Household chores represent probably the most pressing “minor issue” in marriage for a lot of couples because it’s a conflict that never goes away. Every day, someone has to do the dishes, take out the trash, do laundry, cook dinner, and clean the sink. There’s no vacation from housework. Dust doesn’t stop collecting because you need a break. This means that if you have conflict about household responsibilities, it will always impact the emotional environment of your home. A romantic evening in your bedroom turns into a fight about the dirty underwear on the floor or the mold growing in the shower.
I know a couple that has a great marriage in practically every other area, but this one is enough to make my friend want to call it quits. Her husband has a lot of great qualities, but he’s very messy. He grew up with a full-time mom who cooked, cleaned, and picked up his laundry off the floor. His wife wasn’t aware that she was signing up for this role when they got married!
The three emotional issues that conflict in this area represents are fairness, acceptance, and appreciation. You and your spouse could argue for days about chores, but ultimately it will boil down to these triggers.
Let’s start with “what’s fair.” A study found that homeowners spend an average of ninety minutes a day on housework, including household chores, maintenance, and yard work. That’s over ten hours a week just to take care of your home. (If you live in an apartment, you can get away with about seven hours a week of housework.) If you add cooking, shopping, paying bills, and child care, household responsibilities can easily represent a full-time job.
In deciding what’s fair, you need to look together at everything that needs to be done to keep your home and family functioning. There were times in my marriage when I felt like I was shouldering more of the work, but then Mike reminded me of the weekends he spent in the yard, the mornings shoveling snow, and the nights he spent paying bills and preparing taxes.
Over the seasons of our marriage, we’ve shifted household responsibilities depending not only on what’s going on at home, but also considering the demands of our respective jobs. At really busy times of working and traveling, we have paid for someone to help with yard work, handyman projects, or cleaning. Regardless of who is doing what, the most important thing has been for us to address times when one of us felt an unfair or unsustainable burden.
One of the mistakes young couples make is dividing up chores based on how they saw their parents do things. If dad always paid the bills and mom always cooked, you naturally assume that’s the right way to do things. While there are some chores that have traditionally been assigned to men or women, these are really pretty arbitrary! Your parents' marriage is not your marriage. The overall responsibilities of housework, careers, and child care may look very different. Instead, look at the big picture of everything that needs to be done and what each of your natural interests and giftings are.
Acceptance is also a big part of addressing conversations around chores. Chances are that one of you has a different definition of “a job well done” than the other. Maybe you hate the way your husband loads the dishwasher or folds clothes. He has his own way and timing of getting things done. This is one of those differences between you that is never going to be resolved. Accept it and learn to navigate through it so you don’t build up forty years of resentment over something as minor as a messy car. This means that you and your husband will have to learn to let some things go and give each other “love gifts.” There are some things I do around our house just because they matter to Mike. For example, he doesn’t like to carry a big ring of keys. Instead, we keep the car keys and house key all separated. We have a place in our kitchen where everyone puts keys so we don’t lose them. If it were just me, I’d do this differently, but it’s a small thing I do to accommodate Mike. He makes similar adjustments out of love for me.
You will also run into serious tension in your marriage if one or both of you feels unappreciated for what you contribute. The frustrating thing about housework is that it needs to be done over and over again. The entire house was clean for five minutes. Your refrigerator was stocked for half a day. Your kids were fed only until the next meal. The weeds were all gone for just a few days. Because your work needs to consistently be redone, it’s easy to go unnoticed. And unnoticed means unappreciated.
To set a tone for appreciating the little things, you can start first. Be intentional about noticing and saying thank you when your husband empties the trash, picks up the dry cleaning, or changes a diaper. This might even start a conversation about how you’re learning to say thank you for little things that you usually take for granted. Most likely, your husband will begin noticing those little things you do as well.
It’s often the little things in marriage that chip away at love. While household chores seem more like a minor irritation, failing to address the issue with fairness and openness can build major resentment.
You may also find the following resources helpful:
How We Love Each Other (blog)