Early in our marriage, our apartment often suffered from lack of attention. One morning, in frustration, I worked myself into a cleaning frenzy. Unbeknownst to me, that afternoon while I was out, my husband had the same impulse.
Over dinner we simultaneously announced, "I cleaned the whole place today!" Neither of us was amused at the other taking credit for our effort. Our misunderstanding soon became clear. To my husband, Keith, clutter mattered. To me, dirt mattered. I could walk past clutter as long as the faucets were gleaming. He, on the other hand, didn't notice marks on the mirrors as long as the towels were neatly folded.
All of us start marriage with different ideas about what goes into running a household, and our natural tendency is to value the work we do and minimize the work our spouses do. Throughout the stages of life, our situations change and require us to renegotiate the division of chores. Each time we try to divide responsibilities, there's potential for anger and resentment. But with the right attitude and some planning, chores don't need to be something that drives us apart.
Don't aim for a 50-50 split
One landmine to avoid is the 50-50 split. A 2012 study done in Norway found that couples who split housework evenly were also more likely to divorce. The problem isn't housework per se, but rather the dynamics of splitting it down the middle. Kurt Bruner, pastor and author, says, "If you are keeping score on such things, you have already lost the relational battle."
A better model involves both spouses putting 100 percent effort into creating a well-organized home. Fawn Weaver, founder of the Happy Wives Club, spent six months traveling the world interviewing couples who have been happily married for more than 25 years. She says, "Each couple, no matter their culture or socio-economic class, had this in common: They worked together as a team. There was no my work or your work. It's our home, so it's our work."
Honor your spouse's preferences
Happy couples also realize that housework can be a way to demonstrate love. Amy and Brad Saleik have been married 15 years. They inadvertently found a perfect way to organize household tasks. Amy explains, "We had only been married for a month or two when I offhandedly asked my husband what chore he hated. He quickly said, 'Laundry. What about you?' I replied, 'Dishes.' Ever since, I've done all the laundry, and he's done all the dishes."
Another strategy to honor your spouse is to ask each other, "What's one thing I could do to make you feel more 'at home' when you're at home?" I learned that strategy the hard way. When my children were 6 and 4, I was very active with them. We hosted playgroups in our home. We made crafts. We baked. Our home was fun, but it was also always a mess.
One day Keith told me he was tired of arriving home to a disaster. He could handle a little clutter, but he wanted to be able to walk through the kitchen without stepping on Polly Pockets. I didn't take that well. I think the words maid and Neanderthal escaped my lips. But later, I realized that was a selfish response. While Keith wanted a place that reflected his beliefs about what a home should be, I was more interested in what I envisioned for the family. Eventually, I realized that spending 10 minutes tidying up the front room before he arrives home costs me little, yet offers a priceless opportunity to show my husband I care about him.
Attention to your spouse's needs builds good will. Sarah Mae, co-author of Desperate, a book for overwhelmed moms, explains that stay-at-home moms also crave consideration. She says, "Without space to breathe or a little help here and there, you can feel like you're drowning." Even if both spouses are working all day fulfilling different tasks, at night one spouse may especially need a break — and quite often it's the spouse who has been chasing the children all day. Holding down the fort while Mom has a bubble bath can bring peace to her and the home.
Finally, honoring your spouse involves honoring his or her opinion of what constitutes clean. If your spouse thinks it's clean, it's considered clean, even if it would never pass your aunt Mabel's white-glove test. You both live in the house. You both should have a say.
Fostering a selfless attitude makes identifying practical ways to divide chores much easier. Before you split them, though, agree on what they are. It's all too easy to focus on vacuuming or dishes and dismiss doing the finances or mowing the lawn. So sit down and list all the things that go into running a house, from supervising homework to cleaning bathrooms and even buying Grandma a birthday present. Then you can decide who does what. Allocating those jobs, though, can be a bit tricky. Here are two models for how couples can manage chores.
Model No. 1: Embrace Specialization
Personally, my husband and I have always lived by the adage "The man should have to kill the bugs." Other than that, we've been flexible regarding household responsibilities. Pam Farrel, co-author of Men Are Like Waffles, Women Are Like Spaghetti, says, "Instead of dividing up chores along stereotypical lines, we have seen it works best to give the responsibility to the person who is most passionate about that task." If you really care about the lawn, you get to do the lawn. There's one more caveat from Farrel: "The person who has the task gets the authority to do that task his or her way, in his or her time, and the spouse just commits to saying, 'Thanks!' "
David and Kelli Campbell have been married for 10 years. Both work full time. David enjoys cooking, but last-minute meals aren't his specialty. So Kelli prepares a two-week menu plan to help things run more smoothly. David cooks, vacuums and cares for the exterior of the house, and Kelli does the rest of the interior cleaning and the laundry. Knowing who's responsible for what helps them navigate their busy schedules.
Model No. 2: Establish Work Hours
Nothing irks me more than doing dishes or vacuuming when the other three members of my family are on their computers. So our family adopted my grandmother's golden rule: If Momma's working, everyone's working. If you're a family who thrives on flexibility rather than defined tasks, this model may work better for you, too.
Assigning chores to individuals isn't as important as everyone simply doing whatever needs to be done — all at the same time. You can even turn it into a game: Set a timer for 15 minutes and see how much mess each of you can pick up! Kurt and Olivia Bruner have the whole family draw straws with chores on them when a chore day is needed. If you're all working at the same time, you can later relax at the same time.
Finally, if you need another pair of hands, follow the Bruners' example and recruit the kids. Rather than running ragged making your children's lives easy, you can involve the kids in daily chores. In fact, we should involve the children. Kelli Campbell reports being forever grateful to David's mother for rearing a son who knows how to cook. What an investment his mother made in his future marriage! With children heading back to school, now's a great opportunity to create new routines to involve kids in caring for the home.
After working out responsibilities, someone — or everyone — can still feel overwhelmed. You might want to re-evaluate and possibly trim your list of chores. Perhaps not everything on the list needs to be done — or done as often as you've been doing it. Do you really need to dust the picture frames every month? Perhaps you can clean the bathrooms every other week, instead of every week.
If you try these strategies and find chores are still causing conflict, consider hiring outside help. Shana Bresnahan is a full-time consultant, and her husband, Casey, is a full-time teacher. Shana says, "After cleaning came up in counseling sessions one too many times, our counselor said, 'Can you make room in the budget for a cleaning lady?' For the last year we've invested in a semimonthly visit from a maid service. We call it marriage insurance."
Chores need to be done, but they do not need to cause a wedge between you and your spouse. Instead, chores can be one of the vehicles that help you feel and function more like a team. Together, choose a system that works best for your family and commit to honoring each other through it. You'll feel more valued and loved, and your floors may just stay cleaner, too.
Sheila Wray Gregoire is the author of To Love, Honor and Vacuum.To help you start your list of potential daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal chores, check out Household Responsibilities: Negotiating with your spouse.