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“How do I get you to do what I want you to do?”

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

Part 1: The politics of housework


If you work in an office—even if that office is located in Zoom-land these days—who gets to do what and who gets stuck with doing what is mostly politics. There’s the bloody battle for who gets to be lead on the new project. There may be an equally bloody battle for who doesn’t have to handle that huge but demeaning research job.

Well, as you already know, or feel, housework is a hotbed of power politics. Mostly, the struggle upward away from the jobs no one wants to do. And remind me, please: what are the jobs everyone does want to do? Oh, right! There are still the “I love to cook!” folks out there. But even so! Night after night? After a day of work? Not so much.

Now whether you know it or not, we all owe a debt to Pat Mainardi. Hop in your Wayback Machine...

...all the way back to 1970 when Mainardi published her terrific and super-influential article “The Politics of Housework.” It was a masterpiece of fine-grained analysis of how the power struggle goes on in relationships over housework. For example, there’s her account from that article about what happens as she tries to get her husband to do his share:

Here are some of the high points: “I don’t mind sharing the housework, but I don’t do it very well. We should each do the things we’re best at.” MEANING: Unfortunately I’m no good at things like washing dishes or cooking. What I do best is a little light carpentry, changing light bulbs, moving furniture (how often do you move furniture?). ALSO MEANING: Historically the lower classes (black men and us) have had hundreds of years of experience doing menial jobs. It would be a waste of manpower to train someone else to do them now. ALSO MEANING: I don’t like the dull, stupid, boring jobs, so you should do them.
“I don’t mind sharing the work, but you’ll have to show me how to do it.” MEANING: I ask a lot of questions and you’ll have to show me everything every time I do it because I don’t remember so good. Also don’t try to sit down and read while I’M doing my jobs because I’m going to annoy the hell out of you until it’s easier to do them yourself.”
“We used to be so happy!” (Said whenever it was his turn to do something.) MEANING: I used to be so happy. MEANING: Life without housework is bliss. No quarrel here. Perfect agreement.
“We have different standards, and why should I have to work to your standards? That’s unfair.” MEANING: If I begin to get bugged by the dirt and crap I will say, “This place sure is a pigsty” or “How can anyone live like this?” and wait for your reaction. I know that all women have a sore called “Guilt over a messy house” or “Household work is ultimately my responsibility.” I know that men have caused that sore-if anyone visits and the place is a pigsty–-they’re not going to leave and say, “He sure is a lousy housekeeper.” You’ll take the rap in any case. I can outwait you. ALSO MEANING: I can provoke innumerable scenes over the housework issue. Eventually doing all the housework yourself will be less painful to you than trying to get me to do half. Or I’ll suggest we get a maid. She will do my share of the work. You will do yours. It’s women’s work.
“I’ve got nothing against sharing the housework, but you can’t make me do it on your schedule.” MEANING: Passive resistance. I’ll do it when I damned well please, if at all. If my job is doing dishes, it’s easier to do them once a week. If taking out laundry, once a month. If washing the floors, once a year. If you don’t like it, do it yourself oftener, and then I won’t do it at all.

“I hate it more than you. You don’t mind it so much.” MEANING: Housework is garbage work. It’s the worst crap I’ve ever done. It’s degrading and humiliating for someone of my intelligence to do it. But for someone of your intelligence….

“Housework is too trivial to even talk about.” MEANING: It’s even more trivial to do. Housework is beneath my status. My purpose in life is to deal with matters of significance. Yours is to deal with matters of insignificance. You should do the housework.

As we would put it in Why Couples Fight, her husband makes power move after power move. You may well have been on the receiving end of comments like his and felt put down (“Housework is too trivial to even talk about.”). Or gaslighted (“We used to be so happy!” That is, you’re the one spoiling our marital bliss by this talk of sharing the housework.”). Or mind-fucked (“We have different standards, and why should I have to work to your standards?”).

Now Mainardi was writing in the context of the Women’s Movement of the nineteen seventies. So her discussion of this was completely about gender. Today? It’s still mostly about gender. I do know of male/female couples where the roles in this battle are flipped. And while there have always been same-gender couples, these couples are now largely open and often married. They—I know well—have the same power struggles over housework, but at least they’re not gendered, which usually makes them less of a hurdle.

What are the gender issues, really? Well, everyone’s answer depends on what’s in their political self-interest! So let me try this, as a huge oversimplification:

  • What guys think about it: “I know it’s fair to share. But she makes such a big deal about all kinds of little details. I can’t possibly be into it the way she is.”

  • What she sees: “Guys are like ‘I’m a big swinging dick, and guys run the world, so why should we have to do this housework crap if we don’t want to?’”

  • What women think about it: “The house being clean, making good food for everybody and doing it on time, taking care of the clothes, keeping things neat, stuff like that: it IS important. The look of the house is the feel of the home is a big sign of how my life is going.”

  • What he sees: “Women are like, ‘This is my turf. I’m in charge here. You will do what I want, the way I want it, when I want it. I may want you to ‘take responsibility’ but I set the standards.’”

Now reading this we mostly know which side we’re on. But if you can step back and look at the power dynamics of this objectively, you see how the stage is set for endless warfare.

And it’s warfare with an intense emotional charge. That’s because the guy (or the person in the “guy” role) is saying that fundamentally what’s important to you isn’t important to me, and in fact isn’t important period, and in fact is silly, and in fact YOU’RE silly and unimportant.

Let’s face it: nothing is more hurtful than to be told that what’s important to you is stupid. Except one thing is more hurtful, and that’s to be told that what’s important to you is stupid, but nonetheless it benefits me and I’m going to make you do it.

On the flip side, the person in the “guy” role feels he’s being bullied into doing something stupid when he’s exhausted.

It’s a miracle couples don’t all end up killing each other!

We’re not done with this topic. Solutions next time. But if we don’t understand it from both people’s points of view, and if we don’t understand the power dynamics inside this struggle, we’ll never get anywhere. So today we’ve made a good beginning.


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