Division of Labor Challenges Couples

Conflict is inevitable in marriage, and how to divvy up chores is one of the most common conflicts. Virtually every couple I have seen for counseling over the last twenty years has argued about the division of labor in their marriage. Dr. Susan O’Grady

In addressing the topic of division of labor between coupled partners, journalist Oliver Burkeman (The Guardian) has cited a helpful term from Tiffany Dufu‘s book Drop the Ball: “Imaginary delegation” is “the all-too-familiar relationship pattern,” explains Burkeman, “whereby you see (or just think of) some household task that needs doing, mentally assign it to your partner, fail to inform them you’ve done so, then feel sincere outrage when they disregard the instructions you never gave them.”

Apparently Dufu views women as the more likely delegators, men the more likely mind-readers. While this may help us understand some heterosexual pairings better, what about gay/lesbian pairings?

“A small study looking at how gay and straight couples negotiate chores has found that (surprise) same-sex couples are better at discussing and negotiating a fair division of labor, which in turn leaves both parties more satisfied,” states Tracy Moore, Jezebel. “Every straight woman may now look to your boyfriend/husband/roustabout and sigh with the soft resignation of knowing that your advanced capabilities, while deeply satisfying, in no way lead to greater happiness (or less work).”

Two basic ways different-sex couples can move forward are suggested by Susan Newman, PhD, Psychology Today:

  • Focus less on establishing an equal division of responsibilities and more on what works best within your relationship.
  • Don’t assign chores or responsibilities simply due to traditional or deeply-ingrained gender models or expectations for those roles.

Despite the problems over division of labor and tasks that both nongay and gay couples regularly present in therapy, there is often resistance to fixing them via the usual recommendation, i.e., increasing communication specifically about what each likes to do, what each is willing to do, and how to implement a plan accordingly.

Too bad about the resistance—because such communication would likely do the trick. As Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D., Psych Central, attests regarding the two-paycheck couple so prevalent today: “Couples who do the least arguing about housework are those who have talked about it and made choices together. As with many things in human relationships, there is no ‘right’ answer to how tasks should be distributed. What is essential is that both members of a couple make the effort to work the discussion all the way through to genuine agreement on a method for distributing or trading off the less desirable tasks of running a household.”

Hartwell-Walker offers multiple checklists designed to measure a couple’s current state of conflict and the division of labor that exists inside and outside of the home as well as the division of child care and how relationships with family and friends are managed. Look for these checklists in her Psych Central article, then print them out and start making your lives less unnecessarily tense or conflict-ridden.

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