4 reasons why you need to reassess the division of labor in your house

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If you and your partner are anything like me and mine, you settled into some domestic patterns in the first few months of living together. After a few passive aggressive notes (“How about instead of balancing that last bit of plastic on top of the Tower Of Recycling, YOU JUST TAKE IT OUT”) or even some knock-down drag-out arguments (“HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO ASK YOU NOT TO LEAVE THE BAGGIE OF DOG SHIT NEXT TO THE FRONT DOOR!?), you manage to figure out your systems and settle into a rhythm.

Then some time goes by. Maybe a few months, maybe a few years. You have your chores, they have their chores, and sure: sometimes you get busy or lazy, but for the most part, you do your shit and they do theirs. It works.

Here’s the thing, though: even if your systems are working well, you still need to revisit and shake-up your domestic systems and divisions of labor. Here’s why…

1. Situations change

Hypothetical situation: one of you does the morning dog walk because you have to catch the early bus to work, so it makes perfect sense. Two years later, you’re still doing the morning dog walk, even though now you work from home and your partner is always up first. Why are you still walking the dog? Because that’s what you guys decided. Two years ago. When it made sense.

When you settle into a comfortable routine with chores, it can be hard to even notice when your daily situations shift in a way so that the divisions don’t quite make sense in the same way. Maybe your partner always does the laundromat run, because they’re finishing their degree and it’s great study time. Then, a year later, the degree is done and they’ve got a new job and yet there they still are every Sunday: doing the laundry. Time to reassess!

2. People change

Speaking of laundry, it used to be my enemy. The clothes would pile up into mountains on both sides of the process: the mountain of unwashed laundry and the mountain of unfolded laundry. Folding was the worst, because I would always get so bored and distracted and even lonely. Just folding folding folding, rattling around in my own head.

Then I had a kid, and I realized that folding laundry was something we could do together. When my son was a baby, I’d prop him up with pillows on the bed and talk to him about textiles and colors and fashion as I folded. Now that he’s a toddler, he helps me match up socks and put his own underwear in their drawer.

Used to be, I avoided having laundry as my chore. Now it’s the easiest chore I have. I changed. It happens!

3. You can find hidden efficiencies!

There’s nothing better than figuring out some awesome new lifehack to make your boring household chores a little easier. After the 400th time of forgetting to switch the laundry, I realized that if I left a small light on in the kitchen, it would remind me that I’d put some laundry in. DUH. If I took the compost bucket out with me when I headed out to the car (saving me a separate trip outside), I could leave the bucket sitting in front of the parking spot so that when I got back home, I’d remember to bring it up. BLAMMO. Both these things I figured out after we’d swapped some chore responsibilities… the novelty of the shift triggered my brain to actually THINK about what I was doing, and look for new ways to do it.

Heck, your partner may have the perfect system for cleaning the bathroom sink lurking in their frontal lobe somewhere, just waiting to show you how you’ve been wasting precious minutes of your life cleaning it the hard way for the last two years. When you reassess your division of labor, sometimes new systems become clear… saving everyone time!

4. Change is good

When I was in college, my parents separated after 20 years of marriage. There were a lot of factors, but one of the things my mom said was that she realized they’d gotten into these domestic patterns that were so entrenched that they didn’t even bother asking why they did things they way they did. My mom was like, “All those years, I always thought I wasn’t a morning person — but it was really just that your dad was always up at 6, and I liked lounging in bed to have time to myself.” Once they separated and the pattern was broken, my mom totally turned into a morning person.

This kind of domestic calcification is somewhat inevitable, but you don’t always need to separate from your partner to find little ways to shake up your divisions of labor and reassess your domestic systems. By sitting down with a list of the chores you both do, and renegotiating who does what, when, and how, you can introduce small but important shifts into your home life together that can keep things flexible and non-atrophied. Try it this weekend!

Comments on 4 reasons why you need to reassess the division of labor in your house

  1. So true–just like everything else in life, it’s good to reassess your household chores.

    My husband and I thought we had the perfect dishwasher division of labor for the past few years: I loaded, he unloaded. Recently as we were having a (friendly) squabble about how the other person does their part, we decided to swap. Turns out we’re both happier with the other job.

    We’ve definitely benefited from reconsidering larger tasks, too. Swapping chores is a great way to master new skills. It also helps us better appreciate our partner/roommate’s contribution to the home.

  2. Good advice.

    In my house, I cook, he cleans the kitchen afterwards. This absolutely suits us both perfectly. I HATE doing dishes, he doesn’t enjoy cooking and I do. We are both happy generally speaking. BUT, cooking also means meal planning, and picking up the necessary groceries between big shops. And making lunches for both of us for work. It used to mean breakfast too.

    So, twice, in the five years we have lived together I have decreed that we have to swap places for one week. He decides what we eat and he makes sure he has whatever he needs on hand, and he prepares it. It helps him remember that cooking dinner actually includes figuring out in advance what to cook. I then have to clean up the kitchen and realize how much I hate it.

    Even though we went back to our former roles (actually, he now makes breakfast every day, after I pack lunches. More even.), we did so knowing that we were both happier that way, plus, we appreciated what the other person is doing much more.

    • This is so great! It helps you recognize the work your partner does, while giving you a chance to experience household chores from his/her side of the world. I can see how much more you would appreciate the work the other does! Sadly, it’s not super practical in my situation (stay at home mom with a partner in a long hours/high stress job), but usually when we have household chore disagreements we end up talking about all the various tasks we each do and end up satisfied in our division o’ labor. It just gets hard when you have two people who are overwhelmed and the house goes to crap, but sometimes that’s just life!

    • We have the same logic around food, except that I am the cleaner and he cooks and plans. I think I need to negotiate this 1 week swap because my husband cooks with no regard for the mess he makes. There is oil splattered everywhere, numerous extra dishes used, and nothing is washed as he goes. I’m a really clean cook and wash up dishes as I go, so on the rare occasions when I do make something, he has very little to clean. I imagine there are things I do that make his life harder, but I would love for him to see my side of this arrangement.

      • My step dad is the same way. When I was living at home it was my job to clean the kitchen every night. My mom is the primary cooker, but on the occasions he cooked, there would be spills everywhere! And since they had been sitting there for hours, they would congeal making it even harder to wipe up. When I started working late evenings, we split the job between everyone in the house – and as far as I noticed, there were fewer spills 😛

    • Wow, my husband and I haven’t even progressed to Stage 1 of your scenario yet. It’s SUPPOSED to be that I cook (because I actually can) and then he does the dishes afterwards. Reality is that (once we moved in together) he started claiming that he “can’t” do the dishes on a full belly. So he says he’s do them later. But then it’s bedtime and he’s tired. By the next morning, well, he has to get ready for work. So, since I get back home from work the soonest, I 99% of the time come home to a sink full of last night’s dishes. Argh!

      • You may not be looking for advice (and it’s not like I know much about you), but maybe this is a good reason to reconsider the housework assignments. Maybe you should just officially take on the dishes and have him take over one of your other tasks in exchange. Perhaps something less active for after dinner (like managing the money) or something that can be done in one big push on the weekend rather than every day. Or maybe he can learn to cook with you!

        In my own life with my partner I’ve learned that if something’s not working, we should rethink it. Focus what actually works for us instead of what’s “supposed” to work. Play to our own strengths and interests. And do our (imperfect) best to let go of the frustration and resentment that comes along with things not working right, because they prevent us from seeing the solutions.

        I apologize if I’ve overstepped my boundaries by replying to you, but even if it’s not applicable to you, perhaps it’ll be of interest to someone else.

        • I appreciate the advice. We would rearrange the chore division…except I already do most of them. I do the majority of laundry (occasionally he’ll wash a load), and I do all of the cleaning. His excuse is that he plows the snow. I point out that this is unfair since I also shovel snow every snowfall…and plowing snow once in a while during the winter does not excuse him from chores year round. Grrr…

          • This is what me and my husband do – Monday through Thursday he does the dishes because he’s home earlier. I always cook, but I make sure to clean up as I go. Then on Friday through Sunday I do the dishes. You could probably work something like this out with your husband. You do the dishes during M-Thurs since he’s “too full”, and then all weekend long it’s his responsibility since he should have the time to do them then.

            Or you could always just start refusing to do the dishes (or cook for him) in general and leave them for him until the weekend, but that really won’t help either of you now will it 🙂

          • my dad is a bit like that. : / he’ll take out the trash once in a month or clean his one dish & reminds mom about it every chance he gets. lol

            as far as the dishes, after he’s said he can’t get to them at night, have you tried asking him, when he plans on it (in a non agressive way)? maybe he doesn’t realize he’s putting it off completely.

      • Unfortunately you have to train/coach him, cause it sounds like he hasn’t learned this yet. Like as in a job not a pet. He may have had a poor role model to learn from. In addition There can be many barriers for a person toward particular chores. Like ADHD, lack of true stress relief, ect. I know my husband has helped train me to be better at different things. Maybe i should use the word coach.

      • No one ever died yet from doing the dishes on a full stomach. He can learn to cook or learn to get off his rear and clean the dishes. He is being a selfish jerk because, thus far, you have put up with it. This kind of self-centered behavior is only going to get worse as you both age, and it would do well to nip this in the bud before you end up with a 50 year old child instead of a husband.

  3. I believe things happen for a reason. And there is a reason this article/post popped up in my feed for me to read. This is the current issue. We’ve lived together all year but recently moved into a bigger home. Our chores didn’t change but our accommodations did. This morning there was some arguing and anger over the way things were getting done. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate our roles? Thanks….this couldn’t have come at a better time.

    • Same here, we’ve been married for 3 years, but since our last move (crazy chaotic and unplanned) we’ve struggled. I’ve stayed home since our daughter was born (20 months) but am soon to hold back to work, he works long hours driving. This house isn’t a great fit for us but for at least the next year to two, it’s what we got. I think we definitely need to do this and I absolutely needed to read this.

  4. I love the comment about the laundry, having just had a baby I can relate. Laundry is one of the few chores I do every day, because I can do it with the baby and she thinks its the most entertaining thing ever, if I do all the voices. Thats right… different types of clothing, different voices 😉

  5. Tangential but related: just because something’s become someone’s “job” doesn’t mean that they should be taken for granted for doing it. I do the cooking, but my husband always says “thanks for making dinner.” He gets up with the dogs, and I try to be good about saying “thanks for taking care of the dogs.” Those little reminders help me remember that even on those days when I feel like I’m doing ALL THE THINGS! he’s doing stuff too.

  6. This is so true, all of it. I magically married a man who cleans (thank you mother in law!!) and usually feel like he does his share easily around the house. Last week he even said ” I realized I haven’t been pulling my weight with the dishes”. Bliss!

    With a voracious eating two year old and two parents who like to cook we often run the dishwasher everyday. While I am thankful to not have to hand wash all those dishes, emptying the dishwasher was starting to be the grind. Until my two year old started wanting to help! It’s so fun, and he hands me the dishes so I don’t have to bend my six month pregnant body down over and over!

  7. You know how you hear that money is the primary source of conflict for couples? That’s actually not true. The actual primary source of conflict? Division of household labour. (true story, I did a senior thesis on it as a focus for conflict resolution)

    So yup, regular reassessments are a must!

      • While there is a slight discrepancy between the sexes (and I should point out that studies have only been done on heterosexual, 2-person relationships), the majority of respondants still report division of household labour.

        Men suggest that the largest stressor is money, but not the biggest conflict within the relationship/between the partners.

        Much like the whole “men rate attractiveness as the most important thing in a female mate, therefore men want a mate who can procreate” – what’s out there as a popular belief is a myth, based on faulty interpretation of core data.

        My subculture: research nerd. 🙂

  8. I feel like we don’t have to reassess because we do it naturally – a by-product of us both working contract-type jobs where our schedules change constantly depending on the work we get. There are few constants. He does the dishes. Period. I HATE it, he’s good at it. But then sometimes he’ll have a particularly heavy week and I’ll do the dishes (and keep them to a minimum by cooking less). It used to be that he made coffee in the morning because he was the first one up. Now I’m usually the first one up, so I make the coffee. I do the “tidying” in the entire house, and keep the smaller rooms (bathroom, bedroom, guest room, office) clean, and he does floors because my back is iffy, and anyway I’m not that good at it. But recently he was injured while hiking (like “EMTs came in to get him off the mountain and he spent the rest of the day in the ER” injured – he’s basically OK now) so for awhile the floors were my job. I’ve had a string of very busy weeks – this is my busiest season, in fact – so he’s been doing more tidying up – at least getting things into their proper room so I can put them away later.

    The only constant is that he does cat litter. It makes me so nauseous that I dry heave (even though I’d done it as a kid and it didn’t have that effect on me? Weird) so I only do it if I absolutely *have* to. He understands this, and so it’s his job.

    I cook, but I don’t have to if I don’t want to – we live in a very densely urban area and can easily get take-out or just eat out (and this being Taiwan, it’s affordable and there are healthy options). So when I want to I cook, when I don’t I don’t. For any reason from “I don’t feel like it” to “I get home from class at 11pm – no way”. It keeps me enjoying the job.

    This works for us, and when your ‘assigned chores’ are in a state of constant flux, but everything always more or less gets done, there isn’t much to reassess.

    I also married a man who not only does housework, but he does it without having to be asked, and is better at noticing when something needs to be done than me! It astounded me after my friends started marrying how many wives took on most of the housework and how many husbands were OK with that being the case, or who were just terrible at housework/didn’t do their fair share (regardless of what that fair share was), and how many women I knew complained about it. I guess I always assumed when friends/people my age got married, we’d do it “different” and the decades-old household squabbles would fade away as enlightened men picked up mops and dishcloths. NOPE. And that’s sad.

    In short, I thought my husband was the norm, and was shocked to learn that he isn’t and I’m actually very lucky.

    • This sounds like us! Only, I stay at home & we live in thailand. Makes sense. Just do what you are good at. try to do what the other person can’t. notice what needs to be done & do it.

    • This is exactly how my husband and I operate. We do “micro negotiations” on a daily basis, since we both have variable schedules that tend to have opposite busy times during the year.

      Our one constant rule is that each of us give an Honest Evaluation of what we’ll get done (so I don’t say I’ll do the dishes if the thought of it makes me want to vomit today). And if it’s One Of Those Days you’re free to declare yourself “On Strike” for the day. But because we always honestly communicate what we’ll be able/willing to get done in a day, there’s never any surprises. And since we both benefit from taking occasional “Strike” days, the non-striking person is happy to pick up the slack.

      And if neither of us gets to emptying the dishwasher for a few days, that’s fine, the world hasn’t ended yet!

  9. Ooh, this is super useful. Right now I’m doing the long-distance thing with my boy (we’re both in grad school) and when we reunite for winter/summer break, mysteriously I end up doing most of the housework. I cook, he washes dishes – sometimes; I do the laundry, he folds it – rarely; and so on. Occasionally he’ll get on a kick where he makes elaborate meals, washes all the dishes, cleans the bathroom, etc., but he doesn’t think to do any task automatically.

    Guess I need to be more proactive about just asking him to step it up… I tend to pretend it’s no big deal, while I’m actually getting resentful. Damn my passive, passive self!

    • This is how my SO and I operate too.. I’m a little neurotic about general cleaning and tidying everyday. He will wait until you can’t get to the faucet thru the dishes, or there’s no clean underwear. I just had to sit him down and give him my top 2 or 3 biggest peeves. This way he doesn’t feel overwhelmed or attacked, it gives him somewhere to start, and (ideally) makes him a little more conscious of his surroundings on the daily. Cohabitating is a work in process, but def worth it!

  10. I think about this issue a lot. I work a full-time job and go to school full time, with a 3-hr daily commute, whereas Boy works < 40 hours/wk. So the division of household labor is heavily skewed toward him. He is remarkably cheerful about this (we joke he is a house-hobbit) but I still feel a bit guilty about making 10 million requests for little favors around the house ("Oh, can you set up coffee for tomorrow? Can you fix the faucet handle? Pretty please, can you…")

    Since I earn more, I do try and take care of the shopping (esp. since I don't always get what I ask for when he does it!) But even then sometimes I can't make it to the market and we go multiple weeks re-using coffee filters :-/

    Part of it, too, is acknowledging a realistic standard for house cleanliness. When I graduate things will change, but until then, there's going to be a thin layer of crap and scum over everything…

    • Ok, so I’m only responding to one tiny detail of your post… but the coffee filter thing? That totally used to be me, until a friend gave me a reusable metal filter. It’s the best! They’re pretty cheap, and they last forever – you should check it out!

    • I’m not sure how this comment is helpful. It’s great if you and your partner have a division of labor that works for you and you don’t fight about it. It’s also wonderful if you have communications strategies that work when things go awry. Rather than suggesting some kind of deficiency on the part of the people here who struggle with those things, it would be more helpful to share what you do to make things work. For most people, it takes a lot of work/compromise/communication (however you want to put it) to make a household run smoothly. I’d like to think that my husband and kids and I do a pretty durn good job, but that doesn’t mean I can’t incorporate other people’s helpful ideas from time to time.

      • what i mean is regardless of the issue, i see no reason to have any sort of knockdown argument or a reason to EVER be passive aggressive. if there’s a problem, that sort of tactic will never put a positive spin on it. then you have to fix both the problem & the way you approached the problem. the best method is to just be calm & respectful.

  11. At my best I think, I’m doing this for my husband, and son and me, I love my family. I love you I do this for you. That idea or focus helps me the most. A friend taught me this. One of his ways to express love and respect is to do chores, tasks ect. I guess I hadnt yet processed the respect part of it. (basket moment)

  12. We reassessed our chores earlier this year; as a result my husband now does all the laundry. It’s AMAZING. We always have clean clothes and we never have Mount Washmore. Mount Foldmore sometimes, yes, but it’s all CLEAN. It’s brilliant.

    I’m still a bit slack about doing the vacuuming, but that’s not quite as important about actually having clothes to wear…

  13. My husband and I are newly weds (6.5 months) and when people ask me how married life is, household chores is the only negative thing that comes to mind. Not that I often share this, but I hate that it weighs on me so heavily. We both work full time but I do at least 90% of the housework. After paying attention to his habits and going on silent strikes I’ve realized we just have very different standards of living; he doesn’t notice the mess. After a few knock down drag outs and as resentment I am told by a few wife-friends of mine that it couple take a couple years to get into the groove but some days I just don’t have the patience.

    • This is exactly the problem we had/have. It took me a long time to understand that it’s not that my now husband (then boyfriend) wasn’t doing things I asked or getting bored and dropping it half way, he just has a very different standard for things being clean or tidy.

      I’ve now learnt I can’t simply say “Can you tidy the living room?” or “Can you clean the bathroom on Saturday?” Instead I say something like “On Saturday can you clear everything off the sink, scrub it, clean all the dust off the bathroom shelves, clean the bottom of the shower and wipe down the glass and the wall inside the shower cubicle and replace the towels and the glass in the bathroom?”

      To me it feels like I’m being patronising but it actually leads to a lot less arguments.

      • You definitely need the timeline part too. In my household we both procrastinate, but I have a much lower level of clutter/dirty tolerance than my spouse does. I hate feeling like I need to “mother” my spouse, but it is literally the only way anything gets done with out me doing it myself. We’ve talked and the strategy that works best for them is, “I need you to do (x thing) by (y time).” If it isn’t spelled out they will put it off, forget, etc and I end up doing it myself. Even though this makes me feel like I’m in charge of everything and am “mothering” them, it’s better than my 7-month pregnant self going on a cleaning rampage (angry cleaning) and then being resentful about having to do it and overdoing it and being in more pain than I already am. I can’t wait for January or February when I’ve had the kiddo, healed from the birth, and can more reliably clean on my own schedule!

  14. This is something that my house struggles with sometimes, but we have a pretty good system down. We broke the chores up into 3 equal lists and they are assigned on a 3 week rotating schedule, so everyone has one list for a week and then we switch. It really helped me feel like I wasn’t the only one in the house doing chores, and it gives my partners really clear lists for the week, so they don’t feel like it is a huge job with no place to start. Holding one another accountable to the rotation is the part that we struggle with now, but I know that each list gets done at least once every 3 weeks 🙂

  15. Currently my Husband and I do not have a “division” of chores. We sort of both do thing. I’ve noticed that my husband is much better at doing the big stuff. Like fixing the cars, taking out the garbage; things that require leaving the apartment. I on the other hand prefer to stay inside the air conditioning so I tend to tidy and wash dishes and generally keep the kitchen clean. He also does dishes from time to time and keeps the water in the fridge full. We find that we like to do chores together as well. So if I start deep cleaning the kitchen, Geoff will grab the vacuum and go to town on the living room. He also knows that I am much less cranky with a clean bathroom and will surprise me by cleaning it before I come home! This hap hazard way of doing chores works really well for us!

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