The work of managing your family life and running the household usually – but not always – falls disproportionately to women. This work includes the more obvious household chores, like cooking and cleaning, but also things like remembering birthdays, buying gifts, planning a contribution for a family lunch or setting up playdates. This work is often underestimated by the people who don’t do it, and this can lead to exhaustion and resentment on the part of those who do.
In many modern partnerships, both partners now work and share the financial responsibilities, but women are still burdened with the bulk of the housework, parenting and emotional labour. Even husbands who do participate willingly in parenting and housework simply don’t see the monumental effort that goes into keeping these things ticking over.
If you’re feeling burdened with the load, here are some strategies for getting your life partner to do their fair share of the work.
The first step to dealing with something is getting it out in the open. Rather than complaining about the work that’s not done or being angry or accusatory, raise this as an issue that, if improved, will make your family happier and more functional. It’s helpful to acknowledge that we are all playing roles we learned from our parents - but that we are in a different time and we can choose to do things differently.
You may encounter denial or resistance, but try to stay calm and focused, explaining how the workload affects you. Hopefully, by detailing the work that you do (rather than listing the things your partner has failed to do!), and the reasons why you feel it’s important, you will be able to convince your partner that he needs to do his share.
Sometimes, men simply do not have a sense of what goes into running a house - especially if you’ve been doing most of it! Ask your partner to work with you on getting a clear picture of what it involves. A good place to start is for the two of you to make a list of tasks and chores and who is currently doing them. You will probably only come up with the major ones to start with, but you can add to it every time an activity is carried out.
Another helpful approach is to do all the chores together for a week, so you can both see exactly what goes into it. You’ll be surprised at all the little tasks - refilling the sugar bowl, changing the loo roll, rinsing out the sink - that are done almost without you thinking about them.
Once you’ve both agreed that this type of work should be shared and got a sense of the work that needs to be done, go through your list of tasks and try and pin down who will be doing what in future.
You might find it better to allocate whole areas of responsibility rather than tasks. For example, one person will be in charge of the laundry. That doesn’t mean you can’t get help from each other, but rather that the person in charge thinks about what needs to be done and takes responsibility for making sure it happens. So the laundry chief will make sure there’s washing powder and fabric softener, and that the wash is done on the right day, but you might both hang the washing on the line.
It’s often a good idea to divide the labour along the lines of competence and interest. Even so, this doesn’t mean that you should always do the tasks that you are better at or get a free pass on things you’re not good at. If the load remains unequal when split along lines of competence, your partner will simply have to learn new skills.
A common response to this discussion is, “Just tell me what you need me to do, and I will do it.” However, the telling itself is an extra task for the overburdened partner. It’s not just the tasks that need to be shared, but the responsibility for those tasks.
If you are handing over one of the tasks you have traditionally done, give your partner the benefit of your experience, rather than throwing him in the deep end. You might even decide to do the task together for a week or so.
For instance, if you are handing over the responsibility for arranging the children’s lifts and playdates, give him the full telephone list of parents that he might need to call. Otherwise, you’ll simply be handing out a number every time anything has to happen. While you’re at it, get him to subscribe to the class email and WhatsApp groups and create a shared calendar of all-important school and social events.
Whatever the task, make sure you’re on the same page. Where necessary, agree on an approach, a budget and a deadline. But then…
Once you’ve handed over a chunk of the household labour, you have to let it go. You can’t keep checking up on it, criticising how it’s been done, or harrumphing and doing it yourself. Don’t let your perfectionism or your need for control get in the way of your goal of a more equal work split. Give your partner a chance to succeed (or fail) without you micromanaging.
Of course, if the agreed task is not being done at all or done so badly that it’s not achieving the desired outcome, then you can discuss it.
While most people will agree that homes need to be kept clean, families need to be fed and children need to be taken to school, another aspect of the work that falls largely to women is less easy to pinpoint. The emotional labour of maintaining relationships, remembering birthdays, looking after people’s general wellbeing and just generally keeping track of friends and family amounts to a lot of unseen work for women. And it’s reasonable that men should take on some of this load as well.
Raise the issue with your partner and maintain your focus on the outcomes - a happy family, friends who feel appreciated, a functional romantic relationship - rather than the tasks. You may have a harder time getting his buy-in to the importance of making a birthday phone call or arranging a date night but making him aware of your efforts is an important first step.
Getting your partner to take on a more equal share of the household workload is an ongoing process. Unfortunately, one conversation is not going to finish the job. You’ll probably have to give feedback and reminders along the way (without micromanaging), so be careful in how you address the issue continuously.
Do your best to avoid being sarcastic, bitter or condescending, and raise your concerns gently and clearly with a reminder of why they are important. Likewise, ask your partner to be open to receiving feedback or even criticism, with a desire to truly help you with the work, and without getting defensive or angry. This works both ways - you need to be open to his feedback, too!
Give credit where credit’s due. Express your appreciation for his efforts to take on more of the domestic workload. Let him know you have noticed his contribution. You may feel that he hasn’t necessarily appreciated your hard work over the years, but you are working towards a more positive home environment for everyone, and this is one way to achieve it.
Most people want to be fair, and most people want to have a happy relationship. By appealing to these two desires, you should be able to get your partner to at least acknowledge that he should be helping out more, and start taking the steps towards getting the help you deserve. It’s not easy and may take a lot of effort at the outset, but in the end, it will be worth it.