How To Get Your Partner To Do More Around The House, For Real
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Women in marriages or cohabitating relationships are still doing the majority of the household labor and child care. Women do more than twice as much unpaid care and domestic work as men do, according to the United Nations.
This has always been frustrating and unfair, but in the wake of COVID-19, the amount of work that needs to be done around the house has increased substantially with more meals to cook, more clothes to launder, kids to home-school, and trying to do this all while working a full-time job remotely in many cases. For many women, this pandemic has been uniquely overwhelming.
If you're a woman married to or living with a man who isn't as involved with the housework as you are, here is exactly how to create a more equal division of labor—even if you've been stuck in this unbalanced dynamic for the entirety of your relationship:
1. Acknowledge how necessary this is.
"The first step is to acknowledge and process your existing anger and resentment," clinical psychologist Lina Perl, Psy.D., tells mbg. "After years of an unbalanced division of labor, you are likely to feel very frustrated, unappreciated, and even hopeless about the possibility of change. This is why so many women don't start this conversation. They imagine that if they start it, the emotion will be explosive and destructive. But tamping it down and alternately blaming your husband for not doing more and blaming yourself for not saying more is not the answer."
The conversation will likely be uncomfortable for both of you, but on the other side of it is something better. You can get to an easier, more satisfying place with your partner.
Step one: Have a direct conversation about this. Yes, it's time to sit down and do it.
2. Lead with how you feel.
"Trying to force your partner to do anything rarely succeeds in the long term, even if it is successful in the moment at getting what you want (or maybe even need)," Joanna R. Pepin, Ph.D., a sociologist whose research focuses on gender inequality within the family, tells mbg. "Talking with your partner about how you are feeling, such as the sources of stress and anxiety, offers your partner a way to show up for you rather than feeling defensive for what they haven't been doing."
Ask for what you need to feel how you want to feel, Pepin recommends rather than making this about how your partner has been failing you. What would make you feel more equal and supported?
3. Avoid the blame game.
Here's Perl's recommendation for how to structure this conversation, in her words:
- State the problem in the most objective, factual way possible. "I feel like I'm doing a lot more of the nonwork tasks related to taking care of our family."
- State how this makes you feel. Use "I" statements. Don't say: "You don't do anything around here!" Do say: "This leaves me feeling overwhelmed and sometimes resentful and angry." Newsflash: This will likely not be surprising to your partner. He probably knows you're upset.
- Set a reasonable goal. "I'd like us to start talking about how we can both be aware of what needs to get done, so I don't feel like it's all falling on me."
- Explain what's in it for everyone. "My goal is to feel closer to you and more like a team. I love you, and I don't want to be angry and overwhelmed."
4. Acknowledge why it's hard.
It's OK to admit the truth: Sexism, patriarchy, and gender inequality are alive and well in your household. It's OK. It's not your fault or your partner's fault. This is true for most heterosexual relationships, and no one person or couple is to blame. This is the culture we live in.
"As women and men in this moment in history, we are in the unique and difficult position of renegotiating long-standing gender roles, and it's not easy," Perl says. "Repeat after me: This is happening to both of us! We are both the product of a society where gender roles have been polarized."
Have this be part of the conversation you have with your partner. Acknowledge out loud how unfair gender roles are hurting your relationship (and your own personal well-being), and agree that it's worth trying to work against them. Make equality an open priority.
5. Stop saying women are just "naturally" better at this stuff.
You've probably heard some variation of this: "Well, women are just better with kids!" Same with cleaning and organizing, and meal prep, and so on.
Back in the day, we used to say women did more housework because men were the primary earners for the family, Pepin explains. But now that more women are becoming the breadwinners and couples typically share financial responsibilities in the household, she says we've reached for another excuse: personality. Couples will actually "amplify personality differences, which are often based on myths about gender differences."
Pepin's own research has demonstrated that people still believe women are better caretakers and homemakers than men are, even though other research has debunked the myth. For example, studies have shown that women are not better multitaskers than men are and that men's perceptions of how messy a room is are virtually the same as women's perceptions of that room.
Ladies, you're not naturally better than your man at doing house stuff. You've been taught how to do it, you've been taught to care about doing it, and you've now been doing it for so long that you are very good at it. Explain that to your partner, and give him the opportunity to learn and get good at it too if he's not already.
6. Avoid gatekeeping.
Gatekeeping can be a big barrier to an equal division of labor. That can look like constantly criticizing the way your partner does certain chores, swooping in to "fix" his completed work, or monitoring him as he does them because you don't trust him to do it "right." These behaviors discourage your partner from being actively engaged in the work and taking initiative.
Trust your partner to get the job done. If something falls short, try not to criticize him or argue with him about what the "right" way is to do things—that will cause defensiveness and frustration. Instead, explain to him why you care about a certain way of doing a certain task. For example, organizing the laundry into colors helps preserve your delicate whites; cleaning the dishes immediately after use avoids a buildup later, and the buildup is what stresses you out.
Ask him to care about the things you care about, as a way he can show you love.
Additionally, learn to let go where possible. There will be some inefficiencies at first, and that will annoy you. But recognize that allowing your partner to take charge of responsibilities is more important in the long run than getting everything done as fast as possible today.
7. Use positive encouragement instead of complaints.
"Research shows that happy couples actively look for positive traits in their partner. In times of stress, it's easy to focus on what isn't going well. But most people are much more motivated by positive encouragement than avoiding complaints," Pepin explains.
Say thank you, often. This can be a practice you institute as a couple to make yourselves more conscious of how much the other person does. Whenever either of you notices the other has done a household task, directly thank them.
- "Thank you for putting the laundry in the dryer."
- "Thank you for unloading the dishwasher."
- "Thank you for putting the baby to sleep last night."
Yes, there will be a lot of thank-yous every single day, and you'll repeat the same ones over and over. That's the point. It'll create a lot more positivity around the house, and if one partner is doing more than the other, it'll be pretty clear right away. The partner doing less than their fair share can then take the initiative without being asked.
8. Do things together.
Often when couples want to encourage a more egalitarian dynamic in their housework, they'll sit down and try to divide up the chores down the middle in the fairest way they can. But Aliya Hamid Rao, Ph.D., a sociologist and author of Crunch Time: How Married Couples Confront Unemployment, points out that these individual-level changes can feel like an unsatisfactory solution when pitted against centuries-old gendered dynamics. You'll often find that even though on paper it looks like the tasks are divided up equally, oftentimes men will gravitate toward tasks they find more desirable—like yard work and taking care of the car—rather than the more tedious daily tasks. Or otherwise they're doing half of the chores, but the woman is the one in charge of making sure it all gets done.
Dan Carlson, Ph.D., a sociologist who studies gender dynamics in the household, recommends doing tasks together as much as possible.
"In order to avoid having one partner overburdened, or to avoid one partner slacking on their assigned tasks, try to do tasks together," he wrote in a recent Twitter thread. "When couples divvy tasks between them (e.g., I do laundry, she does dishes) inequities can develop, especially if tasks are of unequal desirability. Though not always possible, if you can do things together, your division will be more equitable and satisfying."
One possible way to do that: When one partner is doing dishes after dinner, the other partner takes that time to grab the laundry or tidy the living room. Or maybe you both set aside a chunk of your weekend for tag-teaming on chores, alternating who does which task each week. That way, you're ensuring that you're each generally spending the same amount of time doing chores. This isn't always feasible, of course, but trying to do things together as much as possible can at least create an atmosphere of teamwork.
9. Address the mental load.
If divvying up tasks between you feels like your preferred system, go for it—but don't forget to take into account the "invisible" or "cognitive" labor, Rao says.
"Examples of this are that even when husbands do unpaid work (like housework and child care), they still depend on wives to tell them what to do and when. So let's say a husband is going to grocery shop for the family. The wife will be the one who looks at their fridge, their pantry, thinks about what they are missing, what they will need in the next week or so, and makes a list. The husband goes and shops, often even calling the wife if he can't find an item to get her to guide him," Rao explains. "Any negotiation of housework should incorporate this kind of work too."
Some people refer to this as the "mental load." Here's a helpful comic about the mental load that can help you further understand what this looks like. Share it with your partner so they know what you mean. How can you not only divide up tasks but also the responsibility for managing all the tasks?
10. Be flexible.
Whatever strategy you come up with that works for you as a couple, remember to be flexible with it. Unexpected tasks and special situations will come up that you hadn't allotted for—that's OK.
"Stick to the adage: structure with flexibility," Perl says. "You need a base to work from, but you also need to see this as something that changes with you and your changing lives."
It's OK to have to swap tasks or do something outside your decided game plan sometimes. Be gracious, generous, and forgiving. Most of all, be patient.
11. Keep checking in.
You are not going to solve this in one conversation. This is something you're going to have to return to time and time again before you get to a place that truly feels good, easy, and natural for both people. Perl recommends setting a weekly check-in time to see how things are going and how you're both feeling. Scheduling those check-ins can also help you both take this seriously and really commit to making changes.
"When in doubt, come back to this idea: 'We are in this together,'" Perl says. "You and your partner are not adversaries."
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