Seminar Offers Tips on How to Get Your Partner to Help Around the House

By Jennifer O'Sullivan

"You make the bed, you do the dishes, and six months later you have to start all over again."

—Joan Rivers

The division of household labor is an ever-changing equation, and one that varies according to whom you ask.

"In general, everyone thinks they're doing too much, and many feel that their partners aren't doing enough," says Jeff Jones of the Counseling and Postdoctoral Services Department at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI). Jones recently spoke on "How to Get Your Partner to Help Around the House" as part of the ongoing Lunch & Learn seminar series for TSRI employees.

Jones, a clinical psychologist who works with individuals, couples, and families at TSRI and in his private practice, presented the seminar in three parts, discussing trends in housework, the "division of labor" in the household, and practical strategies for resolving conflicts about who does what.

Of the people who attended the seminar, roughly a quarter admitted to being the "messier" half of a domestic partnership. The consensus among the remaining three quarters was that they each did the majority of the housework—some 80 percent—in their home. Jones acknowledged that 80:20 is a common housework ratio for couples, and that the imbalance, whether actual or perceived, can cause tension in all areas of the relationship.

"Marital satisfaction increases when partners help out around the house," says Jones. So just how do partners achieve harmony? Perhaps the first thing to do is answer an important question.

Are You an 80 or a 20?

Referring to specific studies on the issue, Jones summarized trends in housework over the past 40 years, reporting that in general couples are doing less housework overall, but that women still spend more time cleaning, cooking, shopping, and doing laundry than their male partners.

Of course, the division of labor doesn't always fall along gender lines, and the ratios can change when other activities not necessarily thought of as housework—vehicle maintenance, yard work, gift buying, and taking care of pets—are factored in. Still, avoiding what Jones calls the "power differential" is important to keeping a relationship healthy.

"The person who feels he or she is doing 80 percent of the housework often takes on the role of boss, adult, or authority," says Jones, "while the person who is doing less work becomes the child being told what do to. This results in resentment on both sides."

One of the keys in approaching a reasonable balance in the division of household chores is to identify each partner's expectations and motivations. "Some people are just naturally more comfortable among clutter, while others are on the more compulsive side," says Jones, who urges couples to identify where they each fall on the cleaning continuum. "If you have different needs, you may have to adjust expectations," he counsels.

"Start with How You Would Continue"

Jones asked participants if there was ever a discussion of how housework would be divided in the beginning of the relationship, and if any kind of agreement or "house rules" were ever decided. No's all around.

"This is more common in a roommate situation," Jones responded, and suggested that designating certain jobs can be a great way for couples to resolve housework issues. "And if you are already well into the relationship, start with how you would continue. In other words, identify each other's needs and expectations, and designate the division of labor." This can be done by voicing preferences—one person may abhor cleaning the bathroom and would be willing to take over the yard work in exchange. Another suggestion is to weigh various chores—does one take a lot more time and physical energy than another?—and divvy them up accordingly.

Other suggestions for how to get your partner to help around the house included giving positive feedback when he/she does pitch in, and avoiding criticism of the way in which it is done. Jones also cautioned against equating time and money, for example expecting your partner to do more housework because you bring in more income, or expecting him or her to pay for dinner out on Saturday night because you have done all the laundry that week.

As one employee said after the seminar, in the end it really is all about communication. And when they're coming from a partner, the words, "I really need your help" do indeed hit home.



Jeff Jones of TSRI's Counseling and Postdoctoral Services Department led a seminar for TSRI employees on a thorny issue—housework. Photo by Jennifer O'Sullivan.