Pulling Your Marital Weight:
5 Ways to Create Fairness in Managing a Household
“You have no idea how hard it is to get up in the middle of the night for midnight feedings, work all day, then walk through the door and everyone in the house seems to have questions for me and more things for me to do before I can even take off my coat…”
Sound familiar? It likely does, as an equitable and fair division of labor is one of the most common conflicts that couples face.
Most families have more work to do than time to do it. Everyone who’s ever been in a relationship knows how it feels to carry the brunt of the weight from time to time and to be presented with more requests when you already feel overwhelmed. However, when partners disagree about who is responsible for the various aspects of managing a household and the lives of the people that reside there, these everyday disagreements can turn into serious marital discord.
What happens when you feel like there is an imbalance in who does what in your household? How can you have a conversation about feeling taken advantage of without it being poorly received? If you feel as if there is an imbalance in the workload within your marriage, you are not alone. This is a very common marital experience, and one that requires some delicate handling in order to repair.
Aiming for Fairness, Not Necessarily Equality
The interesting thing about the balance of the relationship work-load is that it’s not so important that the tasks be divided equally. Instead, what is found to make couples more successful and happy is that both partners feel that the division of labor is fair. Perception of fairness will vary greatly depending on the factors of each unique couple’s lives. And remember that it’s not only the labor of the household that falls into the context of fairness, but also external stressors that add pressure to each partner.
So What Do I Do If I think The Division of Labor in My Relationship is Unfair?
First thing’s first: don’t panic, and don’t call a lawyer. With this being such a common marital experience, the good news is that there are several steps you can take to correct this perceived imbalance.
1. Make a List
Start by sitting down with your partner and making a list of all the tasks of managing your household and those who live in it. Leave no stone unturned. This should include all necessary tasks, from planning food and grocery shopping to dealing with sick children. Once you feel you have a complete and comprehensive list, make a copy – both you and your spouse should have your own list.
2. Who’s Responsible for Each Task Now
On your own, with your list, write down next to each task who is currently responsible for making sure that it gets done. Is it something you do, your partner does, or you share? Remember that you will come across some tasks that you’re not sure about – perhaps the person that cleans the litter box is the one that walks by it and notices. When this is the case, indicate which of you more frequently completes the task, in your perception.
3. Who’s Responsible for Each Task Ideally
In your ideal world, who would be responsible for ensuring that each task gets done? Go back through your list, and next to where you wrote who completes the task now, write who you’d like to see complete that task in the future.
4. Take a Moment to Appreciate
Before you return as a couple to discuss your lists, take a moment to appreciate all the things that you noted that your partner does. This can be really difficult to do, especially if you feel that there is an imbalance in the division of labor, and you are pulling more of the weight. Remember that roughly 96% of our conversations end the same way that they start. If you prepare yourself for a conversation with your partner with a sense of gratitude for what they currently do, and potentially some empathy for some external stressors they are experiencing, you are far more likely to be heard and see lasting change than you are should you enter into the conversation feeling slighted or taken advantage of. Chances are that you can find something to appreciate about your partner and what they do for the household. Dig deep, if you have to. It’s there.
5. Start Talking
Now that you’ve gotten yourself in a good mindset to start an effective conversation, it’s time to sit down with your lists and talk as a couple. Go through each task, one at a time. Which ones do you agree on? Are there tasks that you feel are currently being handled differently from the way your spouse sees them being handled right now? If so, don’t be alarmed – you are two different people with two views of reality. Take the time to figure out why there is disparity between your views of what is happening. Remember as you are discussing these tasks that your spouse is looking for support from you just as you are looking for support from your spouse. Perhaps you offer to complete a task you know that your partner hates doing, and your partner takes a task that is difficult for you to complete given your work schedule.
You may not resolve all discrepancies in your list of tasks on the first, second, or even fifth try. That’s okay. The goal of an exercise such as this is to move from a halted sense of a labor imbalance to a dialogue about how you and your spouse can support one another in a manner that both of you perceive as fair. Your needs may change over time for a variety of reasons, so remember that you may need to revisit your list in the future, just as you will add or delete some items.
Remember to also be patient with yourselves. Marriage is a marathon, not a sprint.
…and when all else fails, get a Rumba…
The information contained in this post is gleaned from clinical experience and training in the use of the Gottman Method for Couples Therapy. For more information on the substantial research on this method and its effectiveness, please visit: