How to split the chores with your partner — minus the drama and fighting 

Dec 1, 2020 /

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

Every couple, young or old, wealthy or poor, faces a set of practical tasks they need to get done, be it managing finances, mowing the lawn, arranging a social life or caring for elderly relatives. Traditionally, the lion’s share of this work was done by a wife who did not have a job outside the home. Today’s dual-career couples face the challenge of agreeing how to divide up this traditional “wife” role between them. When couples in their 20s and 30s are in their honeymoon period, they often have few responsibilities and relatively straightforward lives. During this period, their logistical load is light and rarely a point of friction.

But as life gets more complicated and a couple’s lives become more intertwined, the logistics burden tends to increase. There are simply more things to do. How you manage and divide up this logistics burden can be an ongoing source of conflict.

Take a couple whom I’ll call Haru and Sana. The arrival of their baby created a whole new world of logistics. Not only were there day-care drop-offs and pick-ups, but there was also a constant mountain of washing, trips to the doctor, clothes to be bought, the house to be cleaned and the hundreds of tasks that parents battle with.

Before becoming parents, Haru had pitched in at home. But once Sana took her maternity leave, things changed. Like many new mothers, Sana picked up the lion’s share of the logistics during her maternity leave and never let them go when she returned to work. As she and Haru quickly discovered, this division of work most commonly adopted by traditional couples — where one partner does 80 percent or more of the household work — doesn’t work for dual-career couples. When a wife does the majority of the logistics load while also maintaining a career, it leads to resentments and frustrations that can push couples to the point of breaking up.

So what’s the best way for working couples to split their tasks?

In recent years, the idea of a 50:50 marriage, in which couples strive to divide all tasks equally has caught our collective imagination. While a noble ideal, I have found that couples who negotiate logistics well — that is, they are happy with the division of labor, do not resent each other and can still push forward in their careers — are those who divide tasks deliberately but not necessarily equally.

Here is a process you can follow to get to a deliberate division of labor that fits your couple’s needs rather than a generic formula that doesn’t.

Step 1: List all your logistics tasks

Research shows that men and women consistently overestimate the proportion of housework they do. Women believe they do the lion’s share, while men believe the split is 50:50. In reality, in the UK the average man does 16 hours a week of unpaid housework, while the average woman does 26 hours a week. Clearly this isn’t 50:50, but neither is it 90:10. A large piece of the discrepancy stems from simply not knowing what our partners do, and vice versa.

Just because you know that you — only and always you — water the plants, prepare the kids’ gym bags, file the bills or clean out the gutters, it doesn’t mean that your partner knows it. In fact, as Tiffany Dufu explains in her book Drop the Ball, we tend to be blind to household jobs that we don’t do. This not knowing leads to feelings of resentment and being undervalued.

Starting your logistics strategy by jointly writing down a full list of household tasks is vital to avoid this trap of not knowing. This will ensure you are dealing with 100 percent of your tasks and nothing gets overlooked.

Step 2: Ask yourselves: “What can we simply stop doing?” 

Once you have your list of tasks, it is tempting to dive straight into dividing them. Before you do that, take a hard look at your list and ask, “What can we stop doing?’”

Sometimes we do things because it is expected of us in our community or, perhaps more accurately, because it is what we imagine is expected of us. Sometimes we repeat tasks we witnessed our parents doing or see what our current circle of friends focus on.

Deliberately thinking through what you can drop will immediately take some pressure off your logistics burden and start to move you away from the trap of doing it all.

Step 3: Ask yourselves: “Which tasks do I want to own?” 

Logistics can get a bad rap. It is presented as a burden and carrying out tasks a sacrifice, but family duties are not all dull and onerous. Most of us take pleasure in and derive meaning from some of them.

Before you think about what to outsource and divide, it is important to recognize what you personally want to keep. Perhaps you are a budding chef and love preparing family meals or maybe gardening is your thing or you relish the kids’ nightly bedtime routine.

One of the most successful couples I spoke to during my research — she the CEO of a nonprofit organization, and her husband a partner in a law firm — are a case in point. Both had extremely busy jobs, to which they were 100 percent committed; their four children had left home; and they had enough money to cover any logistical task they chose.

Yet every Sunday evening she settled down to iron his shirts for the week ahead. As someone who hates ironing, I was bowled over when she revealed this ritual. “Why do you do this?” I asked, somewhat astonished.

“I love it” came her reply, “I’ve always done it. I find it relaxing, almost meditative. It’s a way of expressing my love. It’s actually a big piece of my identity as his wife.”

Like this shirt-ironing CEO, often the things we hold dear are expressions of who we are as a husband or wife, father or mother. Recognizing them as such and claiming them is an important starting point. Of course, once you do this, there is likely to still be a lot left on your list, so for everything else …

Step 4: Ask yourselves: “What can we outsource?”

Being in a dual-career couple does not automatically make you wealthy, but with two salaries, there is sometimes extra money to outsource tasks you really dislike or that take disproportionate amounts of time. Whether it’s ironing, cleaning, gardening or grocery shopping, outsourcing some tasks frees up your time to focus on the things you really value. Some couples disagree on what or how much family logistics to outsource. Whom to outsource child care to, and for how many hours a week, can be an emotion-filled decision.

For everything that’s non-child-care related, go back to your list of tasks, identify your least favorite chores, your weekly budget and outsource as many as possible within your means.

Then, when you are facing a particularly busy or stressful period — a big project at work, the run-up to a promotion, the arrival of a new baby — it is important to revisit your outsourcing arrangements. Getting a bit of extra help during these times, even with things you wouldn’t normally, can make the difference in your lives between managing and burnout.

Step 5: Work out how you can split the rest

Once you have dropped the unnecessary tasks from your list, claimed the things you love and outsourced some of your least favorite, you are left to split up the rest. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to splitting tasks, the way you go about it can make the difference between relationship harmony and conflict.

There are two main strategies. The first is division, where you divide the tasks and each of you takes responsibility for those assigned to you. Some couples choose to divide the tasks equally, while others assign proportionally more tasks to one partner who perhaps has a less demanding career or a greater desire to get things done.

The second strategy is turn-taking. Here you share responsibility for each task, taking turns as to who does what. Your respective turns may correspond to days of the week when you are relatively less busy with work. For example, one of you cooks dinner on Monday through Thursday and the other on Friday and over the weekend.

Whatever you pick, the key is clarity. Tensions almost always stem from a lack of clarity, rather than a lack of equity.

Excerpted with permission from the book Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work by Jennifer Petriglieri. Published by Harvard Business Review Press. Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Petriglieri. All rights reserved.

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