Updated: Mar 11, 2021
Part 2: Balancing things out
Things happen when women want them to. The history of the world is the history of women’s courage. Things are still not equal when it comes to men sharing in the housework, but they’ve gotten a lot better, and we have everything we need for them to get better still.
We had a revolution in our country, a real one, that almost no one knows about. Between 1965 and 1985, as American jobs were being exported overseas and as the whole nature of work in America was shifting towards more highly skilled labor, women began entering the labor force in huge numbers. Two-income families became the norm.
That was part of the revolution. The other part was almost more striking.
From 1965 to 1985, the ratio of the time women spent on housework to the time men spent on housework went from 6.1 to 2.
Imagine a family with the parents being John and Mary Household.
In 1965, Mary spends more than six times the hours on housework than John does. If John does 4 hours of housework a week, Mary does 24 hours of housework, and boy is she pissed!
In 1985, things have changed a lot. Now John is spending 8 hours a week on housework. Double what it was before. And Mary is spending 16 hours a week, 2/3 of what it had been.
So was everybody happy?
NO! John, who was working outside the house before, is doing so now, but his housework has doubled. Mary, who is now working outside the house much more than before, is finding her housework cut only by 2/3, still twice what her hubby’s doing.
In more recent years the ratio has very slowly gotten very slightly better, reaching a peak at 1.6. Better, but still unequal. And for many women, unequal enough to be bothersome, but not enough to threaten divorce over.
So what do you do, now, today, if you’re in Mary Household’s place and you feel the whole who-does-what situation is unfair?
First, document. Spend a week or two keeping a record of who does what and how long it takes. Include everything. Inside and outside jobs. Putting the kids to bed and putting up shelves. Finding recipes and washing dishes. Shopping for food and for clothes for the kids. Driving kids places. ALL the work of keeping a household and family going.
Second, get clear in your mind what fairness would look like. This is complicated, emotional, and subjective. Lots of things have to be taken into account. What if one of you works two hours a day more than the other, but does housework the minute they come home? What if one of you is known to like doing one of the chores, like cooking? Really think it through.
Why? Because you’re going to be having a discussion to solve a problem. It’s not a you’re-a-jerk problem—that won’t go anywhere. It’s not even really a fairness problem—fairness is subjective. It’s a resentment problem. It’s a problem that’s “solved” when you’ve sorted out the things that have to get done and then allotted the chores in such a way as to minimize resentment. “I think we’ll resent each other least if we follow through on this plan.” “I agree.” Now that’s a good plan. So...
Third, get together to talk about minimizing resentment. Look, in my family, we’re so lazy we both resent having to do anything. Let’s face it. But we don’t like starving or living with a mess, so someone’s gotta do something. Take dinner, then. For a variety of reasons, my husband would rather cook—if you can call pan sauteeing some scallops cooking dinner—and clean up—because I evidently (clever me) have convinced him that I lack the gene required for being able to load a dishwasher properly. So he cooks and cleans up, and in the morning I unload the dishwasher, a job he seems to dislike. Is that fair? Who knows? Does it minimize resentment? Absolutely.
So you talk about that. Based on your documentation of who has been doing what and how long it takes. Of course, your partner will disagree with some of your observations. Please: don’t even begin to try to agree on what’s real. It should be more like, okay, fine, I think it takes you two hours to do something, you think it takes you four hours. It’s in that ballpark. It’s not ten minutes, or seventeen hours.
Then just kick around some solutions. “What if I did x, y, and z, and you did a, b, and c?” “Okay, but how about if I did a, b, and z, and you did x, y, and c?” “Oh, yeah, that’d be fine.”
Just keep coming up with solutions and with each one ask, “If we lived with this, where would we be when it came to resenting one another?” What you’re looking for is what’s called a sub-threshold resentment level. As in, “You know, if we had that plan, I don’t know, I might still resent you a little, but not to the point where it would bother me or where I’d really notice it.” If you can find an arrangement that brings you both to that place, you’re home free.
Fourth, agree to revisit this solution in a month. You want to give it a month to settle in to the real-life level of how it actually works. And to see how you both really feel about it. Then you sit down together again and talk about the friction points. Let me talk about one of the most common friction points.
Let’s say John ends up in charge of doing the floors. It’s heavy work, and...well, that’s what you agreed to. It used to take Mary a long time. But now it turns out John does it in a third the time it used to take Mary. Of course, he does: he just zips through it!
John does it, but Mary cares about it. That’s an eternal friction point. I do the laundry, but you care about how carefully folded everything is. You put the kids to bed, but I care about spending a long time reading them to sleep.
In general, the person who cares about something should be the person who does it. Right? Except that what if the person who cares about how something is done is always the same person. Hey, that’s how I can get out of doing everything!!
There is a good solution, but it’s going to take the person who cares about how things are done to swallow hard. This is what I’d say to that person: “Look, if you care about how everything is done to the level you do, and clearly your partner doesn’t, this is a set up for endless battles. Endless. There’s no great solution to this, but there is a very workable, least-bad solution. You care about everything, but you’re going to have to think about what you care about most. The things you most want done to your standard. Your partner will do the rest. Now the ball’s in your court. If you care too much about too many things, you’ll DO too many things, and this will be a recipe for resentment. Do you want to destroy your relationship with resentment? Instead, focus on the few things that are most important and let the rest go, so you can minimize resentment.”
I’ve seen relationships where one person chooses perfectionism and resentment over love. What can I say? I guess you just have to ask yourself, Is that really me? Is that what I really want?
Why Couples Fight is filled with detailed help for how to get through discussions like the ones I’ve just outlined without difficulty or damage.