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Unequal Division of Labor Can Be Detrimental to Relationships

Communicating differently with your partner may help.

Key points

  • An unequal distribution of household labor may negatively impact relationships.
  • Having open, kind, and frequent conversations about the distribution of household labor may help.
  • Strategies such as empathy and "I" statements may improve communication.
Nature Backgrounds/StockSnap
Source: Nature Backgrounds/StockSnap

I recently stumbled upon a documentary entitled Fair Play, which according to the website was inspired by a book with the same title written by Eve Rodsky.1

In the documentary, data is shared on how domestic work has been devalued in the United States and is expected to be something that parents (often women) manage either at exorbitant monetary costs or through career sacrifices. It highlights how we need societal changes around the expectations of which partner should bear the majority of the domestic responsibilities, and how national systems should support all parents, with programs for maternity/paternity leave and universal child care.

The documentary also encourages partners to focus on what they can impact more directly, their communication. When tensions run high, communication between partners can devolve.

Throughout his career, psychiatrist Dr. David Burns has shared strategies to improve relationships. In his 2009 book, Feeling Good Together: The Secret to Making Troubled Relationships Work,2he writes about the five secrets of effective communication. These include:

  • The disarming technique.
  • Thought and feeling empathy.
  • Inquiry.
  • “I feel” statements.
  • Stroking (more recently called affirmation).

Let's apply these strategies through an example: Partner says, “You are lazy and never help me around the house.”

In using such strategies while in an argument with a loved one, you could disarm them by finding truth in what they are saying. If your partner calls you “lazy,” you might disarm them by agreeing with the statement. You could say, “I am lazy at times, as I don’t always complete tasks right away.” Of note, you are not agreeing with the label that you are lazy, but with the truth that you are human and can own when you’ve been lazy at times in the past.

You can empathize with your partner around how frustrated they must feel. You could say, “You aren’t getting the help you need around the house.” and “It sounds frustrating.” Inquiry could include, you asking them to share more of their thoughts and feelings about the situation, “Can you tell me more?” and “How could we make this better?”

As much as possible avoid placing blame on your partner or responding with attacks. Speak from your own perspective by using an “I feel” statement. You may say, “I feel upset and sad.” Also, make efforts to speak kindly and affirm your partner, with statements such as, “I know how much you take care of at home and I appreciate how hard you work.”

You and your partner may have fallen into patterns that are resulting in a buildup of resentment in your relationship. First, it’s important to recognize unhelpful patterns, and second, to talk about them in a loving and productive way. In the Fair Play documentary, they recommend checking in 10 minutes each day to discuss how your loved one is doing and to come up with a plan for managing the upcoming tasks as a team.

Through the documentary website, you can find some questions that may help you start such conversations.

A few of the questions are as follows:

  • "Is there a certain point in the day, or during the week, when it feels especially hard to juggle all the moving parts in the home? What do you most need at that point from your partner and for yourself?"
  • "What’s one task that you could hand off to your partner, outsource, or take off your plate completely, that would ease your sense of overwhelm and burnout at home?"

Talk with your partner to plan your first check-in conversation. As you do so, consider the communication strategies and questions above. Practicing the strategies together may help you support each other as you learn new communication styles.

Of note: Dr. Radico has no association with any of the entities discussed in this post.


1. Rodsky, E. (2019). Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live. G.P. Putnams’ Sons, New York, NY.

2. Burns, D.D. (2009). Feeling Good Together: The Secret to Making Troubled Relationships Work. Vermilion.

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