he said, she said: labor laws and pains

Cakegirls 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.




  1. If a chore list can make you both happy (S knows what is expected, P gets to enjoy things being done), why not just do it? Why argue about why S needs a list?

    For that matter, why not argue about why P *doesn't* need a list? It's just as valid a target.

    Phil's probably right that the list isn't the issue, there's something deeper… so why is he making the list the issue? Find the deeper issue and stop arguing about household chores. :)

  2. I second that W H Y you even need a list is legitimate and interesting question. Why can´t you do things one by one, as they come up? Are you afraid you might be ending up doing "more than your part"? Aren´t there areas in your life in which he´s extraordinarily, generously supportive? From your writings it certainly sounds like he´s taking care of a big share of everything. In my relationship, we get things done that way. Sometimes he does more, sometimes I, sometimes he´s busier at work, sometimes it´s me. With the intention to make each other´s lifes as good as possible, and take things off of each other, it works out beautifully. I specifically do things I know he hates, because I know it makes his life a little bit easier. Isn´t that what love should be? It´s not like I am lowering myself, it is a gesture I feel speaks volumes about caring about each other, and I want him to feel like I care every day. Your approach just sounds petty to me, as if trying to avoid doing a little too much at all cost and selling it as "structure". Even if you aren´t bothered by the same things, I am sure you DO know what bothers him.
    I am totally with Phil on this one.

  3. Maybe you should try to understand each others personality types – like do a personality test of some kind. He sounds like he needs orderlieness and cleanliness to feel happy whereas you are a bit more chaotic and don't mind so much if things slip a little as you will get them done in the end. Maybe by understanding these differences in personality types you might understand why you have some of the clashes and you would know what he wants – therefore you wouldn't need a list. But it has to be give and take too so if he understood your persnality type better maybe he could not be as hard about it. But in order for him to compromise he would need to see that you have done something for him to make his life easier even though it is something you wouldn't normally care so much about. Maybe if he sees you are trying then he will try too – to just do some of the other things without complaining.

  4. If the trash needs taking out, the trash needs taking out. It doesn't need to be assigned like a summer camp cabin chore.

    Jesus. I cannot imagine divvying up the minutia like that.

  5. I'm with Phil, but with an option to ask for a need to be met if my partner doesn't notice, because mind reading is an unrealistic expectation.

    Life doesn't fit on a list. (If I were the therapist) I would want you to think about your need to control the messiness that is life and why ordering it in the form of a list works for you.

    I took this test, which isn't totally unlike Myers Briggs, but your results will come in a different format, i.e. Stephanie will be happy if X and less happy if Y, same for Phil. I'd share mine, but it is too private, and I don't blog my life!

  6. There's an ebb and flow to this kind of stuff. Let's take dishes as an example. Our general setup is that whoever cooks doesn't do the dishes and whoever does the dishes doesn't put them away. But sometimes things get hectic or one of us gets a little anal compulsive and one of us will do the cooking, dishes, and putting away of the dishes for an entire week. The other one notices this and they may take care of the cat box for that entire week. There's no list and there's no "I do more than you," we both just chip in where we can and stuff gets done.

    Sometimes we'll do 20 minutes of hell in each room where we both concentrate on cleaning the same room for 20 minutes. At the end of 20 minutes, take a break, set the timer and go on to another room.

  7. what kinds of things does he notice and you don't. I would agree – when the trash is full, it's full but there are so many other things that are vague. My husband could step over a pile of dirty laundry for weeks but for me the minute the hamper is half full – it's time to wash. So I can see where the differences could be. So what kinds of things does Phil see and you don't?
    And I love lists – crossing things off makes me feel very accomplished!

  8. I'll admit that when I was in counselling many many years ago, when we were assigned role playing in our relationship (behaving in certain ways, romantic, practical, etc.) it felt odd and forced at first. But by doing that we learned how it felt, to do those behaviors and receive them, and we liked that feeling which motivated us to continue them and eventually "find our own way" within that realm. Sometmes we have to try things to see what they're like for us, even if it sounds strange at first. Best of luck. Counselling helped us a lot, ultimately because seeing where things came from brought out so much compassion for each other. We saw the "wounded kid" and we he/she came from loved each other through a lot of our stuff. We did ultimately divorce many years later but there is still a lot of love and compassion there.

  9. Sallie, although that is certainly the definition of minutia, it's also a reality in any relationship (or life!). Even Holly Golightly had to dispose of her trash in some way or other, and I never saw the male hooker do it for her.

    I get why Phil is intrinsically opposed to a list, but as a list person myself (seriously, Backpack is the best thing I have ever purchased), I'd encourage him to encourage you to do it the old-fashioned OCD way.

    People are thoughtful and sensitive in their own ways; I buy crazy gifts and fluff the pillows and spend hours on dinner. I know not everyone wants or appreciates it. But I've spent far too much time worrying that my gestures aren't appreciated — and I'm pretty confident that the people who I worry don't appreciate those gestures don't spend that much time worrying about my happiness (sadly, or perhaps realistically).

    You can't and shouldn't become a different person to suit people in your life, but by inching closer to one another — a list for you and acceptance of said list from him — you'll get there.

  10. My husband and I have an established agreement about duties around the house. Frankly, I am really lazy and a world champion procrastinator. Also, I am not very observant of my surroundings and tend not to notice that things need to get done. The end result would be that my husband, who is much more on top of things, would end up doing more than his fair share. He would be frustrated, and I ended up feeling like a jerk. By discussing and dividing duties, we eliminated all of that. The question of why I need to have such an agreement in place may be an interesting one, but answering it won't get the laundry done.

  11. why does it have to be this hard? you do know that it's possible to be in a long-term, loving, committed relationship and not fight all the time, right? why do "love" and "happiness" have to be a daily struggle – and one that you seem to pride yourself over, no less?

  12. WORD FOR WORD What I was thinking. All of these "Chores/Tasks" yet you have a Nanny/Housekeeper.

  13. u and phil are like the opposite of me and my husband…and sometime into the marriage i realized, if i want stuff done exactly at my schedule and how i want it (which is what he told me i wanted), i would have to do more around the house…if i wanted less work, i would have to be ok with his pace and his sensibilities of what is urgent vs not….it was tough but i think we r getting there…i am selective about telling him what is urgent and hence he is more responsive when i do ask…and when its falling on deaf ears, i suck it up and do it myself (because i am the anal one, and so its my issue)…phil might not like this but this is how it got resolved in our house…we dont have kids tho so it could resurface again when we do…ill keep u posted :)

  14. This was me and my husband, but switched. I too wondered why the hell he needed a list. No one left me a list everyday telling me to cook, wash dishes…blah blah blah. I was so aggravated that he couldn't see what needed doing and resented making a list. But then I realized that being mad at WHO HE WAS is more about my problem than his. I could either sit around wanting him to be different (read: more like me)or I could just make the list. If Phil wants to get to the deeper problem, maybe it's that he wants you to be something you are not. Or he wants your priorities to be different. This is what I wanted from my husband, but realized it was unfair to ask him to change to my ways. I also realized there is way more to life than a perfectly clean/orderly house. And if I really wanted everything perfect, that was my hang-up, not his.

  15. I would have a hard time trying to have a rational argument with someone who seems to enjoy arguing as a sport the way Phil does. Because being right is "winning", and that means someone has to lose. I have friends who are like that and I find them very frustrating to talk to because they don't really want to discuss or explore an issue, they just want to be the first one to have the correct answer.

    For what it's worth, my husband and I have a division of labor – he thinks I'm terrible at laundry so he does it all, I hate his cooking so I do all of that – and it works fine for us. My clutter bothers him, but his bathroom habits bother me, so I guess we're even. Co-parenting is the most difficult thing to divvy up.

  16. I haven't read the comments on this one yet, and someone probably already said it since you always get feedback on these, but it sounds like you want a list of assigned duties so he has no say in how you perform those duties off that list (he might want the trash taken out in the morning, but you're a procrastinator so you wait until afternoon, that type of thing).
    Sounds like he doesn't want the list because he sees you doing it "wrong" when really it's not wrong, just not his way.
    Phil needs to relax.
    Then again, if the house is nasty and you're not helping out that would get under my skin so fast, and I'd be pointing a finger too.

  17. No list just a set of well-honed habits. whoever cooks dinner, the other one does the dishes. One does the folding, the other does the ironing. He snow blows the drive and sidewalks (a big job), I make the hot chocolate with marshmallows and start a fire — be nice to each other.

    The one "rule" is that if you see something that is bothering you — just fix it. You notice it: clean it up, skip the resentment and move on. Sometimes it seems like I'M THE ONLY ONE noticing and doing everything. And the opposite is true too — it all evens out in the end.

    Phil does sound like he loves to argue as a sport. The only thing dumber than needing an adult chore list is needing to pay a therapist to analyze why someone needs a chore list.

    Anyway, that's how we worked it out — hope you two find a good solution


  18. I am with Phil. Your approach sounds like even more work than the simple act of cleaning the kitchen, or whatever chore needs to be done. It sounds like you want to do the bare minimum, and have that assigned ahead, so that Phil cannot accuse you of not enough. This really rubs me the wrong way–like you are keeping score.. Ick.

    Funnily enough, it sounds like from what "He Said" that Phil is trying to move forward with your couple's therapy, while you are deflecting and holding ground.

  19. Some people are just "list" people, some people aren't. I'm much more efficient and productive with a schedule to check off. How that is lazy or petty, I don't really understand. People's minds are just wired differently.

  20. When my husband and I first moved in together we had a hard time with household chores. Or rather I did, I felt like he never wanted to help out or didn't notice what needed to be done so I ended up doing everything (obviously not true, but that's how I felt) and it was frusterating. So I made a chore chart and I let him pick the chores he wanted to be responsible for and I took the others. It worked. We no longer use the chore chart although I do threaten to pull it out from time to time. I'm grateful that I never have to empty the cat box and I now know that he will empty the recycling it just might take a day or two longer then I would like.

  21. It seems odd that it has to be so forced and regimented like this. I work from home and freelance, while he works every day – sometimes till midnight or later when on a deadline. So if I'm home, I'll make sure things are done. But when I have to travel for work, he's finally learned how HAPPY it makes me if he can do things like wipe up the kitchen counters (how he manages to get coffee grinds and sugar EVERYWHERE, is beyond me). Now that I'm pregnant, he even cleans the bathroom while I'm away. It's heavenly. Even more heavenly when I come home and he makes comments about all the cleaning, acknowledging just how much I do around the house. The appreciation of all the laundry I do, and the dishes I wash and the frequency with which I clean the bathroom… that's priceless.

    We're going to have a baby – he'll be working the crazy hours, I'll be needing to work from home AND going attending classes (I've just gone back to school.) And still I know we'll manage to deal with the little minutiae of life. We'll be doing it without a nanny or housekeepers, and our families live on the other side of the country so no help there. So, like a few other people have mentioned… with a housekeeper and a nanny, what are these chores that still need to be divided up?

  22. Ginger, I am actually big list person and I agree that people are wired differently. I use lists all that time (especially at work). At home, my husband and I share house chores as Jeneria describes, an ebb and flow. To me, to write out a list of what needs to be done to keep the house running on a daily basis would take about as much time as it would to take care of an item (empty dishwasher, walk the dog). They are talking about a marriage here, and what is going to make it make. If it weren't, otherwise, yeah, each to their own.

  23. First of all, marriage isn't 50/50, it's 100/100 or it falls short. And the list thing, bites donkey balls. It's just a pre planned argument when something isn't done, the other one can point a finger and say, that wasn't my job, it's on your list…etc.

    Diplomatic compromise, is a better thing to work at than a duties list. Agree to let a certain amount slide. Look the other way. If the dishes only get done every other day, and you can survive on that, then who cares?! However, if the kids don't have clean clothes, you both might agree that laundry is a priority that won't be ignored. Takes the pressure off both of you. The "LIST" is the things that can slide if life gets too hectic, rather than what has to be done.

    And both of you need to learn to choose to 'sit this one out' from time to time. It seems like sometimes you're inviting each other into this dance of drama and fighting, and the other one says ok, lets go! You can choose to say, I'm gonna sit this one out, and walk away. You don't have to dance the dance. Try it, believe me it works wonderfully :)

    I realized I sound like a therapists nightmare so I'm stopping now :)

  24. I was in a similar situation with my husband. The deal we came up with was that we would try the list for a month and then re-evaluate whether it had worked or not. To sell the list idea, you need to understand how it will benefit him. For example, by assigning certain tasks to you, those will be things that he can stop worrying about. When we first started, my husband was in charge of pay the electric and cell phone bills. I had to let go of my control and make peace with the fact that the bills were probably going to be paid late, but that this was worth it for me to have my load of responsibilities reduced. The bills are still late sometimes, but I'm ok with paying a couple extra bucks here and there. Over time we're relaxed the list, we don't even look at it. But things start to get lopsided and I'm doing what feels like more than my share, I can gently remind him and he know where he can pick up the slack.

    The truth is, for this to work, you both have to be willing to be wrong some of the time. Once you're ok with that, and it's not about your ego, it's a lot easier to be open to change.

  25. It does seem like Phil likes a good argument and being right. Phil, try the list thing, what could it hurt?

    We have been married 18 years and DO have an equitable division of labor which evolved naturally over time. He thinks I suck at grocery shopping so I happily let him do it. I think I do laundry well so do that.. We both clean house although I am a more devoted (picky) cleaner so I concentrate on the main floor while he does the basement and upstairs. He loves yard work, I enjoy cooking (and having him do the dishes!) If I am tired and he is home he gets up with the kids; if he is tired I do. If the garbage is full we EMPTY IT! ;)

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