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Household chores might seem insignificant, but they can potentially cause a lot of trouble in your relationship. Believe it or not, chores — along with matters of money and intimacy — are one of the things couples argue about most, according to statistics. "Research suggests that as more couples both work outside the home, there is a greater need for chores to be divided equitably to avoid negative consequences, marital tension, and unhappiness," says Dr. Christine Weber, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist with a private practice in Seaford, NY. "For each partner, unequal distribution of chores and tasks can lead to negative health consequences, both physically and emotionally."
To help you navigate this potential sore spot, we called on some relationship experts and negotiation specialists to share their tips for no-sweat chore negotiations.
Good habits start early, says Dr. Weber. Begin by helping each other out before you ever move in together. "Compromise is a crucial component of any relationship, and developing good skills takes time and practice. Share activities such as dropping off dry cleaning or purchasing groceries now," she suggests.
As soon as possible, before you've even had a chance to disagree about chores, sit down and talk about everything that needs to be done in the house. "Whether you want to or not, eventually, a talk about division of chores will become inevitable, so don't wait until you are in the heat of an argument to have it, because emotions may be running too high for a productive conversation at that point," says Larisa R. Wainer, PsyD, clinical psychologist and relationship/family therapy specialist with a private practice in Parsippany, NJ. Set up your talk in a neutral atmosphere, say when you're relaxing over coffee or out to brunch. Write it down beforehand if that helps.
Once all the essential tasks are laid out, then start to divide responsibilities. Offer to take certain tasks, but ask your spouse his preferences, too. Don't assign. Choose together. As you talk, share what you used to do and how before you started living together, suggests Dr. Paulette Kouffman Sherman, psychologist, relationship expert, and author of When Mars Women Date "It is good to be clear who will do what, when, so that things run smoothly in their busy lives and hopefully there are less fights."
Define what "clean" means — to you.
When you think about cleaning the kitchen, does that mean simply doing dishes or does it also entail wiping the counters, scrubbing the sink, and sweeping the floors? When you have your neutral talk about chores, be clear about what the job means to you. Make your goals SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound, says Dr. Sherman. "Being explicit is helpful. It's better to err on the side of being too comprehensive once than to be unclear and to have to go over the same ground by nagging for the rest of your lives."
Sometimes, it's also helpful to define why you think a job needs to be done a certain way. For instance, suggests Laurie Puhn, J.D. lawyer, couples mediator, author of Fight Less, Love More, and creator of the Online Virtual Fight Less, Love More course for couples. "If you have an ant problem, then sweeping is key after every meal (especially if a child is eating!)."
Remember, you're talking cleaning with your spouse, not someone you're paying to perform a service. This means that you don't get to dictate exactly how it should be done. Make your preferences known and allow your partner (that's the key word here) to express his. Then reach a mutually agreeable definition. "Each member may not get specifically what they want, but the goal is to function as a couple, meaning working together to solve a problem," says Dr. Weber. "Relationships are generally healthier when two individuals are able to compromise. And sometimes compromise means that each member does not get exactly what they want, but the problem is solved amicably."
This is especially important if one of you has much higher cleanliness standards than the other. Remember, says Puhn, "You're not the better person because you're the better cleaner. The truth is that by being lax, you may have more time and energy for other things. Find a way to compromise by focusing on the issues that have real consequences and ask for what you want."
After all, says Margot Brown, PsyD, licensed marriage family therapist and author of The 72 Hour Rule: A Do-It-Yourself Couples Therapy Book!, it's about trust. According to Dr. Brown, this means communicating your needs and eliciting feedback from your partner to make sure you are both on the same page. "Then trust them to do it," she says.
Set a schedule — but be loose.
Again, compromise comes into play here. Talk about when things need to be done — say, dinner dishes need to be done nightly so the person making meals the next day doesn't have to do them before cooking. However, leave leeway so each person has the freedom to complete the task according to his or her own timeframe. Maybe your husband prefers doing dishes at midnight after he's had time to relax rather than right after dinner. The point is that they get done. "Voice when you hope the chore can be finished, but check in to see if that is plausible for your partner," says Dr. Brown. "When your partner promises to do it, it is a real promise, but just not on your timescale (especially, when they don't know there is a timescale)!"
"I suggest that couples don't focus on the chores, and do focus on the time schedule," says Puhn. "Most chore fights revolve around a competition for who has less time to do the chores. I recommend couples have a strategic conversation to analyze schedules and which chores fit in to each person's time frame without it being a huge hassle. For instance, who already drives by the dry cleaner and can do a quick drop-off? Who likes to go running Saturday morning, and can make it a habit to do a load of laundry with the running clothes afterwards?"
Ask, not nag.
Your honey forgot to start a load of laundry when he said he would. Ask why, with no judgment. It may be as simple as something more urgent came up. If it's a persistent problem, don't assume your partner means to disregard your needs. "It is understandable that there would be resentment if one partner fails to do tasks he or she signed up for," says Dr. Sherman. But address the issue by having a meeting or a discussion. Nagging could potentially cause more trouble. "What often happens is that the passive-aggressive husband who is not cleaning says 'She's a nag and that's the reason I won't do it.' She says, 'If he did it, I wouldn't need to nag.' Then the arguing becomes about this relationship dynamic and power struggle instead of finding a solution for the chores."
Dr. Brown agrees: "The number one killer to a romantic, sexual relationship that I have seen over many years in couples therapy is the nagging. She feels like a mother (what mother wants to have sex with her son?) and he feels like a kid (gets yelled at and taken care of) and the libido goes south for both partners. So, the challenge is to talk, talk and talk." She suggests talking about how the issue has become a barrier, then looking for other solutions together. "It is very important when talking to each other that you do not use the pronoun 'you!' Use the pronoun 'I.' As soon as they use the pronoun 'you,' then the argument has already begun."
The best way to remind your spouse of his or her chores, says Dr. Brown, is to sit down face-to-face and talk, "but not when he is walking out the door to work with his briefcase in his hand! Make an appointment on Saturday morning, not late Wednesday night when you are exhausted. It will turn into an argument."
Revisit if necessary.
If you or your spouse is continually having a problem with a certain chore, it's time to revisit the assignment. Talk about why you or he can't get it accomplished: It could be because he simply can't find the time in his schedule during the time the chore needs to be done. Or, it might not be your strong suit after all. Don't blame; just ask. Once you know why, you'll both be better equipped to make a smarter switch. If weekends are the best time for him, let him take bigger jobs that are less time sensitive in exchange for smaller daily chores. Or, if you're both slammed during the week, decide together which tasks can wait and which you can divide more equitably.
Thank each other.
Even if it's something you're expected to do, everybody likes for his or her efforts to be acknowledged. It feels good to be thanked and appreciated. In fact, it's often encouragement to do more, better. Underscore and strengthen your bond by valuing each other's efforts. After all, your spouse isn't just doing these things for you, he's doing them for both of you, together.
"I think the biggest overall take-home message is that it's important to take the stance of looking at being married roommates as a work relationship," says Dr. Wainer. "Be collaborative, talk through the issues, keep your goals in mind, express appreciation even if it is an assigned task. (Don't we like being noticed and validated at work?) Stay away from being critical, ask for help when you need it, renegotiate your arrangement when it's clear it's not working, and look to solve the problem rather than engage in angry tirades."