Either you come up with a division of labor or you risk the division of assets. Sometimes you simply need to hash it out, to decide who does what, and treat it like a budget. Who’s the hunter today, the gatherer tomorrow? No one’s saying that 50/50 is realistic, or even desirable, because then you set yourself up for score keeping. But at least it’s a place to start. Except, of course, when the "He Said" to your "She Said" refuses to even go there.
"When you’re hired for a job, there’s a job description," our therapist said last week. "So you know what your duties are, can assess your performance, know what’s expected of you. Everything is laid out, and you know who’s responsible and held accountable."
"Yes, but that’s with a business," Phil reasoned. "And marriage isn’t a business. I refuse to treat us like a business." He insisted that a discussion where we determined "who did what," in terms of division of labor, was "addressing the symptom, not the disease." Except he didn’t call me a disease.
Phil was hoping our therapist would spend some time trying to analyze why I need a list/agreement/decision of what my responsibilities are in order to get things done. "Why can’t you simply notice something needs to be done, and do it?" Phil wants to know. "You know, just in general, always be thinking ‘what can I do to make his life better?’"
My answer: that’s too damn vague.
It just doesn’t work. That might be all well and good for a Hallmark card, but I don’t live on that slogan. It’s like saying, "Be good to thy neighbor." What does "good" mean? A lot of us don’t know our neighbors beyond a polite smile. We know manners, pleasantries. And when it comes to the details of living, we wing it. And it works because at the end of the day, we’re not deciding how to raise our children with our neighbor. We’re not negotiating. We’re smiling, then we’re writing checks to Amnesty International and locking our front doors.
"Just in general, be thoughtful. Pay attention. Notice stuff, then do something about it," Phil says. "Have good judgment," he adds. And my problem with that is a lot of the time what bothers him, doesn’t bother me, and I don’t see that something "needs to be done."
I know things will get done, eventually. "Yeah, by me!" Phil would say if he were sitting beside me reading this. But this style of living doesn’t work for him, as he believes, really, my wanting a labor list has to do with something deeper. It’s why he wanted to spend time in our therapy session analyzing "why you even need that list." Why am I the type who wants to divvy up assigned roles? What is it about my upbringing?
Assigning roles of housework/ division of labor isn’t ideal because it deals with getting the tasks done rather than the reason we are in couples therapy which is to illuminate our actions, how they affect each of us and how we can harmoniously be an "us" that is stronger and more fulfilling than a me and you. Understanding our motivations and our partner’s needs. Knowing that you need to take out the garbage and doing it avoids addressing the root of our motivations and our willingness to empathize with our partner’s needs in the relationship.
I like the order in assigning roles, even if they’re roles we come to wear loosely. That it’s not a discussion once roles are assigned. Even if the roles switch off each week, even if you need to renegotiate and figure out a different system or list, or need to change things up, I still need it–since whatever we’ve been doing all this time leads to Phil feeling like he’s carrying everything alone. Then he gets frustrated and resentful. Loud. So I say, "Let’s just try tackling a grown up chore list. What’s the worst that can happen?" Let’s just stick to something for a while, until it has a chance to become familiar, then there’s room to reevaluate, to become more fluid, but it’s a good foundation. I’m also not rigid and get that sometimes something that falls on either of our “to-do” lists might not get done, or that the other person will need to step up without making a face about it. You’re teammates. You’ve got each other’s backs.. and cracks.