Picture a husband and wife in their late thirties, let’s call them Bill and Marie. Bill and Marie both work and have two school-aged kids. Bill’s workday is usually finished first, so he picks up the kids on his way home. When he gets home, Bill often chills out on the couch reading the mail while his kids watch cartoons until supper. When Marie gets home she hurriedly starts preparing dinner and puts another load of laundry in the wash while looking through the kids papers from school. She’ll often plop a load of clean laundry in front of Bill so he can fold it, which he’ll do if the cartoons don’t grab his attention.
Recently their routine was altered when Bill had to work late. Marie quit work early and picked up the kids, drove home and decided she’d try Bill’s “chill out” approach and wait until Bill arrived. When Bill came home, he was surprised to see Marie “just sitting there.” And then, fatefully, he asked Marie why dinner wasn’t on the table. That was the question Marie was waiting for – it gave her justification to unload a heap of built up resentment on the unsuspecting and bewildered Bill. After venting her pent up anger about how she was so “sick of doing everything around here”, she snarled “cook your own dinner” and left with the kids to eat at Burger King. Chalk up another couple that have fallen victim to the vagaries of what it means to be a husband and wife in modern America.
Contemporary marriages are a much different arrangement than the traditional marriages of our grandparents’ day. For the most part, society now expects husbands and wives to be more “egalitarian,” treating each other as equals. Fifty years ago, everybody knew what was expected of a husband and a wife. Husbands were the providers and made all the big decisions concerning the family resources. Wives were in charge of the domestic front; caring for the family through housekeeping, cooking, and raising the children. Now, husbands and wives are expected to share virtually all of the family responsibilities. While there are many benefits to the new type of marriage (i.e., more equal involvement in parenting, healthier gender roles, etc.), there are also several new challenges not faced by married couples a few generations ago. Specific to our example of Bill and Marie is the division of household labor. This seems to be one of the most common conflicts I see in couples therapy.
The division of household labor is basically how the responsibilities for running a home are divided by the husband and wife. This includes household tasks such as cleaning, cooking, laundry as well as various childcare tasks and what is called “emotional work.” Emotional work pertains to the work of keeping relationships going smoothly, and making sure everyone feels connected in the family. Even though we live in the age of increased rights for women and equality is seen as a good thing, women still find themselves responsible for most of the household labor. The division of labor, then, is where we most often see the ideals of the contemporary marriage clash with the established rules of the traditional marriage.
This becomes a problem in our marriages because men and women enter marriage with a set of assumptions about what it means to be a husband or a wife. If these assumptions aren’t communicated openly, husbands and wives often find themselves accused of not doing what they’re “supposed” to be doing. In the example of Bill and Marie, it’s quite obvious that Bill was working with the assumption that wives ought to prepare dinner and he took it for granted that she assumed the same thing.
Additionally, each spouse has a perception of what a “fair” division of labor looks like based on their assumptions. Because each person provides a limited supply of time, money, and energy to meet the needs of the home, keeping the division of labor “fair” gets pretty complicated. Couples often find themselves keeping score with each other out of fear they are getting cheated out of their share of leisure time. What is more, many couples find they have varying personality preferences, such as levels of neatness and cleanliness. This means that the one labeled a “neat freak” often feels stuck with the ongoing chore of picking up the household clutter because he or she is the only one who sees clutter as a problem.
If you find that the division of labor becomes a source of conflict in your relationship, let me give you some practical advice. First, have a thorough discussion with your spouse on what you expect from each other regarding the division of labor, and what you expect from yourself. To keep from having another fight, I suggest you both write your expectations down and then share your thoughts accordingly. This way your assumptions are out in the open. Secondly, come to a mutual agreement on whether you think these expectations are realistic and fair. Third, be flexible in what you expect from each other and be willing to help out your spouse when special needs arise. Finally, take care of your own responsibilities. Don’t fail to do your part out of laziness or revenge – that will only make things worse. Try to see your labor in the household as a gift of love to your spouse, and share appreciation for the gifts of love from your partner.