You come home from work to a leaning tower of plates in the sink. So instead of getting to relax, you have to unload the dishwasher, re-load it, then hand-wash those remaining dishes that never seem to fit. Your spouse could have done this while he or she was home before you, but no. It was left for you.
But let’s be honest—it’s not about the dishes.
It’s about the fact that you hate mess, and your spouse doesn’t. And the fact that your spouse could have done the dishes but chose not to. You’re tired and overworked, yet the one small thing your mate could have taken off your plate, they failed to take on. They don’t see your needs. They never have. They never will.
Okay, okay, maybe that’s going a little far—but then again, not really. Aspects of the home, specifically those requiring a division of labor, are grenades with loose pins. At any second, a small task can explode shrapnel all over your relationship, doing extensive damage.
Aspects of home—especially those involving a division of labor—are grenades with loose pins.
Why can’t we all just pitch in and make something boring into something fun?
The Real Problem
Layers of significance exist beneath this marital tension. Let’s look at several of them.
Layer #1: Expectations
A lot of the heat comes from our ingrown expectations. I personally expected my husband to take out the trash because my dad always took ours out (plus, I hate doing it). But much to my disappointment, my husband—like many men—doesn’t even notice when the trash stinks or spills over. He literally doesn’t notice. How can I fault him for something he’s unaware of? Believe me, I have found ways. This itty- bitty issue has awakened sleeping giants in our marriage.
Layer #2: Personalities
It makes no difference to me that I leave clothes and shoes in the middle of the floor, but when my husband trips over them and gets upset, I finally start to care. He uses a knife and cutting board to cut some cheese, then dusts it off and sticks them back in the cupboard because they had “only food” on them. Gross! I clean and double-clean my dishes. My husband is a stickler about not walking on a wet bathroom floor (and even bathmat), but I have an aversion to using my towel to dry my feet. I need him to straighten the couch pillows after he watches TV, but he’s fine with leaving them there set and ready for the next time he sits down.
Our personalities help us cherry-pick behaviors we expect from our spouse. Some people work better with piles, tackling simultaneous projects, while others need to start and stop a project at a time and keep it neatly filed. Some love to collect artwork, Western relics, or cinema posters, while others prefer minimalist, functionalist environments. Usually these two differing types marry each other.
Let’s face it, we wives and husbands are just plain different from each other. And our personalities direct what bothers us.
Layer #3: Fear
Fear compounds expectation and personality. A spouse raised by a single parent who struggled to put food on the table might demand to work a day job instead of stay home with the kids. A spouse who grew up in an earthquake-prone area might need to hoard dry goods as reassurance for the next “big one.” A spouse who watched a parent spend their family right into poverty might be iron-fisted with the finances.
Dividing the Labor
So how do two different people ever divide domestic labor in a manner that uplifts rather than bogs down?
Step #1: Do What You Love, Delegate What You Hate, and Suck It Up for the Rest
Start by identifying your tasks and divide them into three different categories: Truly Hate, So-So, and Enjoy. Most tasks should fall under the So-So category. They aren’t the end of the world to do, and sometimes they can even be fun, but for the most part it would be nice if someone else would take care of them.
The Enjoy category usually corresponds with your personality. Project-oriented people often enjoy vacuuming because the lines left on the carpet are a lingering reminder that they completed a task. Creative types might enjoy cooking. Numbers people might enjoy keeping charge of the books.
The Truly Hate category should be reserved for things that you might cry over if forced to do. For me, this is dealing with cockroaches. I just simply can’t do it without actually being afraid, so I make my husband do it.
If one spouse truly hates a task that the other feels so-so about or enjoys, that’s an easy division of labor. Likewise, if a spouse really enjoys something, let them have it.
Step #2: Practicality and Joyful Sacrifice
The rest comes down to a matter of practicality and sacrifice. Those who can do a task more easily should do it unless it doesn’t make sense. And those who care more about something getting done in their own timing or own way need to carry the brunt of those tasks or request and instruct the other. If that doesn’t fit your needs, then you must sacrifice and come to a compromise.
Back to our trash. Who cares about the trash more and who is home all day to do it? Me. But who truly hates it? Me. So my husband and I compromise. He doesn’t notice the trash, but I do, so the onus is on me to ask him to take it out when it’s time. He’s happy to take it out if he can do so in his own timing, so the onus is on me to be patient. For some reason, he really dislikes putting a new trash bag in, so the onus to replace the trash bag falls on me because I don’t really care (plus, that’s a small price to pay even if I did care). I also collect the trash from all the other waste baskets throughout our house so he can take out just one bag. Even though it makes more sense for me to take out the trash, I don’t want to. By making it as easy as possible for him to do it, he is willing. Thus, our compromise. Neither of us enjoys this household task—but it needs to be done.
Items on our so-so list were grocery shopping and laundry. As I’m the one without traditional work hours, both tasks are generally easier for me to do. However, grocery shopping is stressful, and shopping and laundry together add up to enormous time sucks when you consider multiple loads and multiple stores. In addition to the heavy bags that often tweaked my neck, I would come home with guilt-stained receipts for any and all nonprofits that solicited outside the grocery store. I couldn’t say no, and it was becoming an unwanted addition to our budget as well as a strain on my conscience. We decided it was best to take grocery shopping off my plate and let my husband shop on the weekends. In exchange, we decided the laundry is entirely mine. My husband hasn’t done laundry in eight years, and I’m fine with that because I don’t have to go to the store.
When You Can’t Reach a Compromise
You’ll find as you divvy up your list that certain tasks are sticking points for you. That’s when it becomes necessary to delve in and decipher what that task really means to you. Does it demean you? Does it hurt your body? Does it conflict with time you need to be spending otherwise? Does it oppose how your mom and dad used to do it? Do you think your spouse does a poor job at it? Do you feel as though your efforts are never good enough for your spouse?
All these underlying reasons are why people fight about the dishes. It’s not about the dishes—it’s about the hurt and fear underneath.
When the Marriage Is Divided but the Labor Is Not
There is no panacea for wounds within the domestic labor realm, but there are some places to start. After going through the aforementioned steps, if you find yourself feeling alone and unappreciated in keeping your home and family running, or you feel judged and demeaned and bossed, there are abiding issues that are not being taken care of. Consider a losing battle for fair labor to be a victory in identifying a need in your marriage.
For many, an emotional need is not being met, a love language is not being spoken, or an outside stressor is being triggered. For a smaller percentage, there are issues of abuse or psychosis or physical handicap or mental incapacity. These require more concentrated and intentional support
The Bottom Line
Sometimes, domestic tasks have to take backseat. In those seasons, adjust your strategy (let the dishes pile or switch to paper plates, re-wear clothes without shame, hire a cleaning service, order take-out). But in general, your division of labor is actually a demonstration of your unity of partnership.
Marriage is a lifetime opportunity to show your spouse you love them so much, you’re willing to lay aside your wants for the sake of the marriage team. Serving your spouse at a cost to yourself demonstrates an invested love, as Christ showed when he washed his disciples’ feet (thankfully, this task isn’t on most of our labor lists these days!). Rather than viewing your assigned labor as a burden, consider it a display of love and encouragement.
Copyright © 2015 Lindsay Hall. Used with Permission.