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Clinical Psychology Associates of North Central Florida                                                                 Providing Quality Psychological Consultation, Assessment & Psychotherapy to the North Central Florida Community

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Crushed by Chores? –

Tips for Negotiating Routine in Demanding Times                              

by Shauna H. Springer, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist, 

Associate, Clinical Psychology Associates of North Central Florida

If you are married or living with a partner, there is a good chance you might strongly agree with the statement, “Chores are not shared equally at home by me and my partner.”  If you and your partner are not already in the habit of negotiating ways to split the chores, then it would be surprising if the division of labor has never come up at some time as a source of conflict in your relationship.

As we try to understand why chores are so often a sore spot in relationships, it is helpful to be aware that in some cases, a chore may not just be a chore.  Certain chores such as cooking meals or taking care of the family vehicles have cultural traditions or may be particularly important to an individual's sense of self or family. In other cases, some of the unhappiness is simply related to not thinking about or negotiating alternatives that may actually make everyone happier.

Reluctance to stir the pot, risk a confrontation, or a mistaken belief that our partner may be inflexible, sometimes leads to avoidance in discussing how chores are shared.  Increasingly longer work weeks mean that many couples spend a huge chunk of their weekend doing chores and feeling resentful about the lack of discretionary time in their lives. Inertia, continuing to do what has always been done, may also play a role in failing to discuss this common source of conflict or resentment.


Sometimes a less-than-fair chore sharing arrangement is a consequence of our own family heritage. Often, we assume roles learned from our own families and have unspoken expectations about the division of household chores.  Sometimes, we take on chores by default, because our partner seems to assume it is our role. However, many couples can greatly improve their lives if they allow themselves to deviate from a more traditional division of labor.  For example, if you enjoy vacuuming the house, taking some pleasure at seeing to progress of the little parallel lines created across your carpeting, the world of lawn mowing may offer an exciting, uncharted territory for you. Likewise, if balancing the pool chemicals seems to intrigue you, maybe there is a whole world of gourmet cooking waiting for you.


Successfully negotiating chores in a relationship can be complicated, and requires respectful communication, flexibility, assertiveness, and willingness to make compromises. While some negotiated division of labor is efficient, if not ideal, the healthiest relationships demonstrate flexibility and a willingness to pitch in, switch roles, or help each other out in a spirit of sharing.  Flexibility is a must, since life will occasionally, if not frequently, throw us curve balls that will make it difficult to follow “Plan A.”  Flexibility is also needed because of fluctuations in work schedules, and the need to accommodate the skills, strengths, and weaknesses of each partner. Seasonal adjustments may be necessary as well. Some chores, like mowing the lawn in the winter in Gainesville or Ocala, Florida , diminish with the season.  Other chores such as helping the children with homework or taking them to after-school activities are going to be much more frequent through the school year.

Because chore sharing is such a common source of tension in relationships, the following suggestions are offered as ideas for working towards a mutually satisfying chore arrangement. Some of these ideas may be worth trying in a reasonably healthy relationship. In other cases, though, the battle over chores is a marker of more serious difficulties, and the use of judgment would mean working with a counselor before attempting to make any significant changes.

With all that said, several suggestions are offered:


1.)    As an initial intervention, it may make sense to simply run the financial figures and see if hiring a part-time housekeeper, ordering out on occasion, or hiring a yard maintenance company makes sense. If sacrificing a bit of cash allows you to pay someone else to take care of routine, but time-consuming chores, this may be the fastest way to increase your enjoyment of the weekends.


2.)    With today’s rising prices, if you can’t afford help, the next step is to start a discussion about chores in which you both agree to some ideal of fairness. Even if you have years of pent up frustration, it is important to start fresh. For example, as opposed to, “I am so sick of picking up after you – when we got married, I never signed up to be your full time personal housekeeper” you might try: “I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by all the chores after work and on the weekends…maybe you do too.  Let’s talk about making some changes so we can have more time for fun when we’re not working.”  This will help keep your partner from becoming defensive because the emphasis is on generating a win-win situation.  As in most productive discussions, avoiding placing blame or assassinating the character of your partner (or that of their relatives and ancestors) will help keep the focus on coming up with workable solutions. 


3.)   Anyone can feel that they are carrying more responsibilities than their partner, especially if chores are done separately at different times of the day. However, since feelings are not facts, consider spending some time getting information on how much time each of you is actually spending doing chores. This is easily done by modifying a basic time management chart. Each of you charts the name of each task and the amount of time you have devoted to that task. Based on this, you will get a sense of how much time each chore takes. If there are a lot of chores, or they vary from week to week, you may need to get 2-3 weeks of information.


When you have obtained 2-3 weeks' worth of information, look at both the time spent and how demanding or unpleasant each task is judged to be. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that you and your partner have natural preferences for different chores that you can use in re-distributing chores. The next step is then to try to match up the chores in two columns, distributing chores across the two columns according to how much time each requires and how distasteful each is. After you line up all the chores in two matched columns, then each of you can pick one column.


For some couples, a 50-50 split may not be fair, such as when one of you is working full time and the other is working part-time and you do not have children. In this case, the difference in work schedules and demands should be taken into consideration.  Perhaps doing 30% of the chores may be the fairest split for the partner who works full-time in this scenario. It is generally not a good idea to allocate chores on the basis of salary comparisons, because regardless of occupations, the key to a good marriage is an adult-adult relationship of partners of equal worth. The end goal is for both partners to have about the same amount of free time to relax, pursue hobbies, and simply enjoy each other.


4.)   For some couples, it may be helpful to post a checklist on your refrigerator that each partner can check off as weekly chores are completed. This may help reduce bickering because it will be clear if each is getting their chores done and, if all goes well, such a list will provide a sense progress is being made. Sometimes this visual aid also serves as a reality check by increasing awareness that there are things that still need to be done.  This may help with planning or adjusting for the rest of the week or may provide some concrete sense that the agreed upon plan is not realistic.  Posting a list of chores also facilitates trading chores (for example, “I see you have not gotten to X, I’ll do that, if you do Y”).  If you dare to be creative, try switching some of the columns of chores every month or so.  This may help break the monotony of having to do the same things over and over all the time.


5.)   If this sounds too complicated, you might consider just using time as a factor to split chores. You might want to set aside a specified time each week to work side by side in completing the chores (e.g. Wednesday evening and first thing Saturday morning) before doing something you will both enjoy.  Psychologists refer to the strategy of requiring a non-preferred task to be done before a preferred task as the “Premack principle.” This increases the likelihood that the necessary, but non-preferred behavior will be completed.  For example, watching a favorite TV show (a pleasurable activity) might be a good reward for scrubbing the toilets (an unpleasant task).  If you are working as a team, you might try rewarding yourselves by going out for a lunch date after you have put in 3 hours doing chores each Saturday morning between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m.


      Another thing to try might be setting aside a specific 15-minute period to do speedy chores each night (e.g. from 9:30-9:45 p.m. each day). If you want, you can make it a game where the first one to complete their fair share of the chores earns a 5 minute massage from the other person.


6.)   A less desirable strategy than trying various splits of chores and renegotiating can be considered if one partner is uncooperative.  This alternative is one which involves natural consequences. What this means in a practical sense is that the partner who is lagging in sharing the chores may become more willing to take on the chores that have unpleasant natural consequences for them if they are not completed.  For a couple where there was a reluctance to share grocery shopping and cooking, an increased willingness to chip in might be created if meals were constructed of the fewer and fewer remaining ingredients until the other partner chipped in with making a trip to the supermarket.  A partner for whom a clean house is important may become motivated to take out the trash if it is allowed to overflow.  However, be warned that this strategy of natural consequences may be best left to those who approach life with a sense of humor.  Escalation into a war where each partner is eschewing chores to get the other to budge is not the aim here.  Escalation into such a war may mean that there are more serious problems that need to be discussed.


7.)   Maybe, like in the “Odd Couple,” you have one of the many relationships in which there is gaping hole between preferences for orderliness in the home.  While part of marriage involves caring for each other’s needs, living together often means some compromise.   For some people, optimal states of happiness flow from a highly organized life. It is similarly true that others can’t operate well without having some place in their home where they can “let it all hang out.”  In these situations, one solution is to consider accommodating both to some degree and allowing each to take care of their space in a way which suits them.  Designating an area of the house as a “privacy cave” may be a good solution for those happy to live in a state of “creative chaos.”  Such a retreat can serve as a refuge where the less orderly partner can unwind without being reminded that they are leaving a trail.


8.)   Finally, on the subject of reminding your spouse of their responsibilities – remembering to keep a sense of humor will keep the relationship fun, while nagging will quickly achieve the opposite.  A sense of humor means taking oneself lightly and keeping perspective.  We are not talking about sarcasm, which only generates defensiveness and counter-attacks. If both of you have a good sense of humor, there may be some playful ways to come up with reminders. One creative wife used her sense of humor when she found several dead cockroaches in her home due to some food waste that had been left by her partner. The cockroaches were stiffly lying on their backs with their legs up straight up in the air. She slid their bodies onto a party invitation and left the following note: “Thanks for a great time last night, guys. You have the perfect party house – can we come over again some time?”


If you try these suggestions and you continue to find yourself resentfully stuck in a dissatisfying chore sharing arrangement, a deeper issue such as a masked power struggle may be at play.  In such cases, talking with a licensed psychologist experienced in marital and family issues may help you discuss the obstacles to reaching a compromise, explore expectations and needs, and assist you in negotiating new workable arrangements.  The psychologist may also assist the couple with more general communication and role issues and can assist a couple in working more cooperatively.  Sometimes this involves working with issues of more general adjustment, individual traits or personality differences. 


If you want to pursue counseling related to this topic or any other relationship-related topic, ask your physician or other trusted advisor for a referral to a licensed professional.  For those in the Gainesville or Ocala areas, intake appointments can be scheduled by calling Clinical Psychology Associates of North Central Florida. at (352) 336-2888.

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