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Is the Division of Labor Fair in Your Marriage? Here’s How to Figure It Out


Feb. 16, 2020 Fatherly

One area that’s especially important to look at is household labor. An unfair division of labor needs to be kept in check.

Figuring out who does what is a challenge, especially in dual-income households, and particularly during quarantine. But it’s crucial to understand. While men in heterosexual relationships tend to do more household work than previous generations, women still shoulder an unequal burden. And, if trends continue, it will take quite a long time for couples to reach any semblance of parity. 

The imbalance of shared housework is a common source of contention in marriage, and it often boils down to couples not setting expectations about it. Whether they realize it or not, men and women bring with them preconceived notions about how a household should function, ideas that have been formed from what they witnessed in their own homes growing up. The idea of emotional labor — more properly called the  mental load — otherwise known as the invisible work that needs to be done to keep a household in order, is also at play.

Experts agree — and studies prove — that having conversations about how, exactly, you plan on splitting work and child care early and often is crucial for achieving happiness. This doesn’t mean that every couple needs to have a true 50-50 split (this is, frankly, impossible to achieve). It does mean, however, that couples need to come to an agreement about what will work for them and have a regular dialogue to keep that agreement in check. If you don’t have these conversations, resentment and frustration is often the reward. 

So what do these conversations about splitting household and child care work look like? Here are the steps couples need to take.

1. Figure Out What You Already Do

When we aren’t conscious of who’s doing what, we can overestimate our contribution to domestic order. Studies show that men in heterosexual relationships are guilty of this. Regardless, San Francisco-based therapist says Andrea Dindinger couples need to start the household labor dialogue by tabulating who’s performing what tasks. “Make a list of what they feel they do to contribute to the family,” she says. “For example, one parent may book summer camps, plan birthday parties and family vacations, take and pick-up the kids from school, while the other person may do the dishes, laundry, walk the dog, and earn 75 percent of the family’s income.” It may not be an easy assignment, but doing this will lay it all out on the table and show where any discrepancies lie.

2. Begin the Conversation 

Problems arise when couples don’t talk about housework but still have expectations about how the house should work. Leaving those assumptions unsaid leads to problems. Houston psychotherapist Nicholas Hardy says couples should aim to start talking before problems occur. “This conversation is best had when it occurs proactively instead of reactively,” Hardy says. “Addressing household chores on the front end, allows couples to have healthy dialogue on likes/dislikes, without feeling attacked or feeling as though they have to defend themselves.”

Sarah Rattray, couples psychologist, and founder of the Couples Communication Institute  say spouses should ease into negotiations. “Start the conversation by gently requesting a conversation about domestic tasks,” Rattray says. “Let your partner know you want to find a good time to talk when you can give the conversation your full attention.”

3. Lay Out Expectations

Toronto family mediator and owner of Aligned Choices Mediation Richard Brydson says couples should start by listening and working to understand how each person sees the current household tasks situation and how they want it to change. “Discuss not only what needs to be done in the house, but also each person’s values and beliefs about the tasks and the division of tasks.” 

Brydson recommends that each spouse make two lists before they talk. “On one side of the dividing line they list the tasks they find easy and want to contribute to freely,” he says. “On the other side they list the tasks that they find themselves being forgetful about.”

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