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Housework

If housework is a sore spot in your marriage, you’re far from alone.

According to one poll, dividing up household chores was outranked only by fidelity and good sex on a list of issues associated with a successful marriage. How you and your husband share, or fail to share, housework can have a big effect on your marriage.

To be sure, men are picking up a greater share of chores than they did in the past, but studies show that women still do more housework than their husbands. And that’s true even when wives work as many hours outside the home as their husbands do — or even more.

Wives, as you’ve probably guessed, aren’t too thrilled about that. When household chores aren’t divided equitably, women are less happy in their marriages. (Husbands, though, aren’t affected the same way.)

But housework doesn’t have to be such a source of tension. Read on for some ideas to stop the squabbling — and make sure the dishwasher still gets loaded.

Why Isn’t He Taking Care of Tasks that Clearly Need Doing?

Picture this: You get home from work one evening a little later than your husband does. He’s relaxing and watching television — even though you see as soon as you arrive that the kids have left the living room a mess, a pile of mail on the counter needs sorting, and a basket of clothes is still not folded.

What do you think about your husband when you notice all of the tasks he hasn’t done?

Women often default to assuming the reason their husband is ignoring housework is because he’s lazy or uncaring. This is partly due to a mental bias all people have called the fundamental attribution error: When we’re explaining someone else’s actions, we automatically assume their behavior is caused by their internal qualities (like their personality or character), rather than circumstances. Think of the last time someone cut you off while you were driving. Did you assume they made a mistake, and forgive them? Or did you decide that they’re just a lousy human being, and curse at them? (Be honest!)

The problem is that when you believe the worst about a person, it’s easy for blame or resentment to follow. So, before you leap to a conclusion, consider other reasons why your husband hasn’t folded the laundry yet:

1. He can’t see it. If your husband doesn’t take care of chores on his own, but does them cheerfully when you ask, it’s possible he just doesn’t see the mess as clearly as you do. Research shows that people have different thresholds for noticing when something needs to be done around the house. If you’re the one who has a harder time tolerating clutter, you’ll also typically be the first to notice it and take care of it.

To make sure you don’t get stuck with all the housework just because you’re the more orderly one, resist the impulse to take on new chores, and let go of tasks you wouldn’t mind your husband handling. Trust that he’ll do a good job, even if results aren’t up to your standards at first. As they say, practice makes perfect!

2. He doesn’t know how. Some men have never had to the chance to learn domestic tasks like cooking or cleaning, but wouldn’t mind picking up these skills. If you’re a pro in these areas, you’ll have to be patient and resist the temptation to micromanage while your husband expands his capabilities. No need to check on his progress or inspect his work. Only give him help if he asks for it, remembering that struggle is a natural part of the process of learning something new.

3. He’s busy. Perhaps your husband has his hands full with other ways of contributing to your family like working overtime, doing repairs around the house, servicing the car, coaching Little League, and so on. He may even be planning to load the dishwasher, but has other priorities he needs to take care of first.

No, he didn’t fold the laundry, but he definitely does his part. You just have to make sure you notice, and give him credit for his contribution to the household.

4. He’s a traditional guy. Men’s and women’s roles have gone through some huge changes in the last few decades. If your husband holds more traditional views on roles in a marriage, he’s less likely to consider housework his job. He may not help you with tasks around the house, unless you ask him, because he sees this space as your “turf.”

There is nothing wrong with a more traditional division of responsibilities in your marriage, as long as both of you agree. But if this way of splitting up chores doesn’t work for you, the two of you should definitely come up with a different plan.

5. There is a deeper problem in your marriage. Sometimes unresolved emotional tension is the reason you are not working well as a team. If your husband is upset, he could be checked out from the relationship and feeling unmotivated to be a true partner. That explains why he’s just fine letting you carry the extra burden of housework.

Until the two of you address what’s really going on, your housework woes are likely to continue. You have to look beyond the surface and be honest about the emotional connection between you. If you don’t know how to do this on your own, consider seeking the help of a professional to get you unstuck.

So, these are a few possibilities why you’re not getting the help you need, but certainly not the only ones. Did your husband have a lousy day at the office? Is he feeling ill? Is he stressed out and needing a break?  Who knows! Yes, it is possible he is being lazy or doesn’t care about you, but the point is that you should not assume this without checking out other possibilities first. Instead of reading his mind, open your own mind, and see what you can find out.

Stop Resenting, Start Asking

The most effective way to decrease resentment about housework is to let your husband know the problem (you feel overburdened), and ask directly for him to do specific tasks. Then give him a chance to step up. Be sure to notice and appreciate other ways he is already sharing household responsibilities.

I can hear what you’re saying: I shouldn’t have to ask! I already do so much. Why do I have to tell him what needs to be done? And why on earth would I thank him if he never thanks me for what I do! 

I get the frustration that you’re feeling. But keep in mind that you are two unique people who came into the marriage with different life experiences, priorities, and skills. It’s unrealistic to expect you to coordinate your complicated lives without clear, direct and respectful communication.

This week, resolve to stop simmering with resentment and to start asking for what you need. If you keep that up, you may end up with a much lower stress level — and a cleaner house!

You can find lots more advice about protecting your marriage amid the demands of daily life in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.