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Stop Fighting About the Dishes!

If you’re like most modern couples, you aren’t waiting until after the wedding to “shack up” with your partner, so you probably already know the hell that is trying to divide the household labour.

One of my go-to relationship books is John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. While I don’t love the heteronormativity of this title, I do agree that relationships tend to have a yin/yang dynamic (or as Jonathan Van Ness lovingly put it in the inaugural episode of Queer Eye, sun and moon).

JVN - patron saint of love and beauty.

I bring this up because within a couple, we tend to weigh or value our contributions to the household differently, and this means that while one person may feel there is a fair split, the other might vehemently disagree. Gray calls this the “points system,” and attributes it to the antiquated paradigm of Mars earning all the money and Venus taking care of all the household chores. In this example, Mars is earning all the income for the entire household, and thinks their paycheck is worth 100 points. Venus, on the other hand, doesn’t weigh things that way. They feel that a paycheck is worth 1 point, a back rub = 1 point, putting away the laundry = 1 point, and so on and so forth.

But nowadays, it’s much more common (especially if there are no kids in the picture just yet!) that you’re both earning a paycheck. And while there are lots of ways to decide who contributes how much money to the common expenses, it shouldn’t really play a role in the division of everything else that needs to happen for a household to run efficiently.

I like the philosophy: from each according to his ability/means, to each according to their needs. (I’m paraphrasing John Rawls here – another patriarchal John! Ugh. But we’ll take what’s useful and leave the rest.)

John Rawls: a dead white guy who said some smart stuff but was also super into eugenics… Can you appreciate the art and still think the artist was a fucking asshole?

Here are some examples of division of labour that work in our household:

  1. Whoever cooks dinner is exempt from cleaning up.

  2. If it takes about 30 minutes to vacuum, and 30 minutes to clean the bathroom thoroughly, then those tasks are equal and shall be divided equally. I hate vacuuming, he doesn’t clean the bathroom to my standards. Easy decision.

  3. I don’t feel safe walking the dog in the evening, so French Husband does it, and takes down the garbage, recycling, and compost when he does on the appropriate evenings.

  4. I really enjoy shopping, and I love to cook, so I do the groceries.

It took us many years and many different dynamics (being in-between jobs, switching to part-time work, me having a crazy busy season three months out of the year) for us to come up with a system that works for us, and along the way, we had some massive arguments.

The main reason is the one I mentioned above: one person feels they are contributing way more, and the other person feels things are equal. When this happens, the most likely culprit is the listing of accomplishments.

I cannot tell you how any times I have heard this complaint from a friend, that every time their partner does something in the household, they act like they deserve a cookie, instead of realizing that you both live here. From each according to their ability, yes… but unfortunately, you probably don’t agree on what the standards of living should be.

It’s really tiresome for your partner when you list your accomplishments. You both live in this home, and you need to find a way to divvy up the housework in a way that serves:

  • Both of your schedules (i.e. your time)

  • Both of your energy levels

  • Your shared budget (i.e. your money)

  • an agreed upon level of cleanliness

Time, energy, and money are the three elements that we all have in limited supply. Depending on your lifestyle, your feelings of scarcity/abundance toward each of these things will vary. But figuring out what works for both of your nervous systems in terms of time, energy levels throughout the week, and how much you’re willing to invest in, say, biodegradable cleaning products (or a cleaning service) will benefit your relationship for years to come.

Your solutions, after you actually have a conversation where you list all of the household tasks and the agreed upon level of cleanliness, should look less like a chore wheel and more like a set of agreed upon values and idioms. (For example, after we figured out that we were breaking so many wine glasses because we were washing them tipsy, we agreed that the dishes can get done in the morning… and that wine glasses go next to the sink, not in it!).

And this conversation, like so many in married life, will be ongoing. You’ll revisit these agreements again and again as circumstances around your capacities (time, energy, and money) change over the course of your life. Your attitude toward cleanliness may change too, as some of us are undoubtedly experiencing now with all of the information we’re having thrown at us about germs and bacteria.

And while you might never see eye-to-eye regarding the value of a sparkling clean tub, cleaning it properly can become an act of love for your partner. So, before they have a chance to announce what they did for praise, if you can keep an eye out and offer a pre-emptive “thank you,” you may find they enjoy doing it that much more.

One more for the road...


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