Who Takes Out the Garbage? Dividing Household Chores

You’d think after decades of an economy that depends on two incomes to float a family, that how a couple can work together to keep house would be common knowledge. You’d think. But old role definitions and stereotypes about who should do household chores die hard — very hard. Couples who see themselves as egalitarian and modern in their thinking are sometimes astonished to find themselves fighting regularly about such things as who should do the dishes, pick up the living room, and be sure that each has a clean shirt for tomorrow.

Things have improved over the last 30 years. A survey by the Pew Research Center indicated that while in 1990, 47% of Americans surveyed thought sharing household chores is important for a successful marriage, in 2007 that number increased to 62%. Recent studies found that compared to their fathers, men have nearly doubled the amount of housework they do. None the less, women are still doing most of the household chores even when they have a full-time job. Often, they handle it by cutting down on sleep, then blame fatigue for their inability to get everything done. On their end, men often report feeling underappreciated for what they do and pressure to do more.

Is who does what (and how many) household chores necessarily the cause of dissension? Not for everyone. Every couple who is content has figured out a “deal” about who does the laundry and who takes out the garbage. So long as both agree, truly agree, about the distribution of labor and as long as they agree on the same standards for order and cleanliness, keeping house isn’t an issue. It’s when that isn’t the case; where both are working 40 hours or more a week and yet have different assumptions about who is responsible for what and to what standard, that couples start to bicker. The bickering about petty issues (like who emptied the dishwasher last) can gradually and relentlessly start to erode the relationship.

If you and your spouse find yourselves bickering about who does the various chores of home maintenance, communication is the key. Bickering isn’t solving the problem. Taking a step back to really talk about the problem might. 

4 Steps to Renegotiating Chores

1. Talk about assumptions: Often people slide into living together or marriage without talking about something as unromantic as housework. Assumptions about who should do what household chores are often unconscious and unexpressed. It can be a surprise to find that there are big differences in the value placed on various chores getting done or on what “done” really means.

Before divvying up tasks, it’s useful to define a mutual goal. How clean and organized does the house need to be for each person to function and feel like they are at home?

2. Brainstorm a list of everything that needs to be done and when. There may be tasks each of you do that the other doesn’t even notice. Then talk about whether some of the tasks you listed can be done less frequently or dropped entirely. Just because your mother ironed the couch every week doesn’t mean you have to. Consider whether you have the means to hire out some of the jobs to free up time for you to do other things.

3. Calculate the Drudgery Quotient. I couldn’t find who coined the term “drudgery quotient (DQ)”. My apologies for not giving credit where it is due. It’s a helpful idea. All chores aren’t equal. The drudgery quotient is a function of frequency, flexibility, visibility and social approval.

Frequency: How often must it be done? (Weekly laundry vs. daily dishes) 

Flexibility: How flexible is the timing for completion? (Morning deadline or any time during the day or week) 

Visibility: How visible is it? (Doing the dishes vs. letting the dog out) 

Social approval: What is the potential for acknowledgment and applause? (Getting the car’s oil changed is ho-hum but painting the front door a new color earns compliments.) 

The higher the drudgery quotient (more frequent, less flexible, less visible, little social recognition), the less desirable the job. High drudgery tasks, though necessary, tend to be routine, repetitive, and can seem thankless.

Research has shown that men traditionally have taken on the low drudgery jobs. Mowing the lawn, a job often taken by the man of the house, may be a chore, but it has the advantage of flexibility and lower frequency. Further, the lawn looks great when it’s done and it’s likely someone will acknowledge it and praise how it looks.

Doing the dishes, historically in the woman’s column, is high drudgery. It happens every day, it’s only visible when it isn’t done, and not when it is. No one is likely to applaud when it gets done. 

4. Work together to negotiate who does what until it feels “fair.” Consider what you each like to do, have the skills to do most efficiently, and what you each really hate. Work at it. The goal is to divide things so that each of you does what you like the most (or at least hate the least) and you both feel it’s fair.

Remember that “fair” doesn’t necessarily mean 50-50. Consider what responsibilities you each have outside of the household and whether one or the other of you needs to take up the slack on chores for a while. Do revisit this regularly. Never mind what others may think. Your mutual idea of fairness is all that matters. 

If doing this exercise is relatively easy for you to do together, you are working well as a team. Any bickering that was going on about chores was probably only a function of not having taken the time to clearly define your responsibilities, not that you were in hopeless disagreement about division of labor. 

On the other hand, if you somehow can’t arrive at an agreed upon chore list for each of you, the bickering about chores may be a way the two of you, without realizing it, are fighting about something more fundamental and much more important. Often such fighting means there are underlying issues around gender roles and expectations, mutual respect, self-esteem, or power dynamics that are difficult for a couple to talk about. As uncomfortable as the daily arguing about chores can be, it may feel safer than having a conversation about more painful issues that may even call your relationship into question. 

If that is the case, do engage a couples’ counselor to help you. A counselor can provide a safe place for working through those hidden but important issues that determine how happily the two of you can share a household and a life.

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