It’s not just the ‘uns’ that irritated Heidi: the unmade bed, the un-emptied dishwasher, the un-folded laundry. It was the fact that Sam had been home all day and was asleep when she returned from her extra weekend shift at the hospital. She was tired and resentful and felt that he hadn’t done his share of keeping up the apartment, but always had time to watch his favorite sit-coms and sporting events.
Sam was angry because he thought he was doing very well and that Heidi didn’t appreciate his efforts. He was doing more picking up and cleaning than he had ever done as a bachelor. He never left dirty dishes in the sink or clothes on the floor. He took his turn at vacuuming and cooking meals and he thought Heidi was being a neat freak about the whole thing.
Hoping to buy a home soon, Sam and Heidi were both working overtime in order to pay down their school debts. As a result, they had very little free time together or money for recreation. They had agreed to share household tasks as well as cooking and shopping. But it wasn’t working out so well. Sam referred to his wife as “tidy Heidi” and she in turn called him “sloppy Sam.” Their conversations about a more equitable division of household chores ended in Sam’s increasing anger about Heidi’s not valuing his efforts and Heidi’s growing resentment that Sam didn’t take this seriously. They want to address this problem, but don’t know where to start.
In studies that measure marital satisfaction, the topic of sharing household duties is one of the primary sources of dissatisfaction for couples, especially in the early years of marriage and when both spouses work outside the home. Like other responsibilities that are shared in married life, homemaking is an important part of building a life-giving partnership, one that respects the dignity, the needs and the abilities of both spouses.
Sam and Heidi are wise to see the need for addressing this source of irritation in their relationship. When disagreements are swept under the rug they often grow in size and significance and become entangled with other issues, eventually becoming much larger problems than they started out to be. Some things Sam and Heidi can consider in finding an agreeable solution to this problem are the following:
- How neat is neat? Sam and Heidi may have agreed on dividing up the labor, but not on what “neat” or “clean” means to each of them. Making a list of what needs to be done daily or weekly may help them to agree about what is absolutely necessary and what can be left undone till there is more time. In any partnership, there is always some giving in. Heidi may have to lower her standards about some things and Sam may have to raise his a bit.
- It’s impossible to settle differences when there is name calling, labeling or blaming in the conversation. Research shows that healthy married couples avoid such behaviors as part of their promise to “love and honor” one another. Conflict resolution skills might help Heidi and Sam understand each other better, find an agreeable solution, and lessen the anger and resentment they feel toward each other.
- Is there a problem under the problem? Sam and Heidi are overworked and have little time or money to enjoy themselves. The stress of too much time at work may be part of the cause for their resentment and anger over household tasks. Consulting a financial advisor about paying down their debt at a slightly slower pace may reduce the stress and make housekeeping less aggravating for both of them. If they buy a house one year later but have a happier, more satisfying marriage, they’ve made a good investment.
- Sharing household responsibilities is a common source of irritation for couples. Talking with friends about how they have worked out their division of tasks may give Sam and Heidi some new ideas for addressing their own situation. They may discover that, like other couples, setting aside an evening or weekend time for working together on the apartment would be a more enjoyable way to get the tasks done.
- There is no one perfect solution to the problem of household duties, or any other marriage conflict. Sam and Heidi can agree to try a variety of cleaning schedules, convenience products that lesson the burden of a task, or methods of doing things. After six months, they can re-evaluate and try something else. A marriage relationship is organic; spouses are always growing and changing as is the environment around them. Part of being faithful in marriage is being willing to try new ways of doing things when one way doesn’t work. As someone once said, marriage isn’t a hundred yard dash, it’s a marathon!
Mary Jo Pedersen is a teacher and trainer in the areas of marriage and family ministry and author of several books including “For Better, For Worse, For God: Exploring The Holy Mystery Of Marriage,” Loyola Press, 2008.