Welcome to “Dear Guy,” TED’s advice column from psychologist Guy Winch. Every month, he answers readers’ questions about life, love, work and what matters most. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org; for his previous columns, go here.
My husband and I have been together for 14 years and married for 9 — and I feel like I’m his maid! He will not cook, clean, do laundry or anything that he considers “the woman’s job”.
We have had countless arguments about him helping me, and every time he promises to change. You will not be surprised to find out he will help for a day or two and then completely stop until our next fight.
From day one, I was always cleaning up after him. My excuse was we were new, and I enjoyed doing it. I sometimes feel that the 20-year-old me wanted different things than the 30-plus me, and I have outgrown my own husband.
I’ve gone weeks without doing his laundry or cleaning just to see if he will give in but then I end up doing it all because I can’t stand the mess. He has no motivation to do anything, and it’s bringing me down. It has taken a toll on our sex life as well.
I feel underappreciated every day. I haven’t left him, because I truly love him. But at this point, I feel like I need to leave to get him to see how much I really do. My family doesn’t like him, so talking to them about him is always out of the question.
Unappreciated and stuck
Dear Unappreciated and stuck,
I like to think of patterns of communication, power and control in relationships — such as a division of labor — as being a bit like cement. First, they are far easier to mold in the beginning when the relationship or cement hasn’t set yet. Second, they harden very quickly. As such, the window of opportunity to change problematic dynamics without having to resort to a chisel is pretty brief and it can be measured in weeks or months, not years.
You say “From day one, I was always cleaning up after him. My excuse was we were new, and I enjoyed doing it,” which also means your husband’s expectations from the start were that since you enjoyed doing the cleaning and he did not, he wouldn’t have to do it going forward.
Was it problematic that he was eager to embrace gender stereotypes from the 1950s? Well, yes, but it was just as problematic as your willingness to enact them. We all do foolish things when we’re in love.
Let me be clear: I am not saying that it’s impossible for you to renegotiate household responsibilities at this point in your marriage. But I am suggesting that doing so will require a great deal of effort, crystal-clear communication and, most importantly, patience and persistence.
I already hear you sighing, Unappreciated, and I get it — you’ve been fighting this war for 14 years and you’re more than exhausted. But studies have repeatedly shown that an equitable division of labor is important for both men’s and women’s marital satisfaction, so this is work you must undertake if you “truly love” him.
With that in mind, here are some suggestions to help you concentrate your efforts and minimize your battle fatigue:
1. Admit you’re changing a very old agreement
Your husband has been relying on this lopsided division of labor for 14 years, and asking him to do his share represents a significant change, even if it’s a long overdue one. So it’s best to begin a conversation by owning your part in setting up the initial dynamic and acknowledging that what you’re asking for now is a big change.
Say something like “Honey [or babe or sweetie or whatever you call him], I know that when we got together, I set up the expectation that I would do the housework. It might seem unfair to you that I now want things to change. But it’s been unfair to me for years because I no longer like doing those things; neither of us do. But they have to get done, and I simply can’t do them alone anymore. I won’t. As much as you hate it — and I know you do — I need you to take on some housework.”
2. Don’t ask him to help
When you’re talking to him, avoid using the “h” word — as in “help.” Asking him if he’ll “help” you keeps the responsibility on your shoulders and makes it harder to hold him accountable since how much or whether he “helps” is subjective.
Once you have his attention, bring out a list of all the household chores or tasks that you do. Suggest to him that each of you take responsibility for specific tasks at specific times and ask him to choose the tasks that he will shoulder. See how many he chooses, and negotiate from there. Then put the list on the fridge and/or your calendars.
3. Respond every time he violates your new agreement
Yes, every single time. The fact that your husband always “promises to change” means you know how to set limits. But what you — and most of us — struggle with is maintaining them.
Both new habits and new expectations have to be strictly maintained if they are to be ingrained, especially the first slip-ups — the first time he lets dishes stay in the sink overnight, the first hamper of laundry that remains unwashed, the first meal that doesn’t get cooked.
Unless you call him on each violation, you’re basically telling him that he doesn’t have to keep his end of the deal. Even a single omission on your part signals he can start slacking off. And slack off he will.
4. Maintain your expectations with small reminders
I’ve noticed something frequently happens with my patients when they’re setting limits in their relationships. They have the big talk, the other person in their life makes an effort, and my patient feels relieved. But then at some point the other person falls short and my patient stays silent because, they tell me, “We just had a big talk and it’s too soon to have another one. Besides, they’re trying.”
But staying silent guarantees that nothing will change in your relationship. However, based on my patients’ experiences, there is good news: You don’t need to have another big talk with him.
You just need to provide small, positive reminders, like “Honey, you’ve been making a real effort with the housework and I really appreciate it. But I notice you didn’t do the dishes, so could you please do them now so we’re back on track? I know it’s a pain, but it means a lot to me that you’re willing to share these responsibilities with me.”
Or, if he forgets to go to the grocery store in the morning as he said he would, you send him a text message with the list during the day and thank him for doing it on his way home. Or if it’s 6PM and he’s making no sign of making dinner, ask him what he’s cooking because you’ve been looking forward to it all day. If he ignores the reminders or refuses to follow through on a task, it’s time for another big talk to let him know how serious you are about his need to change.
Unappreciated, the fact that he makes short-lived alterations after you give him an ultimatum means that he cares about you and does not want to lose you. By setting clear expectations and holding him accountable with reminders and positive reinforcement — and when necessary, the occasional big talk — you’ll find out how much he can change. And by holding yourself accountable for sticking to those new expectations, you’ll find out how much you can change.
Please send your questions to email@example.com; to read his previous columns, go here.
Watch his talk on work burnout here: