We have another reader question! I wrote recently about “parent-work” and when it needed to happen. This reader asks “Do you have any suggestions or best practices of how to communicate with your spouse about sharing parent-work, household, or other common responsibilities?”
This reader reports that “I have established a pattern of just doing too much myself. This is not because I think I am the only one who can do things the ‘right’ way. I think it mostly stems from my desire to avoid conflict!”
Here are my thoughts on getting a partner to share the load. I also welcome suggestions, particularly from those who’ve had success in re-negotiating roles.
First, take an honest look at what each of you is doing. In many situations we don’t adequately credit other people’s contributions, because we’re not there when all of their work happens, but we’re present for everything we do. One party might not automatically empty the dishwasher, but always changes the light bulbs the second they burn out. The point is not that this person is doing half, but he/she isn’t doing nothing either.
After you’ve taken stock of this, ask whether everything you’re doing is necessary. If you’re packing lunches daily, but the other parent thinks sending lunch money is fine, and the kids are fine with buying lunch, then you’re in for quite a slog in asking the other parent to do half the packing. In general, the easiest way to even a load isn’t to ask your partner to do more. It’s to do less yourself.
But let’s say you’ve looked at those questions and we’re not talking extravagant parent-work. We’re talking making doctor and dentist appointments and taking kids to them, or texting sitters, or remembering to ask a forgetful child about homework and permission slips, or realizing a kids’ pants are too small and he needs new ones. How do you bring this up?
In general, people are best convinced of things when they are framed in terms of their interests. So you can broach this topic any time there is a good opportunity for your partner to get what he wants if he’ll do X, Y, or Z. For instance, if your partner has seemed allergic to the idea of finding and booking a sitter, and he says “hey, we should try that new steakhouse,” you can say “I would love to. What night? Great. Would you please find a sitter for that night and then we’ll be all set.”
Don’t expect this first request to be easy. You will wind up forwarding him sitter contacts several times and checking in, creating far more work than it would be just to book someone yourself. But if you are serious about changing the distribution of labor, then do not back down. Just keep smiling and putting the work back on your partner’s plate. Eventually he will figure out that it is not that hard.
I am assuming here that our reader’s desire to avoid conflict does not stem from her partner being emotionally (or otherwise) abusive. If that is the case, we have a far different situation. But if it’s because of worries about normal conflict, then there are a few things to keep in mind for framing the discussion and for specific phrases.
First, conflict is hard to sustain when the other person is calm and reasonable. There’s no fuel for the fire. Hard as it might be, try to refrain from yelling “I’ve been doing everything around here for 10 years!” Or “I didn’t think I married a *#$@* Neanderthal!” Approach this issue as there being a problem in your life that both of you can work together to solve.
Second, if you’ve been doing everything, your partner genuinely may not know what needs to be done. Why would he? So for a while, you’ll have to request help and suspend any thoughts that a competent adult should be able to figure these things out. Be very specific, and let your partner know about what you’re doing. Use this sort of script: “I just booked our children for their next dentist appointments. They also need their annual well-child check-ups. Would you please call their pediatrician’s office to schedule that for a time you can make?” Follow with silence. One of the more useful tips from Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus is that grumbling is a sign the person is considering the request. Let the grumbling work itself out.
Another useful tip from that book: “Would you?” is better than “Could you?”
I’m not sure there’s any point in a giant sit-down discussion of this topic. While the over-arching problem may be a big and real one — I feel overwhelmed, and I feel that someone who truly loved me would want to lighten my load — the solutions are practical. So focus on those. Let your partner take a child shopping for clothes and accept whatever they come back with. Criticizing the person’s choices is probably the fastest route to everything winding up back on your plate again. I know of what I speak. I was not willing to make a home repair decision for years after my husband criticized the light switch I let a contractor install. They had to call him at work.
What do you suggest for re-negotiating a division of labor?