4 Reasons We Fight Over Chores

Conflict about household responsibilities is often about so much more.

Posted Oct 17, 2019

mohamed_hassan/Pixabay
Source: mohamed_hassan/Pixabay

Written by Laura D. Miller, LCSW

Household chores often become the territory on which couples do battle about a whole range of issues, many of which really have little to do with who should take out the trash or do the laundry. The distress with which my patients so often tell me about frustrations with their partner’s disappointing contribution to and/or execution of domestic tasks suggests that something else is going on. The intensity of emotion often seems disproportionate to the situation and can be all the more upsetting because this aspect is so confusing!

So, what’s really going on?

1. Past experiences of neglect and betrayal

Many couples see a partner’s lack of attention to household tasks as a reflection of how much the partner is keeping them in mind. Mess in the house, such as unwashed dishes, can come to symbolize mental absence on the part of the mess-maker—how can this person care about me if they leave me to clean everything up by myself?

This can bring up experiences from childhood in which the person felt neglected in some way by a parent; they then feel abandoned—at least partially—by their partner.

2. Representations of social inequality

Welcome to "The Patriarchy"! Right here in your very own home. It can be hard for couples to acknowledge the impact that patriarchal systems and other power structures (for example, racial inequality) have on their home life.

For example, in the home of a female patient married to a male partner she considers a feminist, childcare is referred to as “watching the kids” for him—that is, it is an activity outside of his typical routine. Caring for their children is routine for her, reflecting the way women are often expected to be silently self-sacrificing caregivers in a patriarchal society.

Additionally, people with histories of feeling dominated or exploited as a consequence of gender, sexuality, skin color, disability, body shape/size, etc., may be especially sensitive to asymmetry in household responsibilities. 

3. Efforts to gain power and control

The battle over the division of household chores can be brutal! Partners often feel that the other person is trying to control them by nagging or by not doing their part. Each person quickly goes to their corner: He never puts away his clothes! She never stops telling me how to clean the house! Both people feel hurt, criticized, and powerless.

It can start to feel as though your partner doesn’t care much about your happiness, but merely wants to win. Keep in mind that efforts to gain power and control are often connected to experiences of neglect and betrayal.

4. Emotional issues are expressed through the home environment

While not cleaning up may look like laziness, it might be the fatigue that accompanies depression, as well as the hopelessness—everything feels futile, so why expend the energy to care for one’s space?

The home is often an expression of our inner world: A patient of mine finds that when he is depressed, he stops showering and doing laundry, which then reinforces feelings of self-loathing. And anxiety can also find expression in the home—obsession with neatness and cleanliness can be a response to the overwhelming worry that’s managed through organization and control.

What should we do?

It’s pretty simple. Though “simple” does not mean easy.

When you and your partner find yourself embroiled in conflict about household tasks, the most important thing is to recognize that the issue often goes beyond that which is immediately obvious.

Ask yourself and your partner if any of the reasons listed above might be making their way into your conflict—examining what appears “petty” from these different vantage points can allow for greater compassion and an increased likelihood of actually improving the situation.

Laura D. Miller, LCSW, is a psychoanalyst affiliated with the William Alanson White Institute. She has a special interest in work with the immigrant population and has published on the topics of immigration and parental infidelity. She is in private practice in Manhattan and teaches psychotherapy at Columbia University School of Social Work.