If the walls could speak in any couple’s therapist’s office, they’d tell you that they’re sick of hearing about dirty dishes and laundry. One of the most common arguments couples have revolves around household chores. Problems range from how tasks are done to when they’re done and in what order to why they’re not being done right to hey, who’s definition of right are we using here? Dividing household chores is often a hot button issue.
Of course, the big overarching question when it comes to dividing household chores is who handles what and why? This question needs to be asked (and asked and asked again), as it brings into account everything from general relationship expectations to gender roles. While progress is being made, the weight of chores still often falls to the woman in same-sex marriages. According to a 2023 Pew Research Report, even though women’s financial contributions have increased, they’re still doing a greater amount of housework and childcare than their male partners in opposite-sex relationships. For instance, in couples where both partners work and contribute roughly half of combined earnings, women were doing more than double the amount of housework.
The answer to the who does what of it all regarding household chores is complicated but relies on regular communication. Couples must discuss what chores need to be done, work out a system they agree on, and regularly fine-tune that approach to adapt to changes and generally see if it’s working for everyone. Without such a system, couples will fall back on expectations and assumptions and that’s dangerous territory for everyone involved.
Even when the right approach is taken, there are plenty of chore-splitting mistakes to contend with. Here, according to a variety of experts, are some of the more common errors to understand and avoid.
1. Not Looking At The Big Picture
An imbalance in household labor may stem from viewing the task itself and not the big picture. A single task, such as grocery shopping, involves far more than going to the store. It involves meal planning, taking inventory, going to the store, and so on. The effort that task required might not be viewed as that big a deal because of an unawareness of the many smaller tasks it requires. But understanding the invisible work a task requires is crucial on the long run.
“If the adults in the household are not able to see the enormity of the work of the household — the physical part, the mental load, and the emotional labor — anger and resentment will seep into the relationship because the chances are good that one person is doing the bulk of the work,” says Dr. Regina Lark, a professional organizer, speaker, and the author of Emotional Labor: Why a Woman’s Work is Never Done and What to Do About It.
To address this problem, couples should, if need be, break down tasks into smaller parts and also examine all of the so-called invisible tasks that go along with one job. “It’s not only about making a grocery list,” says Lark, “it’s noticing what’s missing from the pantry and refrigerator. That’s the invisible part, the noticing.”
2. Delegating The Wrong Way
In many households, dividing up chores tends to fall along gender lines. Women may do the tasks related to inside the home while men may take on the jobs outside the home. If you’ve discussed this system and it works well for you, well, that’s fine. But if this is the default just because, well, that’s where problems begin. And this outdated approach often places an unfair amount of work on the woman’s shoulders. (Interestingly, a study by the American Psychological Association showed that same sex couples divide chores more equally). It’s important to find what works for you instead of relying on previous systems. “Instead of traditional ways of delegating, couples can embrace the art and practice of ‘radical delegation,’ says Lark, “which means delegating to get the job done, regardless of who’s better at it.”
3. Not Discussing Expectations…
Everyone was raised differently and brings certain expectations or ingrained habits into a relationship. For example, one person may have grown up in a household where they let the dishes soak overnight and washed them in the morning. The other person, meanwhile, was raised to always clear and wash all the dishes at night. Without a discussion, this can create major disharmony if someone comes downstairs every morning to a sink full of dirty dishes. “Some couples assume that they know what their partner expects or prefers when it comes to chores without actually having a conversation about it,” says Dr. Ketan Parmar, a psychiatrist and mental health expert at ClinicSpots. “Have a clear and honest discussion about what each partner expects and prefers when it comes to chores.”
4. …And Setting Unrealistic Expectations
To reiterate, expectations are dangerous. Very dangerous. And if you maintain them based on what your household was like as a kid, it can create a lot of turbulence. For instance, one person may have grown up in a house that was immaculate and spotless, and therefore expect that their current house should look the same. On the other hand, their partner may have grown up in a looser, more relaxed environment and may bring that relaxed approach. Both of these can create tension and undue pressure or stress, especially when they aren’t examined or brought up. The solution, in addition to having open conversations about expectations, Parmar says, “is to be realistic and reasonable when it comes to chores and to accept that perfection is not possible or necessary.”
5. Forgetting To Be Flexible
When couples get married, there may be an agreement as to what chores fall to what person. They may decide to divide up the chores in a way that works best for their current situation but not leave room for any flexibility or renegotiation. This is dangerous. Change happens constantly and couples must have one another’s back when schedules get in the way or routines change. Flexibility is absolutely necessary. “The solution is to regularly review and renegotiate the agreement, and to be flexible and adaptable to changing situations.”
6. Not Showing Appreciation
While everyone understands that the chores have to be done in order to keep the household running, it’s nice for the other person to express appreciation. To say “Hey, thanks for taking that on.” If it’s just expected that your partner goes grocery shopping every week with no thanks, problems can arise. “This can make the partner feel unvalued, unappreciated, and resentful,” says Parmar. Take whatever moments you can to express thanks and gratitude for what your partner does. After all, you’re both in this together.