This story was produced in partnership with Dawn and Swiffer.
There’s no joy in the word “chore.” “Work” carries with it honor. “Job” specifies a role. “Responsibility” implies, well, responsibility. “Chore” offers none of those qualities. It’s defined as a “difficult or disagreeable task,” because somehow “task” wasn’t unpleasant enough on its own. And the thing about chores is they never stop. Kids always have to eat, shirts don’t come out of the dryer folded, and no matter how well you sweep, dust keeps getting pumped out. The only good thing is that in a marriage chores are a shared load, but they have to be divided up well so no one feels dumped on. But schedules vary, as do personalities. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to finding a system that works for you. So we asked a panel of experts, including therapists, professional organizers, and on-the-ground married couples, about how to get the jobs done fairly.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Chores
Rotate the Big Ones
Mike LaFave lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife. The best method that’s worked for him has been to alternate who’s responsible for dinner each week. That person does all the meal planning, shops on Sunday, and cooks each night. Their kids—ages 16, 13, and 10—do the dishes. There are a few benefits, he says. The daily chore isn’t anyone’s sole responsibility. It brings in more variety since meals don’t get repeated as quickly. And the kids get to see both mom and dad cooking. The same goes for vacuuming, cleaning the bathrooms, and doing laundry. In their heads, there’s no division for domestic jobs.
Make it into a Game
Chores break down into three categories: ones you love; ones you tolerate; ones you hate with the fire of 1,000 suns. The first two are easy to divvy up; the last is a bit more challenging. But to inject a little fun, David Ezell, a psychotherapist in Darien, CT, recommends putting all the jobs into a spreadsheet and mutually deciding on a point value for each, based on its difficulty. As an example, picking up the dry cleaning isn’t worth as much as collecting and dropping it off. Throw five percent of your combined monthly earnings into a pot and agree that whoever scores higher wins the cash.
“We all do well in an incentivized environment,” says Ezell. But aside from the money, you’ll gain an appreciation for what each other does. Any imbalances will be revealed and you can recalibrate. And for mutually hated chores, giving them a high point value can make them somewhat enticing.
Bring in Some Outside Help
If you both despise doing the laundry, and you have the means, farm it out. No one becomes resentful over, say, being stuck with the task and you buy yourself some time, a precious commodity, especially to couples with young families, says Orna Rawls, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Stratford, Connecticut. There’s one less thing you both have to do and you give someone else some work. “It’s win-win,” she says.
Take a 7-Day View
On Sunday, look at the upcoming week and see what needs to get done and who has to be where, whether it’s evening work meetings or refereeing games. From there, it’s a divide-and-conquer attitude and the jobs just assign themselves, says Caryn Goulet, who lives in Wilmington, Massachusetts with her husband. But there’s also an eye to balancing the load. If one of you is out one night, the other goes out the next night. If one of them is shuttling around between kid stuff, the other will bring a change of clothes and something to eat. “It just works out,” says Carrie. “It’s not really about who prefers what.”
Give Some Early Definition
One of the frustrations is when a chore isn’t completed to one spouse’s standards. That person gets resentful or takes on all the jobs to make sure they’re done “correctly”, then ends up getting resentful. To short-circuit that cycle, go through the whole list, and, for each one, discuss and define what constitutes being “done,” says Lesli Doares, a licensed marriage and family counselor in Raleigh, North Carolina. If one person abdicates all control over the basement, I don’t care what it looks like is all the needed discussion. But by laying out that a clean kitchen means an empty dishwasher and a wiped stovetop, the guesswork is gone. One other question to ask: How much time does it take? It makes for smarter budgeting, and, again, gives an appreciation of how big certain jobs are.
Have a Plan B
When someone can step in, there’s less worry all around, says Murray Suid, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been married for 50 years. People gravitate to their strengths. Some are good with finances. Others like to tinker with motors. But you’re a team, and every team has to have a backup quarterback. That guy knows that he’s not as good as the starter, but he also knows he can do a decent job. It’s the same with fundamental tasks, like paying bills and dealing with the plumber. People get sick, are out of town, or just need a break.
Watch the clock
Some jobs are shift-dependent, such as making breakfast or taking out the trash. The key questions are how long does something take and who has the time to get it done. Crystal Sabalaske is a professional organizer in Langhorne, Pennsylvania and mother of two kids, aged 13 and 11. As an example, the family usually generates four to five loads of laundry a day. Since her husband works in an office and she has a flexible schedule, it makes sense that she handles the wash. Her husband then takes care of the dishes, which knocks out both the post-dinner mess and that day’s lunchboxes.
Supply Good Intel
Jim Colliton and his wife live in Wakefield, Massachusetts and split 90 percent of the chores. But he’s also a standup comedian who can be gone for a week at a time. When he’s home, he does more, and when he’s gone, he’ll leave a note for his wife about what to look out for and things that she wouldn’t know about otherwise. It could be whether to deposit certain checks or the specific hockey pads their son needs—they have three children, 17, 15 and 12. She’ll do the same with him. With any kind of shopping, it saves time and avoids the buying-the-wrong-thing kid meltdown. “Everyone’s on the same page and it cuts down on frustration,” he says.
Build in Review Time
After you divide up the chore list, agree to revisit it in two weeks. You can be as considerate as possible, but you still have to see how the chores practically play out. A simple, “How do you think it’s going?” keeps the lines of communication open and gives each of you the freedom to say what’s not working, well before resentment has a chance to boil over, says Debra Roberts, a licensed social worker and author of The Relationship Protocol: How to Talk, Diffuse and Build Healthier Relationships. And as the process moves along, keep in mind how your wife operates. If you can’t get to the bathtub, and “I’m running behind, but I’m on it” is all it takes to reassure her, then open your mouth and make those words come out.