Dividing Up the Household Chores: What is the Best Approach
Updated: Jun 3, 2020
Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott, authors of The Good Fight, state arguments around housework is one of the five primary sources of marital conflict. People work better when there is a road map to follow. Guidelines help everyone know what is expected of them. The day-to-day operations of maintaining a home is no exception. My husband always says, “To be unclear is to be unkind.” Without clear expectations of what each spouse presumes, tensions will surface.
It is easy for couples to enter marriage assuming certain things around the house will automatically be completed by the other spouse. This is usually a result of preconceived expectations they had about the roles of each family member while they were growing up. Maybe Mom washed the clothes and Dad repaired the cars. But what if the wife grew up with her dad doing the laundry and the husband grew up with his mother doing the laundry. If each of you believe that your own experience is “what is expected,” then you are going to stare at each other at the end of the week and wonder why no one had clean underwear!
The best way to manage these expectations and create harmony within the responsibilities you both now share is to discuss them on the front end of your marriage (preferably before you are married). Most marriage counselors will tell you the best approach to dividing up household duties is to decide who is best at what job.
Focus on the Family: “The Bible doesn’t specify who has garbage duty. Rather, it encourages each spouse to use their skills to make a house a home. Men are called to manage their household well (1 Timothy 3:12), women to watch over their household (Proverbs 31:27) and both to abstain from laziness (1 Timothy 5:8). In a home with two healthy spouses, each is to actively contribute to the household, whether through paid employment, unpaid housework or both.”
Trying to divide the chores 50/50 is usually a recipe for disaster. In marriage, we are both called to give 100%. Our marriage is not a transaction: “If you do this, then I will do that.” That would be defined as a contract. We are in a covenant, which calls us to be the best “me” I can be and put my spouse before myself.
“As soon as we start trying to quantify things, we open ourselves up for silly fights. How do you classify reading to your children? Is that work, or not? What about having a heart-to-heart with your 4-year-old? Work? Or good for the soul? What if he works full time and she’s with the kids, but you think his job is ‘fun’ because it’s exciting and he gets a lot of time to himself? Is that as demanding as your time with the kids, even if you get to nap in the afternoon? If you’re expecting your spouse to do his share, then you’re always looking at him asking if he’s living up to his end of the bargain. That’s a recipe for constant resentment. I think we should each put our all into a marriage–100/100. That’s the model.” -To Love Honor and Vacuum.
My husband changed diapers regularly but gagged every time he dumped that toxic monster sitting in the corner of the nursery called the Diaper Genie. He never complained and he never asked me to take over, but I saw the discomfort it brought him. I stepped in and put that chore into my category. He also saw how I would get the heebie-jeebies just by looking at a dead bug. He took over this aspect of housekeeping, and I am forever grateful! No one would say those two switches were a 50/50 deal. I only had to dump the Diaper Genie for the three years our son was not potty trained. Yet, thirty years later, my husband is still picking up bugs.
When you sit down to make a list of all the household duties you now share, ask yourself these three questions: What? When? How?
What needs to be done?
When would we like it done (daily, weekly)?
How would we like it done?
The first step is to sit down and have a brain storming session. List everything that the two of you feel needs to be accomplished around the home and within your family life. Once you have completed the “what” task, then begin dividing up the chores based on your strengths. If I’m good at 6 out of 10 items and my husband is good at 4 out of 10, am I really going to give him one of my duties he’s unqualified to do just so it can be a 50/50 transaction?
Another factor to consider besides the ability of each partner, is to take both of your time restraints into consideration. If your spouse is in medical residency and you work at home with more flexible hours, are you still going to insist the chores be divided equally? No. This is a unique season of life, and during this time the spouse that has more free time at home should most likely carry the heavier load. God made us to share each other’s burdens. Remember, it’s a covenant, not a contract.
Once you have made a list, discussed your strengths and weaknesses, your likes and dislikes, then each of you take a copy of the chore list, and put a mark by the items you would like. Don’t worry about making sure every box is checked at this point. This is your chance to vocalize what you are joyfully willing to do. You both might be surprised. When you compare lists, you could find that all chores have an owner.
If there are items no one has taken, then discuss why. Sometimes it is as simple as thinking, “Oh, I assumed my husband would do that, because my dad did that when I was growing up. But I don’t mind doing it for our home.” This is the time to break that mold of preconceived ideas. The families we grew up in may have been run very differently, and that is fine. There is no right or wrong when it comes to dividing the tasks. The key is, if possible, to take on a responsibility that best fits with your abilities, likes and dislikes and not base it on the traditions of your childhood home.
If there is one job that both of you really do not like, then take turns. One week the wife cleans the toilets and the next week the husband takes this job. Neither of you like doing this, but you are helping carry the load for the other.
Now that you have divided up all the duties and decided who does what, you need to discuss the “when.” When will these items be completed? Do you want floors swept once a week? Is the trash removed twice a week? How often do you want the toilets cleaned? Together, figure out a schedule you both can agree to.
Lastly, it is important you both decide “how” the job will be done. Is a simple wipe-down of the kitchen counters acceptable, or do they always need to be sprayed with disinfectant? Do you have a certain way you like the shower cleaned? Make these decisions. I would suggest the first month you do all chores together. This will help with any miscommunication you might have about the various tasks.
One point I would like to make. I believe the person doing the job should get to decide the format they will use to accomplish the task. If I am the one working, I do not want my husband standing over me telling me how to do the job. I do want to know what he prefers, which is why you discuss things up front, but I may have my own way of doing things. Maybe your mother taught you to fold as you go when you pull the laundry out of the dryer. Maybe his mother taught him to complete all the laundry, then separate clothes by piling together similar items (socks in this pile, underwear in that pile) and then fold. Either approach works, and in the end, the laundry has been folded. Don’t micromanage your spouse. My husband and I always use the toothpaste example. If one spouse rolls the toothpaste from the bottom and the other squeezes from the middle, it is alright. In the end, you have both brushed your teeth. (Side note: It is comical to see how many little arguments begin around the toothpaste tube. Are you a roller or a squeezer? Simple solution: each spouse gets their own tube! Sometimes we just overthink our solutions. Keep life simple.)
Not only should we not micromanage, we should also avoid being a gatekeeper. Alan Hawkins, a doctoral graduate from The Pennsylvania State University and family studies professor, says the same spouse who complains is usually the same spouse who has self-appointed themselves as the gatekeeper. If you are the type who supervises the work of your husband or wife, you need to stop. “It can be difficult, even somewhat humiliating, to live under the implied disapproval of a spouse with overly high expectations," Leslie and Les Parrott caution.
If you do not trust your spouse to do the work, or you find yourself going behind them and correcting their work, then maybe you should add that chore to your list. This is another reason setting expectations upfront is so important. My husband used to make the bed as part of his duties. He did not like all the decorative pillows I used and did not see the purpose of these. My attempt to explain, “If you will put this square pillow this way, and the round pillow over there, it makes the entire bed so beautiful.” I realized my decorating tips did not resonate. During our first year, as I added more and more pillows, his work increased. I saw how long it was taking him to make the bed. He tried hard to fluff the pillows and position them “just so,” but it was a very frustrating experience for him. His expertise was not in interior decorating! I knew I should not be the gatekeeper for how the bed was made, and that my desire for all these pillows had increased his workload. So, I took bed making off his list and put it on mine. Do not micromanage. No one is perfect. Show grace.
It is also important to show appreciation. When you see that the trash has been taken out, even though this is on their list, say thank you. A little appreciation goes a long way.
You can decide how you approach the weekly chores, but I think it is good to work together at the same time, if possible. Make it a game and see who can finish first. My husband and I always cleaned on Saturday mornings and made it a goal to be finished by noon. It felt good to work together towards a shared goal, and our reward was getting to spend the afternoon doing something fun.
Set up a command center in your home where you display the chore list. This is your go-to place for all things “family business” related. This becomes even more important if you have children. The command center should be where you post a physical printout of your duties. It helps keep everyone accountable as well as on task.
I’ve included a downloadable household list to get you thinking. This will change and grow as the seasons of married life evolve. Remember that marriage is not 50/50. It is 100/100. Enjoy the process of maintaining your home and the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes when the two of you work together for a common end. Do not forget to thank each other, avoid micromanaging and show a little grace. And if you just did not have time to get all the cleaning done this week, that’s alright. My favorite tip: turn the lights low and light the candles. It covers a multitude of sins.
Together with you,