"She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink" is the title of a 2016 blog post by Matthew Fray about the ending of his marriage in divorce in 2013. Fray described how every time his wife walked into the kitchen, she found his drinking glass by the sink—inches from the dishwasher. He realized, too late, that he left almost all of the household chores and child-care to his wife.
Most divorces in the U.S. are initiated by wives. Women’s predominance in wanting a divorce (among couples who divorce) seems to have been consistent over time, according to Michael J. Rosenfeld of Stanford University who conducted a recent longitudinal study of relationships in the U.S. about “How Couples Meet and Stay Together.”
Household Chores: A Big Thing or Little Thing?
For women, it's a big thing.
Here's the data from recent polls:
- Working women spend about an hour more a day on both housework and child-care than men.
- Working women spend about as much time in activities with their children as stay-at-home mothers in the 1970s.
- The “housework gap” stopped narrowing in the 1980s.
- The additional time women spend on domestic labor, particularly child-care, is a leading cause of the gender gap in pay and promotions at work.
During the days sheltering at home with his family during the coronavirus outbreak, Mr. K. entertained himself by taking his drone for a spin around the house, revealing the household clutter. Ms. K., a nursing student, was not amused. She created a meticulous spreadsheet revealing her 210 tasks to his 21.
For men, it's a little thing.
Here is how Fray describes his approach:
I passively left her to manage housework, our schedules and the logistics of caring for our son…I call it accidental sexism...Of course, I’m disgusted by inequality, I’m not sexist!
Fray knows from his work with men that the “average Joe” is not going to read “The Five Love Languages.” Husbands respond in one or all three of the following ways when faced with the inequities in housework and childcare.
- Dispute the facts of the situation highlighted by their wives.
- Agree with the facts, but believe their partner is overreacting.
- Defend the actions (or lack thereof) by explaining why they did it.
The Sexiest Thing a Man Can Say to His Partner: “I've Got This.”
Fray says he acts as a kind of translator to the men he counsels about avoiding divorce. He tells guys to check their calendars—it’s not 1960 anymore. “Step up and Show Up” is how he talks about noticing what is going on in your house. A couple of his tidbits:
- It should not come as a shock that dinner needs to be prepared every night.
- Figure out how you can pitch in without being asked.
Are Men Acting Entitled?
There's an easy but unsatisfying explanation for the continuing difference in domestic responsibility taken by men and women. There are four things that seem to be going on: it’s learned early, you must notice what is going on, there's a psychological component, and it requires sharing power.
It’s Learned Early
Writer Tiffany Dufu had what she called “home control disease” This is “…the insidious, internalized sexism of the woman who’s been raised to see an impeccable home as a sign of her worth.” Men just don’t get “home control disease” because they don’t attach a clean house to their value. A man who values domestic cleanliness is just a clean man.
Noticing What’s Going On
Being more aware of how you contribute to the gender difference in domestic responsibilities means you must engage in self-reflection—not an easy thing to do. It involves a conscious consideration of your beliefs and actions to learn a new way of organizing your relationship. Reflection gives your brain the time to sort through your experience and create new ways of living together with equality and fairness.
There's a Psychological Component
Studies have shown that in households where the woman is the main breadwinner, the more she earns, the less her partner will do in housework apparently to not been seen as even less masculine. The woman in this situation may scale back her career ambitions to compensate for the extra housework and childcare she does and to care for her husband’s ego. This situation is reinforced by the special credit men get for the chores they do do.
It Requires Sharing Power and Authority
Power-sharing means sharing parenting and child-care, sharing household tasks and responsibilities, sharing decision-making, and being committed equal career and employment status—this is a big deal, particularly for men.
Like Fray says, “It’s not 1960 anymore.” His warning is important because many men seem unwilling to let go of traditional gender roles despite the influx of women, their wives, in the workforce.
Tips on How to Even Up Housework and Child Care
Get Rid of “His and Her” Standards
Despite what we have been told, there is no standard definition of what has to be done in a household nor how it should be done. What is a clean bathtub? What constitutes doing the laundry? Do you have to do the dishes immediately after dinner?
Before you start making a list, share your implicit ideas about who should do what. Talk about the way you were brought up—who did what and why.
Keep a List
It is a good idea to start with a list or spreadsheet of the chores that go into running a household and caring for your children. If you are going to set new standards about the way this is done, you will need to start with a “clean” sheet—it allows you to visualize and take mutual ownership of unpaid work at home. Writer Tiffany Dufu (“home control disease”) and her husband made a spreadsheet of tasks with columns for “his“ and “hers”—and one for “no one.”
For working couples it is a good idea to do less and care less about tidiness and neatness: don’t make the beds, don’t repaint the ceiling, etc. Outsource what you can as a way of cutting down on housework.
Gatekeeping Wives and Clueless Husbands
Gate keeping is when your wife might limit your involvement in housekeeping or child care duties because you’ll “do it wrong,” or “I’ll do it because it’s really quick and easy for me,” or “I do it the way I like it to be done.” The clueless husband is “the man who is lost in the domestic space without a woman”—an image of men that is normalized in the media.
You Will Have to Negotiate
To make this all work out, you will want to learn how to negotiate. The negotiation that takes place in marriage is not the kind that one sees in business, where each party is trying to maximize his or her own gain at the expense of the other. Nor is it a quid pro quo (tit for tat, you do this for me, and I will do that for you) kind of negotiation. Take the time to learn how to negotiate in marriage.
Advice About Being Married
Kudos to Matthew Fray* for figuring out his part in why his wife initiated a divorce. As he said, he passively let his wife take on the management of their home and children because of what he calls “accidental sexism.” It is no accident that Fray says, “It’s not 1960 anymore.”
- Being an “accidental sexist” doesn’t work for 21st-century marriages.
- While husbands today are likely to support their wives working, they continue to avoid equally sharing the management of the household.
- To fix this inequality, husbands must pay attention to what is going on and women must avoid the “home control disease.”
- Evening up the chores requires you to establish your own standards of cleanliness, start with a list to challenge old assumptions about who does what, care less about tidiness and neatness, and negotiate everything.
*Fray is a pen name used to protect the identity of his wife and young son.