Too many couples try to split chores, bills, and childcare down the middle - but a couples therapist says that's a mistake

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"You can't treat a relationship like a spreadsheet."

  • Couples therapist Lori Gottlieb is quoted in "How to Be Married" saying that you shouldn't expect to split household tasks 50/50 with your partner.
  • Gottlieb suggests that the division of labor should be more organic, so that each person feels fulfilled.
  • That may be harder than it seems. Even today, women still tend to bear the brunt of housework.
  • One strategy is to get clear about who's doing what around the house, and then swap or outsource tasks so that each person winds up happy with their responsibilities.

There's a scene in one of my favorite movies where the viewer learns that a woman and her husband split all their expenditures precisely 50/50.

Except what's really going on is that the woman is paying for half of things that only her husband uses - she's even paying for half of the cat's flea treatment, even though the cat was a gift from her husband.Advertisement

The implication here is that the husband is kind of a jerk, and that splitting things 50/50 in a marriage is neither fair nor romantic.

That movie is now 25 years old. But it's still reflective of what often goes on behind closed doors in a marital home. I thought about it recently, while reading "How to Be Married" by Jo Piazza.

Early on in the book, Piazza quotes popular couples therapist Lori Gottlieb on the topic of teamwork. Gottlieb said too many couples insist on treating marital teamwork like work teamwork.

She said, "They divide everything fifty-fifty. Half the time one person does the laundry; the other half of the time the other person does the laundry. They split the bills down the middle and the child care down the middle."

The problem, according to Gottlieb? "You can't treat a relationship like a spreadsheet. It has to be more organic than that. Each couple needs to find their own rhythm, where each person is participating in a way that makes you both feel like you're getting a good deal."I love this idea - but I can also see how it would be incredibly hard to implement. Alternating who does the dishes on a night-by-night basis is a simple system. "A way that makes you both feel like you're getting a good deal?" That's kind of vague.Advertisement

There are, however, ways to make it more concrete.

Gottlieb's observations reminded me of a podcast episode I wrote about a few months ago, hosted by time-management expert Laura Vanderkam and physician Sarah Hart-Unger. The hosts talk about dividing the "mental load" of parenting between two people, though the process works just as well for couples without kids.

The gist is that the couple first gets clear on who's doing what and then tries to figure out a way to ensure that both people are doing tasks they enjoy - or at least can tolerate. Meaning you either trade tasks with each other or outsource them to someone else, if that's financially possible.Advertisement

For example, maybe your partner currently scrubs down the shower every week and you make sure the bills get paid on time. You both find your respective tasks tedious. You might try swapping those chores, or you might see how it feels to pay bills together and hire a house cleaner to take care of the shower.

The goal isn't to get perfectly even - paying the bills might take longer and have clearer consequences than cleaning the shower - but to make sure no one feels "stuck" in their role.

Couples who have a fluid system for divvying up household tasks may be happier

The division of household labor in particular is closely linked to a couple's satisfaction with the relationship, and with their lives in general.Advertisement

In an excerpt from "Fast-Forward Family," published on The Atlantic, Wendy Klein, Carolina Izquierdo, and Thomas N. Bradbury write: "The couples in our study who lacked clarity on what, when, and how household tasks and responsibilities would be carried out often said that they felt drained and rushed and had difficulty communicating their dissatisfaction in their lives.

But - and this is a big but - even couples who had a clear system didn't see it as set in stone. The authors write of one successful couple: "Each spouse frequently assisted the other with whatever needed to be done in each domain."

To be sure, the authors write that in heterosexual couples, women still tend to bear the brunt of the mental load.Advertisement

A popular comic by an artist named Emma, published in 2017, illustrates that concept, suggesting that too many men see their wives as the "managers" of the household responsibilities. "For things to change, it seems clear that men have to learn to feel that their home is also their responsibility," one character in the comic says.

One way to reconcile Gottlieb's insights with the fact that many women are doing more than their share is to think about the importance of communication. In this case, communication doesn't mean making a chore wheel and sticking it on the fridge.It's more about making sure each person feels happy and fulfilled, whether they're doing the laundry, or paying the bills, or decorating the living room. So toss the chore wheel - and the spreadsheet - and opt for regular conversations instead.Advertisement