What with gender roles, enabling parents, uncommunicated expectations, and personal problems, sometimes your husband just doesn’t know what to do or how to do it. And wives aren’t immune to the same flakiness when it comes to certain tasks too.
There’s a lot to hash out when it comes to household responsibilities. These are the conversations I’ve found productive.
Decide what tasks need to be done, when they need to be done, how they need to be done, and who needs to do them.
There’s often a big disconnect between husbands and wives about what even needs to be done, much less when and how. Your childhood households place emphases on different things. Different levels of tolerance for mess lead to one spouse pulling her hair, while the other doesn’t even notice a problem.
Upbringing makes a huge difference, too. Adults with enabling parents may not know even the first thing about what’s involved in running a home. Spouses who come from homes with gendered roles may be unaware of what’s involved in a “man’s job” or a “woman’s job.”
I used to scoff at the idea of homemaking being a full-time job. Scrub a couple of toilets, wash the dishes, throw in a load of laundry. No big deal. Once I became the full-time homemaker, however, I quickly sang a different tune. It’s not just household tasks. Scheduling appointments, staying on top of communications, finances, planning, organizing, shopping, researching, and learning new skills, as well as keeping up with regular chores, all involved more steps and time than I thought. Just when I thought I’d finally got on top of everything, another bill would come in, something would break, and the realization that I really needed to declutter the hall closet would come crashing down.
Just the mental load alone was enough to drive me batty.
All that to say, if your husband isn’t aware of what needs to be done, he won’t know to do it.
When and how those tasks should be done is another important conversation that involves laying out preferences. In any relationship, somebody is bound to be more bothered than the other about different sorts of things. After I yelled at my husband for being a slob, my visiting sister commented that my personal tolerance for mess would make me difficult to live with. Ouch. Were I living with my sister, I would be the slob taking advantage of her neat ways.
It’s all about perspective and preference. There’s nothing intrinsically “worse” about leaving a full bag of recycling by the door for a couple of days if it’s not bothering anybody, and there’s nothing intrinsically “better” about taking out the recycling right away. You could make great arguments for and against those practices. Our differing preferences for what constitutes “clean,” “organized,” and “livable” are not necessarily better or worse than our husbands’.
We have to come up with timelines and standards that work for both spouses. This may involve letting go of some preferences, or agreeing to preferences you don’t really care about.
This solves the exhausting conversation we’ve all had: “I thought we agreed it was your job to take those boxes to storage!”
“I know! I’ll take them out eventually.”
“It’s been two weeks. Gosh, you are so lazy. I’ll just take them out myself.”
It’s not necessarily true that the offender is lazy or will never follow through on his promise — not anymore than we are, with all the things we procrastinate on. It could really be that he’s not bothered by the boxes as much as you are or is prioritizing other things.
If it matters to us when and how tasks get done, we need to communicate those preferences and agree on them. Otherwise, we need to give the other spouse space to take care of his responsibilities in the way and time he chooses — or do it ourselves without complaint.
The final component of this conversation is who does what. Permanent task delegation — transferring the mental and practical burden of doing certain tasks — has made a huge difference. I know exactly what I’m supposed to do, what he’s supposed to do, and what responsibilities we must hash out along the way.
This saves us from vague arguments over feeling like we do everything, as we can pinpoint exactly which task is causing problems, and we don’t exert any emotion or responsibility toward the things the other is supposed to do. If we want help with our task, the other spouse is usually willing to contribute, but the responsibility to delegate specific tasks within that area lies squarely with the person to whom that area belongs.
These sorts of conversations are especially key for stay-at-home moms married to working husbands. Since we’ve been dealing with the home and kids all day, we intimately know the routines, the needs, the finished tasks, and the priorities of the household. When our husbands walk through the door, they may feel out of their depth and uncertain where to begin, just as we would if we walked into their workplaces and were expected to know what, when, and how to do things. Since they haven’t been stepping over the pile of dirty laundry all day, it will likely not occur to them to notice, much less make it an urgent priority.
Even if you’re not a stay-at-home mom, it’s important to make our homes a truly egalitarian environment where you welcome your husband’s preferences as well as his participation. Sometimes I see wives complaining about their husbands’ lack of involvement while making it clear that they view their home as the woman’s domain — insisting on certain decorating styles, criticizing how husbands do things, keeping the home off limits to the husband’s projects, or relegating his “own” space to a den or garage.
If our husbands have no say in how the home looks, operates, or is used, they’re not going to take responsibility. Our husbands can’t feel a sense of ownership if we expect them to do everything we find important on the timetable we find important in the way we think is best, with no room at the table for their preferences. Micromanagement discourages responsibility.
We all naturally fail to notice or ignore tasks that aren’t our responsibility. Deciding who does what and making space for both of your preferences for when and how those tasks are accomplished eliminates this problem.
Put yourself under the mental load of the other person.
The first breakthrough in my marriage surrounding household tasks was the concept of “the mental load.” The mental load is all the emotion, mental effort, and ultimate responsibility it takes to manage things. It’s not a big deal to physically get in the car, drive to Meijer, and buy things off a shopping list. But making the shopping list? That involves knowing what we have and don’t have; deciding what we want to eat; figuring out the ingredients necessary for those recipes; factoring in diet, nutrition, and picky eaters; perhaps planning around the sales at different stores; writing it all down; and choosing when, where, and who’s going shopping. That’s the mental load.
This is what’s so aggravating when husbands say, “Just tell me what to do! I want to help.” When wives are burnt out, they don’t need help with the physical tasks. They need someone to shoulder the mental load — which is why I think it’s so important to divide up specific tasks and their mental loads between each spouse.
Usually, the mental load of everything falls to the woman, and it’s hard for husbands to even understand what their wives are talking about because they’ve never encountered the pressures and expectations society puts on women.
I explained this concept to my husband multiple times, and it didn’t seem to stick. He still failed to contribute to the household in the ways we agreed, or understand how much his failure stressed me out. I chalked this up to laziness and lack of care for me.
One day, he complained about the mental load he was bearing alone. I almost laughed in his face, but asked him to explain what he meant. He listed a whole bunch of things — mostly related to finances, like investments, savings, planning for large purchases, insurance — for which he alone shouldered the mental burden. He reminded me of the many times he’d asked me to look up something in order to help him make a big decision, and I’d failed to do the research I’d agree to do, or contribute in a meaningful way. He felt overwhelmed, alone, and frustrated with my flakiness.
Finding myself in his shoes as the “lazy, uncaring” spouse, I realized our promises to take responsibility for a task often failed because of the learning curve the task required. We meant well, and we agreed that it was fair to split responsibilities, but the mental load was too overwhelming. It was far easier to face a spouse’s wrath than put in the effort to learn, especially if we knew the other person would cave and do it for us. After all, we didn’t really care about the task in the first place.
When I saw my own tendency to shirk responsibilities with which I was unfamiliar, I gave him the same grace and understanding I wanted him to show me.
It might not be the learning curve that’s holding your husband back from taking responsibility. Maybe it’s perfectionism, depression, discouragement, other marriage or personal issues, or just confusion about what’s involved in the task he agreed to. Continuing to harp on him for failing to follow through without talking about the underlying reasons will be unproductive and frustrating for both of you.
I also realized that communicating preferences, understanding where the other spouse was coming from, and agreeing on a task list would not magically get us to follow through on what we said we would do. It was a necessary start, but the real change came when we put the tasks back on the responsible party.
Check back tomorrow for the last installment of this series!