Dividing domestic labor and household chores is hard.
If you’re a typical couple who struggles with this problem, one of you may feel like you’re doing more than your fair share, while the other thinks you’re not doing enough.
For example, Sydney and Chloe have negotiated an agreement.
Chloe does most of the housework and picks up their six-year-old daughter Brittany from school. Sydney does the yard work on the weekends.
Chloe ends up with more daily work around the house than Sydney. However, Sydney works longer hours at a more stressful job.
Both agree that their arrangement is fair for their situation. Or, they did until a few months ago.
Division of domestic labor will change over time with most couples.
Chloe asked Sydney to help her chop some vegetables for supper. They ended up in a screaming argument, all over broccoli.
Sydney was furious that Chloe tried to take advantage of him at the end of an exhausting workday, while Chloe couldn’t believe Sydney wouldn’t put off his video game long enough to do her one small favor.
Somehow, their perfect agreement no longer feels fair in real life.
Domestic labor is loaded with symbolism.
To understand why their agreement of dividing domestic labor broke down, they need to look at what really happened that night.
Not surprisingly, their argument wasn’t really about the chores or whether their division of labor was fair.
Here’s really happened under the surface.
Chloe was stressed and frustrated. Everything had gone wrong at work, and then Brittany’s fussiness was up to here… Just up to here!
Overwhelmed and flustered, Chloe forgot to chop the vegetables, so on top of everything else, dinner was going to be late.
The first thing Chloe saw when Sydney got home was his angry expression. That familiar tension rose in her chest. He was in that mood again. She felt alone.
What she wanted more than anything, at that moment, was to feel that Sydney cared for her and that he was there for her. To Chloe, helping with the vegetables would take her anxiety away, and she would feel loved.
She said, “Here, chop these vegetables.”
Sydney, on the other hand, was on a different wavelength.
His day was unusually stressful, even for his job. He was furious with his boss, fed up with his coworkers, and exhausted from his clients. He only wanted to forget the day and unwind.
Sydney desperately needed to rest and recharge his batteries and to know that Chloe cared enough to leave him alone to deal with things.
When Chloe said, “Here, chop these vegetables,” he heard, “I don’t care what you’ve had to put up with today to earn money for this family. I’m going to make you miserable until you do my chores on top of your own.”
Now each of them feels that their system is completely unfair and that the other is doing more work than they are.
It’s never just about “chores.”
For Chloe, chores mean love. She does her chores because she loves her family.
When Sydney does one of her chores for her, she feels that he sees how stressed she is and that he cares enough to take some of the load off of her. When he doesn’t, she feels unloved.
For Sydney, chores mean support. He does his chores because he wants to support the family.
When he comes home to a clean house and supper waiting, he feels that Chloe supports him and appreciates how hard he works. When he comes home and finds her complaining and demanding that he do more, he feels unsupported.
When Chloe and Sydney argue, it sounds like they argue about who should do the housework. But really, beneath their words, they are wondering whether the other one cares about them.
This is why negotiating for a fair division of labor ends up feeling unfair.
Romantic relationships aren’t about fairness — they are about love and caring.
Picture a tense business negotiation around a conference table. Each side demands its own advantage, refusing to give in until, finally, a grudging compromise is reached.
Neither side is happy and they watch each other suspiciously to make sure the other keeps their end of the bargain.
Is this what your romantic relationship looks like? Nobody feels affectionate toward someone who is in it to get the advantage over their partner.
Instead, if you want to feel happy in your relationship, your attitude about dividing the chores needs to be more about giving and loving than about fairness.
Sydney and Chloe learned this lesson. They decided to focus on showing love and support to each other by helping each other out.
They still had the same division of labor agreement in place but with some changes.
For example, Sydney walked in the door after work and kissed Chloe “hello” while she stirred a pot on the stove.
He noticed that Brittany was whining at the kitchen table, so he dealt with her behavior and helped her with the math problem she was supposed to be working on.
Chloe appeared frazzled and asked him to make the vegetables. He prepared the vegetable dish and also put a load of laundry in the washer without being asked.
They had a pleasant meal and enjoyed talking together. Chloe appreciated the fact that Sydney sacrificed his resting time for her and she felt loved.
After dinner, she actually suggested that Sydney go play his video game. Sydney felt her affection and he felt supported. Later that evening, he felt more rested than he had in a long time.
This example is not a fair situation, especially for Sydney. Chloe did not reciprocate that evening. But, she is much more amenable to allowing him time for his video games and for helping him out on the weekends.
The result is a happier, more peaceful family.
Divide the chores, then show your partner that you care.
One reason that labor division seldom feels fair is that the needs for connection and feeling loved go unmet.
Even if the two of you have divided up the chores perfectly, you’re going to be unhappy if you need help, love, or support at the moment and your partner isn’t there.
So, start by negotiating how you will divide the labor. Make it fair and do your share. But, go the extra mile to take some of that burden off of your partner.
If both of you are in it to care about the other, you may each think you’re doing a little more than your share.
You will be investing in a caring relationship and that will feel much better in the long run.
Frances Patton, LMFT, is a Marriage and Family Therapist who loves to help couples improve their sense of emotional intimacy. For more information, visit her website.