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Is the Division of Labor Fair in Your Marriage? Here’s How to Figure It Out

Setting expectations about who does what — and adjusting them again and again — is crucial.

This story was produced in partnership with Dawn and Swiffer.

A lot goes into a healthy marriage. But one thing that is very much required is the willingness of both partners to take an honest assessment of what they may be doing too much or too little of in the relationship. One area that’s especially important to look at is household labor, as an unfair division of labor at home can be a big problem.

Figuring out who does what is a challenge, especially in dual-income households, and particularly during quarantine. While men in heterosexual relationships tend to do more household work than previous generations, women still shoulder an unequal burden. And, if trends continue, it will take quite a long time for couples to reach any semblance of parity. 

The imbalance of shared housework is a common source of contention in marriage, and it often boils down to couples not setting expectations about it. 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.

Experts agree that having conversations about how, exactly, you plan on splitting work and child care early and often is crucial for achieving happiness. This doesn’t mean that every couple needs to have a true 50-50 split (this is, frankly, impossible to achieve). It does mean, however, that couples need to come to an agreement about what will work for them and have a regular dialogue to keep that agreement in check. If you don’t have these conversations, resentment and frustration are often the rewards. 

So what do these conversations about splitting housework and child care look like? Here are the steps couples need to take.

1. Figure Out What You Already Do

When we aren’t conscious of who’s doing what, we can overestimate our contribution to domestic order. Studies show that men in heterosexual relationships are often guilty of this. Regardless, San Francisco-based therapist says Andrea Dindinger says couples need to start the household labor dialogue by tabulating who’s performing what tasks. “Make a list of what they feel they do to contribute to the family. For example, one parent may book summer camps, plan birthday parties and family vacations, take and pick up the kids from school, while the other person may do the dishes, laundry, walk the dog, and earn 75 percent of the family’s income.” It may not be an easy assignment, but doing this will reveal any imbalances.

2. Begin the Conversation 

Problems arise when couples don’t talk about housework but still have expectations about how the house should work. Leaving those assumptions unsaid leads to problems. Houston psychotherapist Nicholas Hardy says couples should aim to start talking before problems occur.This conversation is best had when it occurs proactively instead of reactively,” Hardy says. “Addressing household chores on the front end, allows couples to have healthy dialogue on likes and dislikes, without feeling attacked or feeling as though they have to defend themselves.”

Sarah Rattray, couples psychologist and founder of the Couples Communication Institute, says spouses should ease into negotiations. “Start the conversation by gently requesting a conversation about domestic tasks,” Rattray says. “Let your partner know you want to find a good time to talk when you can give the conversation your full attention.”

3. Lay Out Expectations

Toronto family mediator and owner of Aligned Choices Mediation Richard Brydson says couples should start by listening and working to understand how each person sees the current household tasks situation and how they want it to change. “Discuss not only what needs to be done in the house, but also each person’s values and beliefs about the tasks and the division of tasks.” 

Brydson recommends that each spouse make two lists before they talk. “On one side of the dividing line they list the tasks they find easy and want to contribute to freely,” he says. “On the other side, they list the tasks that they find themselves being forgetful about.”

Both spouses need to listen to each other’s expectations for the home. If one partner is comfortable with clutter but their spouse can’t stand seeing dishes pile up, they need to express their preferences to find a solution. “These explorations are going to help the plan succeed because of how they allow both partners to learn about the core and situational values that inform decision making,” Brydson says.

4. List Tasks

Once you know your goals, document your plan to achieve them. That way, you’ll have a record to refer back to and a way to hold each other accountable. “Write it down,” Hardy says. “Yes, it seems simple but writing it down minimizes confusion. It also holds the other person responsible.”

But keep in mind that “write it down” has a more flexible meaning that it might appear. If you’re not comfortable with pen and paper, that’s fine. Find a record-keeping method that makes sense for your relationship. “Discuss together whether they feel it would be most helpful to schedule tasks on their phones, with automatic reminders, or which plan would make each person feel most likely to achieve success,” Sattray says.

5. Prioritize and Start Small But Smart

Once both spouses understand the other’s values, it’s time to strategize their first steps. Identify changes that will cause maximum impact. Rattray recommends starting with a small number of tasks they believe would make the biggest difference in how they feel. “Starting with only one or two changes creates the greatest chance of success,” Sattray says.

6. Reassess and Be Realistic

Once you have points on the board, agree to return to talk about more changes after initial success together. Keep in mind that what seems fair on paper might not function in the real world. 

“Trying to strictly maintain a 50/50 split may be unworkable,” marriage coach and radio host Lesli Doares says. “One of you may have more time or some chores may take longer than others.” Aim for a sense of fairness and play to each other’s strengths. If one spouse tries to impose their values on the other without consideration of their feelings, the results are bound to be bad. If they hate doing a particular task, they won’t do it well. “This opens the door to conflict and resentment,” Doares says.

7. Give it Time

No matter how well you plan or prioritize, you’re not going to turn the whole ship around in a single day. Be patient. Remember that the goal isn’t peak efficiency for the house but peak happiness for the family.

 “The goal should be less tension in the household, more laughing, dancing, and kindness,” Dindinger says. “Each partner needs a deeper appreciation for what they’re doing for your family and what their partner is doing for the family.”

Small steps may seem too slow. But they’re better than no steps at all. “Don’t make a plan that is over-ambitious, especially if you have a lot going on and the duties are going to be an additional burden,” says Briony Leo, psychologist and head coach for the relationship coaching app Relish.  “Often having one day where things get done (e.g. doing washing and floors on a Saturday morning after a sleep in) or looking to find ways of making something fun and less arduous (e.g. listening to podcasts or audiobooks as you do the ironing) can turn a dreaded task into something enjoyable.”

8. Reassess Again 

Our lives aren’t perfectly ordered. Working parents’ jobs and responsibilities change and sometimes change dramatically. Couples can work out a detailed domestic workload division and stick to it for months, only to have to throw it out the window when work grows more demanding or other responsibilities arise. But while the circumstances change, the objective remains. “There will be times when it swings back and forth,” Leo says. “The goal should be to be able to have a calm conversation about equity and fairness and to speak up when things are feeling unbalanced or unfair. Resentment and annoyance can build when we feel unappreciated and taken advantage of, so having both people in the relationship able to speak honestly about this is important. Think of it as a constant work in progress.”