Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Why Couples Clash Over Chores: Some Alternatives

scrubbing the kitchen floorIf you and your partner find yourselves battling over throwing out the garbage or doing the laundry, you are not alone and neither may actually be to blame. A closer look may offer some understanding and some alternatives.

  • According to a 2007 Pew Research Center Survey of American adults, 62% ranked  “sharing household chores” as third in importance in a successful marriage  with 92% ranking “faithfulness” as number one and 70% ranking “happy sexual relationship” as number two. There were no differences of opinion between men and women; or between older adults and younger adults; or between married people and singles.
  • Back in 1990 fewer than half (47%) of adults said sharing household chores was very important to a successful marriage. The fact that 60% of women work outside the home and  men are participating in the household and childcare at three times the rate they did in the 60’s, the ranking suggests that concrete help with the day to day chores is both needed and appreciated.

The Division of Labor

What may seem, however, like an easy division of labor, “you shop” and “I’ll cook” is actually not so easy. In fact the notion that a perfectly balanced list could or should exist is a myth. People just don’t function that way.

When he said he would do the bathrooms if I did the kitchen, I put the cleaning bottles under the sink. When he said I needed to put them in a pail – I got it. When he said he really only wanted to clean the shower, I told him I really only wanted to wash glasses!!

When she said “I don’t food shop because I do the laundry, he said ‘you don’t do the laundry- the machine does the laundry.’ (This conversation went downhill fast.)

For Most People Chores are “Chores”

  • In an older but relevant study, 3,800 men and women were surveyed to test competing explanations of how the distribution of housework and paid work among couples affects depressive symptomatology.
  • The question was whether fair distribution of labor across spouses would alleviate depression or would the performance of multiple engaging roles including chores alleviate depression irrespective of equity.
  • Results confirm that paid employment is associated with reduced depression among both husbands and wives until work hours exceed an upper threshold. However, time spent in housework is universally associated with increased depression, no matter what other role constellations exist!!

Add child-Care

Add kids to the picture and you up the challenge and stress with more needs, more clutter, more groceries, more laundry and more meals… all with a clock ticking.  With this in mind, you really have to wonder about the need for “Survivor Shows.”

Caught in the Balance

The reality in this culture is that most working couples, particularly with children, are clocking in many hours at home and at work, and trying to strike a balance between the two. The strain they feel is often played out in their clash about chores.

Understanding Leads to Alternatives

Consider adopting three stances that might invite collaboration rather than couple strife regarding chores: Recognition, Resourcefulness and Refueling.


Social- Cultural Pressure:

  • When it comes to chores, women with or without children and whether working full time or not literally “pick up” more of the load. While the culture is more amenable to their maternity leaves or part-time requests for child care, it is not without a price. Conditioned to ask too little for themselves, they take less in terms of money and advancement in the workplace in order to do more at home. Most working mothers are never off task often colluding with the view that their outside job is “time for them.”  Too often when they are not doing their paid job, they expect they should be doing something with their kids. – How many married working men playing golf are asked ‘Where are the kids today’?
  • While the culture may grant men their golf time or business dinners, a 2011 study by the Boston College Center for Work and Family reveals that men are caring, committed but conflicted. Trying to balance a career with an increased presence in the home is simply not that easy. The majority of men are putting in twice the number of hours in the workplace as their partners and despite the fact that they don’t do as much of the household or child care chores, they do often three times more than their Dads. The problem is that despite the lip service to balance most workplace and corporate settings are not amenable to flexible hours, paternity leaves or cutting back hours without career jeopardy and financial loss. – It is as difficult for the man to get to the early afternoon Pee-wee football as it is for the woman to get in a round of golf.

Perspective Bias:

  • We filter what we remember and how we respond through our present physical and emotional state. Stressed and exhausted most partners coming upon the clean but unfolded laundry dumped on the bed or the pizza box marked “ dinner”  have little ability to see it as a symbol of the other’s effort and stress. Instead it is registered as proof of their   “having to do it all”  “She/he’s not trying” or feeling “unappreciated.”
  • Given the personal bias of retrospective memory, i.e. we always remember the specific details of what we have done clearer than someone else’s details, the argument of who did more in the last week or month will never have a winner.


Because household and childcare chores are real and have to be done, using your energy as a couple’s to find creative and unusual arrangements can pay off.

Expectations – Routine and order does reduce stress, enhance mastery and generate positive feelings – but it never has to look like what your parents “expected.”

  • It doesn’t matter if your mother never had dishes in her sink.
  • It doesn’t matter if your Dad never cleaned bathrooms.

Re-prioritize depending on the day.

  • Many lighten the load by giving themselves permission to have a different set of priorities during the workweek – if food, clean clothes, child-care and pet care are the basics, agree to take those on and leave the rest. No one is checking the rooms or the rugs.
  • Rather than destroying or dreading each weekend, some tag-team on accomplishing some chore while the other has some free time and then switch. Some do much better first sharing some weekend R & R and then just taking on the chores within a pre-set time limit.
  • Many double task in a non-pressured way – they cook for the week while they are cooking for the weekend, they fold laundry while watching the game, they pick up from the cleaners on their way back from the park.

Do Something

Most partners find there is real momentum in agreeing to “do” something visible and predictable. For many people seeing that bed made or that bathroom sink clean is proof that you love them.

Rather than balancing lists, partners who are serious about sharing the load often find out what they do well, and it becomes “their thing”. What always makes this successful is when the other let’s them do it their way. Supervision of chores is a killer.

When she found him lying in front of the TV with toys all over and the triplets in PJ’s using him as a human trampoline, she decided to let it go – The great feeling she had from the evening Zumba class was worth holding.

Outsource – When you are out of time and energy any help is a miracle. Some couples would rather have a pizza date every weekend, than give up having a person help them clean every week. Sometimes the young teen down the block would love being a “Mommy’s Helper” to free up time to get other things done. Sometimes the person at the cleaners or laundry becomes a welcomed family member.


Freud’s original quote that “Love and work are the  cornerstones of our humanness,”  is worth expanding to consider that in order to be able to handle chores, most partners need a balance of work time, private time, social/ recreational time, and intimate time — albeit in different doses.

  • As mentioned in the blog, “Why Couple’s Disagree about Time,” people don’t waste time; they just use time differently. This is powerful idea to hold.
  • Whatever your partner uses to refuel – be it talking on the phone, staring at the TV or golfing – let it happen.
  • Work together on voicing how to “fit in” each of your stress reducers into the mutual time and chores you have. Be realistic; set your own limits so your partner does not have to feel like a parent.
  • Do make time for the couple. There is no sense in doing any of the chores if you end up feeling like you are trapped in an unhappy work-mode. In the end there will always be clothes and dishes – go for the memories.
  • Whether because they are never done or overdone – Don’t let chores define your relationship.

Photo by Ariel Grimm, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.