A recent YouGov poll of couples in the US found that chores were among the top five most-argued-about topics. And although today women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, those in heterosexual relationships are still more likely to handle the bulk of the domestic duties, according to a 2020 Gallup report. The picture isn’t dissimilar in the UK – and the pandemic only made it worse.
Household labour includes physical tasks such as laundry, cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping and child care, but it also encompasses the often invisible job – known as the “mental load” – of ensuring these tasks get done: anticipating needs (remembering to buy more dog food), planning (coming up with meals for the week) and delegating (figuring out who is going to pick the kids up early from practice).
Though heterosexual men are generally taking on more domestic duties than they have historically, the majority of the mental load continues to fall to women.
Laura Danger, a Chicago-based coach who facilitates workshops for couples seeking a more equitable division of domestic labor, tells HuffPost that it’s “surprisingly easy” for couples to “slip into antiquated gender roles” when they move in together or have kids.
“Women aren’t just doing more labour, the labour they’re doing is mentally and emotionally taxing: anticipating and planning for how to the meet the family’s needs,” she says.
“Women aren’t just doing more labour, the labour they’re doing is mentally and emotionally taxing.”
“When you consider, in cis-het couples, who is usually keeping the social calendar, signing kids up for summer camps and ensuring the grocery list is planned and prepared, it’s often defaulted to mum,” she adds. “Doctors, teachers and coaches often dial mum first. Even the vet usually calls mum before dad!”
Studies have found that LGBTQ+ couples tend to divide domestic duties more evenly ― perhaps because they can’t just default to traditional gender roles. After they have kids, however, they often start to split things like heterosexual couples do: with one partner bringing in more income and the other taking on more of the household and child care duties.
Finding a good balance can still be a challenge for all couples, says Annisa Pirasteh, an LGBTQ+-affirming therapist and the owner of Act2Change Therapy & Wellness Center in Atlanta.
LGBTQ+ couples “often grapple with how to talk through splitting up household labor, especially if they grew up in homes where chores were divided based on cisgender-heterosexual norms,” she tells HuffPost.
In an effort to find out how the happiest couples divvy up domestic duties, we asked experts to share some of their secrets. Here’s what these couples do differently:
1. They communicate clearly – and in great detail – about what needs to get done and how
When dividing up domestic duties, super clear and explicit communication is a relationship saver, Danger said. And it’s something that most people – even those who say they aspire to having an egalitarian partnership – don’t do.
Couples who do it successfully get into the nitty-gritty details about each and every task on their list. They don’t stifle their frustrations (which breeds resentment), make assumptions about who’s doing what or behave in passive-aggressive ways.
Danger utilises the “Fair Play method” with the couples she works with – a system based on Eve Rodsky’s book by the same name. It involves identifying all the steps involved in completing a single task and agreeing upon a standard for how it should be done.
″[This] method provides an opportunity to discuss all of those invisible steps involved with noticing when something needs to be done, planning for it to get done and then following through,” Danger says.
2. They schedule time to have these conversations weekly
Having a one-time conversation hashing out household duties isn’t enough. The happiest couples set up a specific time — at least once a week — to touch base about all things domestic labour.
“Use the time to check in, celebrate wins and discuss who will handle which tasks for the coming week,” Danger says. “Be consistent! The more you practise communicating clearly about the division of labour and problem solving in a healthy way, the easier it’ll get and the happier you’ll both be.”
Adding yet another item to your family’s weekly calendar may seem like a pain. But it’s worth your while, Danger says.
“Investing your time and energy in communicating about a fair division of domestic labor is an investment in the long-term health of your partnership.”
3. They play to each other’s strengths
Happy couples consider their individual strengths and interests when it comes to determining who handles each household task.
“I ask [couples] to think about chores they feel most comfortable doing or find they are most efficient with,” Pirasteh says.
Let’s say Partner A hates folding laundry; baskets of clean clothes continue to pile up in the corner of the bedroom, but they enjoy planning meals and buying groceries for the week. Partner B, on the other hand, doesn’t mind folding clothes at all – they pop on a podcast and can get through a basket (or three) in a jiffy – but dreads grocery shopping. Taking these preferences into account makes the whole system run more smoothly.
4. They recognise that sharing domestic labor is about more than just the tasks themselves
It’s not just doing the dishes in the sink, “it’s showing your partner that you value their time and want to care for them” by getting them done, Danger says.
This is especially relevant when it comes to the mental load. Take, for instance, getting your kids signed up for summer or extracurricular activities. It’s not just that you want your husband to help you with the physical task of filling out the enrolment forms, it’s also that you want him to be just as invested in the research and decision-making process of finding a programme that would best suit your kid.
“Sharing in more than just the execution of tasks means that both partners feel empowered to participate actively at home,” Danger says. “One partner may need to coach the other while they step into a more active role at home, but the payoff is less resentment, less ‘nagging’ and more confidence. Dividing the mental load and truly sharing in the responsibility of domestic life empowers both partners to show up as whole people inside and outside of the home.”
5. They can rely on each other to execute their duties
Happy couple understand the importance of showing up consistently for their partners and making it a priority, Pirasteh says.
“Whether it is household chores or in a crisis, individuals want to know that they can count on their partner to communicate proactively and to follow through consistently,” she says.
That means each partner owns the tasks on their plate from planning to execution without needing constant reminders and follow-ups from the other.
6. They don’t micromanage each other
As a couples therapist, Tiana Frazier says she often sees couples get stuck in an overfunctioner/underfunctioner dynamic – with the former doing more than their fair share of household duties and the latter doing less. The underfunctioner may not feel confident they can meet the overfunctioner’s high standards, so they either neglect tasks or put in minimal effort. This, understandably, frustrates the overfunctioner, which can lead to nagging and resentment.
Couples that split domestic labor successfully break this cycle. The overfunctioner stops taking on so much, encourages their partner to step up and praises them when they do. Their partner may not do things exactly to their liking, but the overfunctioner understands that sometimes “good enough” is, indeed, enough.
The overfunctioner “allows them to do the household duties in their own way without micromanaging how they complete the tasks,” Frazier, of You & Me + Therapy in Dallas, tells HuffPost. “My advice to the underfunctioning partner is step up in a way that will help your teammate as well as your relationship. Give your partner reassurance that you can handle the tasks and they can count on you to follow through with what you agreed to.”
7. They adopt an ‘us vs. the problem’ mentality
Of course, even the most dependable partners drop the ball sometimes. Happy couples remember that they’re on the same team. It’s the two of them versus the problem at hand – not one partner against the other.
When a domestic labor conflict arises, these couples take a deep breath and approach the issue with a sense of curiosity instead of blame, and work together to find a solution.
“Try to figure out what got in the way of success,” Danger said. “What support might you or your partner need to put in place for this to be successful?”
“For example, if the dishes are continuously not getting done, ask why. Is it a timing issue? Are they too tall for the sink so it hurts their back? Is it too loud to do while the kids are napping? Identify the root cause of the issue so you can trade tasks or implement tools – like calendar invites, timers, sticky notes – in order to be successful in the future. Attack the problem instead of each other!”
8. They’re flexible
Happy couples that successfully share household duties know that nothing has to be set in stone. If the current distribution of tasks isn’t working or circumstances change, they are open to making adjustments and renegotiating.
“Couples that prioritise flexibility recognise that just because a chore has been assigned to one person does not mean that the other partner can’t jump in and help when needed,” Pirasteh says. “Flexibility accounts for the real-life changes that can occur to our typical schedules – such as deadlines at work or falling sick. If something isn’t working, happy couples come back to the kitchen table to reorganise in a supportive way.”
9. They know “fair” doesn’t always mean splitting things 50/50
The reality is that one partner may have to shoulder more of the household burden, either out of necessity or because they prefer that arrangement.
“Everyone’s family life will look different, and when dividing up domestic labor, you don’t need to aim for 50/50,” Danger says. “I like to encourage folks to aim for equal rest... quality time where you can fully dive into a project or something that brings you joy.”
“Everyone deserves to clock out of their responsibilities for a bit,” she adds. “Our houses will never be spotless, but at least we can give each other protected time to be themselves.”