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Sharing Home and Life Responsibilities With Your Partner

How to ask for help, and how to ask what is needed.

Key points

  • Division of labor is one of the top subjects that couples argue about.
  • Sharing responsibility extends past the concrete, tangible tasks of laundry, dishes, and lunches.
  • Sharing responsibility is anything that requires some sort of mental load.
Source: Simon Kadula/Pixabay
Source: Simon Kadula/Pixabay

Sex, money, and children are the top three topics that couples fight about. Not far down this list is the topic of today’s article—division of labor.

When it comes down to it, living with another person is no walk in the park. You both create messes, you both have different standards for cleanliness, and you both have different schedules and expectations for how a house is run. That’s just with two—add kids to the mix and you’ve got a party.

What’s a Couple to Do?

So how do you cope when there is the beast of a burden that is a house to be run, and it’s unclear who does what?

One approach that I hear at times is, “Well, let’s just split it down the middle.”

This is a nice and neat idea, but it isn’t the whole enchilada. What happens when your spouse’s half of the list isn’t done? What happens when you must deign to do some of their tasks? What if you must do their tasks twice in a week?

Bottom line, the attempt to make it simple with a 50/50 mentality without any contingency on how to discuss the inevitably of a moving life will likely set up a you-vs.-me environment in which resentment can breed.

What’s Fair?

But what does that mean? Does one person have to take on more of the load? That doesn’t seem fair, and usually it’s this situation that prompts the need for these discussions and/or arguments in the first place.

My point is that there can and should be an equal division of labor, but it needs to be done with flexibility, and it needs to come with a way to discuss when things are working and when they aren’t, and when to ask for help.

Clarification Makes for Better Communication

Clarifying what constitutes labor for each partner is the first step. For some families, the task of keeping a mental list of all the bills that need to be done is a burden that one partner might carry. This is an invisible task and one that, while not obvious, takes up mental space and should be considered. Likewise, if one member of the family is making most of the family income, this is a stressor that creates its own mental load, and space should be held for this as well.

Sharing responsibility extends past the concrete tangible tasks of laundry, dishes, and lunches. It is anything that requires some sort of mental load.

If you and your partner haven’t yet, I encourage having a conversation about mental load. Take an inventory. What responsibilities (invisible or not) do you each carry? Which ones are heavier for you, and which ones cause the most stress? Is there an equal division of labor, or is there an imbalance in which one person is carrying much of the weight?

Discuss Biases and Assumptions

When you discover an imbalance, don’t be shy—discuss it. Why have things shaken out this way? What are the biases and assumptions held by both that led to the unequal division of labor?

Does one partner believe the other to be incompetent? Does one partner believe the other “just likes doing the shopping”? Are there biased assumptions about “free time” if one person works fewer hours at a workplace but carries more of the childcare tasks?

Be a Team

Having this conversation is not easy, and there aren’t really steps to make it easier. What I recommend is to have a team mentality while discussing the challenges. You are looking for a solution for the family, not looking to point fingers at who got them there in the first place.

Additionally, and I say this often—believe the best in your partner. Even when we are hurt by the things our partners say and do—if we are in a healthy relationship, there is usually not malicious intent. The actions we take are the culmination of history, upbringing, fears, assumptions, and habits. All of these (barring upbringing, which can be processed/healed) can be adjusted.

Speak through the cracks and know that there is growth when hearts and feelings are shared.

Case Study

A couple I worked with just went through this. The wife, a type-A, anxious, achievement-oriented woman tended to carry most of the mental load for the family. The cooking, cleaning, and bills fell on her shoulders, along with working a full-time job running her own business. To be fair, her personality allowed this to happen naturally, and she took on the tasks willingly and didn’t complain.

Her husband, a manager at a very demanding job had a personality that didn’t need achievement to feel fulfilled, and his less-anxious personality allowed him to let things go for longer with a “things will work out” mentality. The perfect storm was that, coupled with the wife’s anxious personality, the things got worked out because she worked them out. The wife had brought up a time or two that she wanted help, and the husband would be receptive and respond for a few weeks, but old patterns returned (sound familiar?). The wife wouldn’t say anything because, after all, she could handle it, and the husband, after all, saw that she could handle it.

What’s a couple to do? Is it the wife’s responsibility to ask again or the husband’s responsibility to wise up? Well—both. If we truly inhabit a team mentality, we can’t pin the job of behavior change just on one person. If someone is seeing an issue, whether they’ve brought it up a million times or not, they have a responsibility to say something, to communicate.

Here, the husband said something. He said he wanted to help more and instead of the wife berating him and saying “fat chance it will stick,” she heard him out, and they developed a plan to better help the husband see what needed to be changed, to share what needed to be shared.

This couple isn’t perfect, and their plan will need adjustments, but if this is you, don’t let perfection be the enemy of good, and give it a try.

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