Cleaning Up: for Better or Worse

Janet, an oil painter, tried everything to get her husband, Gary, an art director, to help with the dirty dishes in their New York City apartment. “At first, I left them in the sink,” says Janet, who married several years ago, “and when that didn’t work, I started putting the dishes in our bed. But he just left them there. He was making a point, too, and wouldn’t budge.”

While Janet’s efforts seem desperate, statistics reveal that the lion’s share of housework still rests on the woman’s shoulders. According to California sociologist Arlie Hochschild, Ph.D., author of The Second Shift, Working Parents and the Revolution at Home (Viking), working women, even if their salaries are higher than their spouses’, do two-thirds of household chores. In her study of 50 couples in their late twenties and thirties over a 10-year period, Dr. Hochschild found that women put in as much as a full extra month of overtime every year!

While couples may walk down the aisle harboring idealistic nottions about role sharing, once married, many slip into Blondie and Dagwood roles. Why does the traditional division of labor (the woman is in charge of the inside of the house while the husband takes charge of the outside) prevail, although two-career households are now the norm?


“We revert to what we’ve been taught and what’s expected of us,” says Dr. Philip Guerin, a Rye Brook, New York, psychiatrist. “There wasn’t as much conflict in the past over expectations because husbands’ and wives’ roles in the fifities and sixties were clearly defined.”

No matter how liberated we think we are, some expectations are difficult to shake. “Even with younger couples,” states Dr. Judith Sills, a Philadelphia clinical psychologist, “the expectations are subtle. He may do the laundry, but she notices they need detergent.”

“It is the expectation that is the real source of the conflict. If you come from a meticulous household, you are going to expect things to be immaculate, whereas your spouse might be more comfortable with domestic chaos,” says Dr. Guerin, author of The Evaluation of Marital Therapy (Basic Books).

Lauren’s husband, Bill, 28, a sales representative, expected their apartment to be as perfect as the home of his mother (“the clean demon”). Comments Lauren, 28, “Bill’s mother was always cleaning something. But my mother had a cleaning woman, so I never learned how to clean. After I got married, I actually bought a book of cleaning tips.”

When Lauren worked as a newspaper reporter, Bill helped her with household chores after work, but only after commenting, ” I can’t believe I have to help you.”  “But I felt lucky that he helped at all,” Lauren says. “My friends’ husbands didn’t do any housework.”

For many men like Bill, housework is still considered “women’s work.” Bill never learned how to do chores, so subconsciously he assumes and expects Lauren to perform like his mother.

“Many newlyweds think they have to ‘do it all’ and actually feel guilty when they ask their husbands for help around the house,”notes Alan Booth, Ph.D., professor of sociology and human development at Penn State University. Dr. Booth, who co-authored a recent study measuring gender-old attitudes among 1, 043 married couples, concluded that “women seem to be very grateful for just a little help because the averages are so low.”

But in a 90’s marriage, an unequal division of labor can only breed anger and resentment, as Nancy, a 30-year-old administrative assistant, discovered. Says Nancy, “my husband, Mark (a 34-year-old attorney), wanted to spend most of his free time on his sailboat during the summer. But I just couldn’t put chores on the ‘back burner.’ We moved two years ago to a house that required a lot of work. While Mark is very handy when it came to repairing potholes and winterizing the house, I need help INSIDE. I come from a traditional family, so I guess I expected to do more than Mark, but I didn’t expect him to sit with his feet up reading a newspaper on Saturdays while I toiled away! I finally blew up at him!

The Balancing Act

After Nancy vented her anger, she waited until she was calm to raise the issue of her unfair chore load. “The first step,” according to Dr. Sills, “is to call a meeting when it becomes a problem for the ‘do-more person.’ Broach the subject with a good-humored tone when you are rested, such as a Sunday afternoon.”

“When trying to enlist help, it is terribly important to make sure your spouse doesn’t think he’s helping you with YOUR responsibilities,” cautions Susan Heitler, Ph.D., who specializes in marriage therapy in Denver. “Think of your household relationship as a business partnership with certain tasks and a common goal,” explains Dr. Heitler, author of From Conflict to Resolution (Norton). Point out the advantages of shared housework: more free time as a couple; less tension in the household. And now you can, according to many experts, count housework as cardiovascular exercise.

Once you have the right atomosphere, consider carefully what you’ll say. Don’t use statements that attack and blame. (Why do you always…How come you never?) Use “I” statements. For example, Nancy said to Mark,”I feel that it doesn’t make sense to put me in charge of the kitchen while you take care of the yard. How often does the lawn have to be mowed in comparison to my ongoing battle against kitchen mess?” Nancy is not criticizing her husband, but only speaking about how she feels.

By discussing her wishes, Nancy found out that Mark really didn’t mind vacuuming or cooking – both chores he now does. As both detest washing dishes, they rotate this chore every night.

The next step is to make a list of household chores that are really necessary. Decide how often you need to do them. Daily, weekly, seasonally? Divide them according to your abilities and time frames.

“After you have agreed to a list of chores,” share specific information about them before they’re executed,” advises Dr. Heitler. For example, how often should the bathrooms be cleaned? Define “clean” for the one performing the chore.

“Once you assign a chore, be prepared to back off and relinquish control,” advises Dr. Sills. Sarah 28, has learned not to comment on her husband Peter’s less-than-perfect job of vacuuming. “He doesn’t vacuum under the chairs, and gets only the visible dirt. I clean without my glasses so I won’t notice,” says Sarah.

“But Peter (a 27-year-old financial analyst) does get up the dog hair, and our apartment looks neat, so I compliment him.”

“As housework, unlike other issues such as money and sex, settles into a pattern earlier for newlyweds and presents itself as a problem right away,” according to Dr. Sills, “perhaps the best time to iron out your chore outlooks is BEFORE you get married.”

Visit your fiancé’s home at mealtime. You may see a traditional scene like a bad dream enfolding before your eyes: mom and sis keep popping up from the dinner table to retrieve the butter and milk for the males; or dad and son retire to the television football games while the women clean up after a holiday meal. If these are familiar sights, you’d better speak up now!

With a growing trend of couples seeking pre-marriage counseling, perhaps when discussing marriage priorities with a qualified counselor, you should include household-chore management. It’s an issue that can’t be swept under the rug.

Wesley Cullen Davidson

Wesley Cullen Davidson

Wesley Cullen Davidson is an award-winning freelance writer and journalist specializing in parenting. Currently, she is targeting her writing about recovery to parents whose children have substance abuse disorders.