How to Divide Domestic Responsibilities (Part 2)

Letter #1

Introduction: I received quite a few e-mail letters this week from unhappy readers of last week's Q&A, How to Divide Domestic Responsibilities (Part 1]. So I will give the subject one more week to address their concerns. If you have not already read Part 1, it might be helpful to go over it before you read this one.

The issue I address is a common problem in marriage, how to go about deciding who does what with regard to housework and child care. The problem has become much more apparent since the advent of dual-income families, but I would imagine that it's always been around, slowly simmering in the background.

So I want to offer you a solution that not only resolves this conflict for you, but also makes you more compatible and builds your love for each other. These added conditions make my solution more complicated, but when you consider the alternatives, it's the best way to solve the problem.

My answer to the first letter is a defense of the solution I offered last week. But in my answer to the second letter I explain why this problem can be so upsetting when it is not resolved, and why it is so important to negotiate a solution.

Dear Dr. Harley,

I think you are just plain off on this one. My husband would eat cereal every night for dinner, let the litter box go indefinitely, and go to the store for paper plates before emptying the dishwasher--if left to his own devices. And because these chores don't matter to him, and he doesn't like doing them, I'm supposed to pick them up onto my list by default? Not only that, I'm supposed to be enthusiastic too?

I was really hoping for some help in this article--I'm already living with letting him do what he feels like when he feels like it, and I assure you, it's not working. Any other suggestions?


Dear R.W.,

Why don't you try my solution for a few weeks -- you might like it. While you don't think it will work, what you've been doing hasn't been working either. I think the results will surprise you.

Let me review the steps that I introduced in last week's Q&A once more, to be sure you understand them, and follow them correctly.

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).

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 from 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.

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.

In Step 2, you eliminated all of the tasks that you don't mind doing. You are left with those that are unpleasant for both of you. These are items that neither of you want to do, but one of you wants done.

It is at this point that you choked on my recommendation. I suggested that these unpleasant responsibilities should be assigned to the person who wants them done the most. It's a reasonable solution, since to do otherwise would force responsibility on the one who doesn't care about them.

By the way, I did not mean to imply that you were supposed to be enthusiastic about taking responsibility for tasks that only you wanted accomplished. I simply feel that if you didn't take responsibility for them yourself, the only one left would be your husband who doesn't have any interest in them. And, as you've noticed, the only way you can get him to do them for you is to make demands on him.

Demands, as I have explained in my Basic Concepts, always withdraw love units, and never solve problems. So until you have a better way of getting these things done, like hiring someone to do them, I suggested that you take these unwanted tasks yourself.

Bear with me once more as I explain to you why I recommend this solution.

Consider for a moment why you want the other person to do these unpleasant 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 enjoy the benefit of having them done, but you are not willing to suffer for it yourself. You would rather see your spouse suffer. You want to gain the benefits of having these unpleasant tasks accomplished at your husband's expense.

You may argue that these tasks are not really what you want done, but rather, what should be done. You may feel that they are for the benefit of your children, or some other reason. But when you use that argument, you imply that your spouse is such a slob, and so out of touch, that he doesn't even know or care what's right or what's best for the children.

While that may be precisely the way you feel, it's what I call a disrespectful judgment (another one of my basic concepts). You are assuming that your view of the situation is superior to that of your spouse. You are trying to straighten him out. Disrespectful judgments are one of the six Love Busters because they always make your spouse feel bad when you use them. Whenever you try to impose your way of thinking on your spouse, you will withdraw love units and you won't win the argument. All Love Busters have that characteristic, they don't work and they destroy love. So why do it?

I guarantee you that he also has a perspective on this situation that justifies his behavior. If he were to explain it to you, you would find that he thinks his view is superior to yours. If after you tell him that he is a lazy good-for-nothing, he would tell you that you are a nagging, unappreciative so-and-so (actually nobody calls anybody a "so-in-so"). Then where would you be? Nothing would be gained and you would just hate each other a little more.

My solution to your problem does not cause a fight, it causes love. Pay close attention to what I suggest next. Last week, I presented you with the following step:

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

I feel that some people were misled by the wording of this step last week. So to make the procedure I recommend a little clearer, I have revised it to read:

Revised Step 4: Negotiate an agreement to help each other with your household and child care responsibilities.

Step 3 has left you both with a list of household and child care responsibilities. Some of them you don't mind doing, and others are unpleasant for you. But the unpleasant responsibilities are assigned to the one who wants them done the most.

If we were to leave it at that, I believe it would be a fair division of labor. But we can go one step further, and that step will improve your compatibility and increase your love for each other.

There are many items on your list that your husband would help you accomplish, if they were presented to him in the right way. I'm sure you have tried demands with him, and you already know they don't work very well. You may also have tried to ask him nicely to help, and you've probably found that it doesn't work either. That's because asking nicely can actually be a demand in disguise, unless you are willing to accept "no" for an answer.

Your problem is that you do not know how to negotiate with your husband, because if you did, he'd be helping you a lot more than he does. He would like to be your partner in life, and he would like to help you with the struggles you have. But you should present them to him in ways that will not require him to suffer along with you.

There are many ways to get things done, and you may not have considered ways that take your husband's feelings into account. You and your spouse should discuss with each other how these burdensome responsibilities can be accomplished in ways that are not so burdensome. If you discuss them with him, he may be willing to help you do a part, or maybe all of one, if they are done in ways that wouldn't bother him.

I've described the basic steps to successful negotiation in past Q&A columns, but it won't hurt to review them again:

1. Set ground rules to make negotiations pleasant and safe.

Before you start to negotiate, agree with each other that you will both follow these rules: (a) be pleasant and cheerful throughout your discussion of the issue, (b) put safety first--do not threaten to cause pain or suffering when you negotiate, even if your spouse makes threatening remarks or if the negotiations fail, and (c) if you reach an impasse, stop for a while and come back to the issue later.

Under no conditions should you be disrespectful or judgmental of your spouse's opinions or desires. Your negotiations should accept and respect your differences. Otherwise, you will fail to make them pleasant and safe.

2. Identify the problem from the perspectives of both you and your spouse.

Be able to state each other's position on a conflict before you go on to find a solution. In the case of negotiating for help with household and child care responsibilities, state what you would like to have done, and what form you would like his help to take. Your husband should then explain his reasons for having not helped in the past. Be sure you don't argue with him, just get to know how he feels.

3. Brainstorm solutions with abandon.

Spend some time thinking of all sorts of ways to handle the problem, and don't correct each other when you hear of a plan that you don't like -- you'll have a chance to do that later. If you give your intelligence a chance to flex its muscle, you will have a long list of solutions.

4. Choose the solution that is appealing to both of you.

From your list of solutions, some will satisfy only one of you but not both. However, scattered within the list will be solutions that both of you would find attractive. Among those solutions that are mutually satisfactory, select the one that you both like the most.

Remember, every time you try to force your husband to do something unpleasant, you are chipping away at his love for you. Not only is it a thoughtless way to accomplish your objectives, but it also won't get the job done. Sooner or later he will figure out a way of escaping you and your demands. A far better way to accomplish the same objectives is to find a way that takes his feelings into account. That will build your love for each other.

The method I am suggesting will stand up to the test of time. It will make neither of you slaves or masters. And you won't feel alone or abandoned in your effort to achieve your important objectives. Your husband will become a willing helper who loves and cares for you.

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