital therapy, once noted that behind every criticism is an unmet need, and that is the mindset couples need to adopt when fielding complaints from one another. By seeing what your spouse is saying to you as a voicing of his or her unmet needs, it can alter the way you process it internally and, hopefully, allow you to let down your guard and actually ask questions of your partner.
“I certainly encourage my clients to pay attention to how they’re receiving things,” says Siebold. “If you can hear an unmet need or at least ask more questions to understand what that need is, you’re more likely to get to a solution.”
What Are the Long-Term Solutions?
Looking ahead to the future, there can be simple solutions, such as coming up with a chore chart where the various household tasks are clearly divvied up and defined. However, in order to keep the housework from sinking the marriage, couples have to dig deeper and identify the root of the issue and create a solution that addresses that problem. The dishes are a piece of a larger puzzle of unmet needs. Until those needs are met, the arguments will continue to surface.
One way to keep that from happening, Seibold says, is to institute regular check-ins. These conversations can help couples stay on top of what’s working and what isn’t and also factor in changes in the household that might alter the balance of labor.
The important thing for couples to remember when it comes to housework or anything else in a marriage, that it’s going to take work and no one is going to get everything right all the time. As long as there’s some sense of awareness and forward motion, everything will work out. For example, telling your wife, ‘I know I was supposed to do the laundry this weekend, but I’m slammed with work, can you do it and I’ll take care of it next week?’ will go a lot farther than if you just let the laundry pile up without comment.
In the end, Seibold says that the important thing to remember is to leave room for mistakes as much as improvement. “Try and extend the benefit of the doubt and understand that it’s going to take a little bit of time to develop a habit,” he says. “Shoot for consistency, not perfection.”