How to Divide Domestic Responsibilities (Part 1)

Introduction: Most of the letters I receive reflect marital disaster. Complaints of physical abuse and infidelity are common. But there are more mundane issues that, if ignored, can lead to marital disaster. One of these issues is the division of domestic responsibilities.

I introduce this issue with two short letters, one from a wife and the other from a husband. Since my answers to both letter were so similar, this week I will post only one answer to both letters.

Dear Dr. Harley,

My husband thinks because he cooked dinner last month that he should be excused from all other responsibilities. (I can't even get him to take out the trash without a fight!) All I want is a little help. I have tried asking him sweetly but he still calls me a nag. I am at the end of my rope! What do you suggest I do?


Dear Dr. Harley,

We have been married for six years and have two children. During the first year of marriage, my wife and I both worked, but when our children arrived, my wife stayed at home to care for them. Now, she has gone back to work, and we spend much of our time together fighting over who's going to take care of our children, cook the meals, wash and iron the clothes, clean the house, etc., etc. At this rate, our marriage will not survive Spring cleaning. Can you help us?


Dear T.G. and D.K.,

With the advent of so many dual career marriages, the division of domestic responsibilities has become a major source of marital conflict. Changes in our cultural values have contributed greatly to the problem, because there is more agreement that both a husband and wife should share these responsibilities, particularly child care. But change in behavior has not kept pace with the change in values.

Traditionally, wives have assumed most household and child care responsibilities, while husbands have taken the responsibility of providing income for the family. When couples could afford it, housekeepers and nannies lived in the home to take the burden of those responsibilities off the shoulders of the wife.

But today, at least in America, there are fewer live-in housekeepers and nannies, and women are much more committed to work outside of the home. That combination of factors makes husbands the most obvious resource to fill the gap. While men are changing the diapers, wielding the mop and tending the stove more often than ever before, it still isn't enough. In dual-career marriages, men, on average do only half as much child care and housework as their working wives.

As most women have figured out by now, men are not very motivated to do child care and housekeeping. T.G., you indicate in your letter that your husband thinks any effort on his part to help you with household responsibilities represents a monumental sacrifice and contribution to your happiness. From your perspective, he is simply doing a small part of his fair share of the work.

In your letter, D.K., you and your wife each have a totally different perspective on who should do what, and you find yourselves fighting about it. You are apparently demanding that she do most of the work, and she is demanding that you do it. Neither of you feel it is your responsibility.

Domestic responsibilities are a time bomb in many marriages. Marriage usually begins with a willingness of both spouses to share domestic responsibilities. Newlyweds commonly wash dishes together, make the bed together, and divide many household tasks. The groom welcomes the help he gets from his wife because, prior to marriage, he'd been doing it all alone as a bachelor. At this point in marriage, neither of them regard domestic responsibilities as an important marital issue. But the time bomb is ticking.

When does it explode? It's when the children arrive! Children create huge needs, both a greater need for income and greater domestic responsibilities. The previous division of labor is now obsolete. Both spouses must take on new responsibilities. Which ones should they take? In most modern marriages, both spouses opt for income, leaving the domestic responsibilities to whoever will volunteer. It's a recipe for disaster, at least for most working women, because they end up doing most of the housework and child care, resenting their husbands' lack of support.

If household responsibilities are given to whoever is in the mood to do them, nothing much will be done. If one spouse demands help from the other, that will also have an unsatisfactory outcome. But if assignment of these tasks can be mutually agreed upon by willing spouses that accept the responsibility, everything will run smoothly.

I would like to propose to you a solution to your conflict based on the Policy of Joint Agreement. As it does with all marital conflicts, the Policy will not only resolve it, it will help you increase your love for each other.

This solution will require you to do something that you may rarely do: get organized. It means you must think through your problem carefully and systematically. You will need to write down your objectives and create solutions that take each other's feelings into account. While you may find all of this awkward and terribly "not you," there is no other way. Besides, when you're done, you may find it to be more comfortable than you anticipated.

Step 1: Identify your household responsibilities.

First, make a list of all of your household responsibilities including child care. The list should (1) name each responsibility, (2) briefly describe what must be done, and when, to accomplish it, (3) name the spouse that wants it accomplished and (4) how important is it to that spouse (use a scale from 1-5, with 1 least important and 5 most important).

Both spouses should work on this list, and it will take several days to cover the bases. You will add items each day as you find yourself accomplishing various tasks or wanting them accomplished.

Each time a task is added to the list and the work described, the spouse wanting it done must be named. Of course, many of the tasks will be mutually desired, such as diapering the baby. In that case the names of both spouses should accompany the item with the importance rating by both spouses. But you will probably find that many tasks will be the concern of only one spouse.

Examples of items on the list are as follows:

Washing the breakfast dishes; every morning clearing off the breakfast table, washing, drying and putting away all the breakfast dishes and utensils that went into preparing breakfast; Becky (4); John (2).

Feeding the cat; at 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m put cat food and water in the cat's dishes; John (5).

When you have finished your list, both of you should be satisfied that it includes all of the housekeeping and child care responsibilities that you share. You may have as many as 100 items listed. Just this part of the exercise alone will help you understand what you're up against with regard to the work that you feel must be done.

Step 2: Assume responsibility for items that you would enjoy doing or prefer doing yourself.

Make a second copy of your final list, so that both you and your spouse can have your own copy. Then, independently of each other, put your own name in front of each item that you would like to do yourself. These are tasks that you would enjoy doing, don't mind doing, or want to do yourself so they can be done a certain way.

When you compare your two lists, if both you and your spouse have named the same items, you can either take turns doing them, or arbitrarily divide them between the two of you. But you must approve each other's selections before they become your responsibilities. If one of you does not feel that the other will perform the task well enough, you can give each other a trial period to demonstrate competence. Once you have taken responsibility for an item, your spouse should be able to hold you accountable for doing it according to their expectations.

Begin two new lists of household responsibilities, one representing the husband's responsibilities, and the other, the wife's. Items from the original list that have been selected by a spouse and mutually agreed to as a responsibility, should be written on these new lists, and taken off the original list.

Now you have three lists. (1) the husband's list of responsibilities, (2) the wife's list of responsibilities and (3) the list of household responsibilities that are not yet assigned.

Step 3: Assign the remaining responsibilities to the one wanting each done the most.

Assuming that all tasks you would not mind doing have been eliminated, we are left with those that would be unpleasant for either of you to perform. These are items that neither of you want to do, but at least one of you thinks should be done.

These unpleasant responsibilities should be assigned to the person who wants them done. If both of you want something done, the one giving it the highest value should take responsibility for doing it.

If you think that this is unfair, consider for a moment why you want the other person to do these tasks for you. Even though you are the one who wants them done, you want the other person to relieve you of the pain you suffer when you do them. It other words, you want to gain at your spouse's expense.

You may argue that what you want is really not for you, but for the children. In that argument, you imply that your spouse is so uncaring and insensitive that he or she doesn't even know, or doesn't care, what's best for the children. If that's your argument, you are making a disrespectful judgment. You are assuming that your view of the situation is superior to that of your spouse. Disrespectful judgments is a Love Buster, and whenever you try to impose your way of thinking on your spouse, you will withdraw love units for sure. And you won't win the argument.

When you insist that your spouse care for the children's needs the way you perceive them, you are making a selfish demand. You are not only trying to impose your perspective on your spouse, but you are also trying to force your spouse to do something that he or she will find unpleasant. Selfish demands is another Love Buster that will withdraw love units every time.

After seeing my solution to the domestic responsibility problem, you may not be entirely happy with my approach. You probably feel that something's missing. Well, there is something missing, but it can only be added when you reach this stage in your effort to divide household responsibilities fairly.

Step 4: Learn to help each other with your household responsibilities enthusiastically.

Up to this point, the assignment of household responsibilities is fair. You are dividing responsibilities according to willingness and according to who benefits most with their accomplishment. But marriage takes you one step further. In marriage, you do things for each other because you care about each other's feelings, not just because you want them done yourself.

You may not be willing to take responsibility for a certain task because, quite frankly, you don't think it needs to be done. But if your spouse thinks it needs to be done, you will sometimes help him or her with it because you care for your spouse.

Let's suppose that you have been assigned cooking dinner because you wanted dinner more than your spouse wanted it. You hate cooking dinner, but you want it done, so you have to do it. Then, one day, your spouse comes into the kitchen and tells you to take a day off. Your spouse will do it for you today. Do you know what will happen? Love units will be deposited. Big time! Your spouse takes the burden of cooking off your shoulders for one day.

Does that mean that your spouse is now in charge of dinner? Not at all. It simply means that he or she is willing to help alleviate your burden once in a while. But if your spouse loved you enough, wouldn't he or she want to take charge of dinner? Wouldn't your spouse want to spare you the pain of it all? Well, it might be tempting to do just that. But if your spouse did, it would withdraw love units from the Love Bank, and could cause your spouse to lose his or her love for you.

The one wanting something done the most will lose the fewest love units doing it themselves. After all, they are doing it for themselves. It's much more painful to do something unpleasant when you don't even value what you're doing.

But there are many ways to get things done, and you may not have considered the best possibilities. You and your spouse should discuss how burdensome responsibilities can be accomplished in ways that are not so burdensome. Maybe one of you would not mind doing one part of dinner preparation, and the other would not mind doing another part. Or maybe you would agree that going out to dinner is the ultimate solution to the problem.

Those items left on your list of responsibilities that are unpleasant to perform should be regularly discussed. Brainstorm all kinds of alternatives that might get the job done without either of you suffering.

There are certain household tasks that are so unpleasant for both spouses that hiring someone to do it is a reasonable alternative, especially when both spouses work full-time. Hiring a housekeeper once a week to do only the most unpleasant cleaning chores is money well spent. The same thing can be true of maintaining the yard. Having someone mow and trim the lawn can turn a burdensome Saturday into an opportunity to enjoy the day with the family.

On a related subject, be sure that you do not assign your children tasks that both you and your spouse find too unpleasant to shoulder. It doesn't build character to give your kids jobs that you hate to do, it builds resentment. If you want your children to help around the house, have them choose tasks from your list of household responsibilities that they would enjoy doing. Make lists for them, as well as for you and your spouse. There will be plenty to keep them busy.

To summarize my solution to the division of household responsibilities, the Policy of Joint Agreement should be your guide. Assume household responsibilities that you enthusiastically accept. And then, when you help each other with those unpleasant tasks that are left, only help if you can do it enthusiastically.

By following this policy, you may decide to change your attitude about some of the responsibilities on your list. When you know that the only way to do something is to do it yourself, you may decide that it doesn't need to be done, after all. In fact, you may find that what kept you convinced of it's importance, was the notion that your spouse was supposed to do it.

The Policy guarantees your mutual care, especially when you feel like being uncaring. It prevents you from gaining at your spouse's expense, and trying to force your spouse into an unpleasant way of life with you. It points you in a direction that will give you both happiness, fulfillment and, best of all, the feeling of love for each other.

And remember what I suggested in last week's Q&A column: Set aside 15 hours each week for undivided attention between you and your spouse. Don't let your household responsibilities prevent you from meeting each other's most important emotional needs.

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