Dana, 30, is a product developer for a large tech firm and lives with her boyfriend of three years. She’s always been the higher earner, which was never an issue; he loves how ambitious she is. However, she recently got a promotion and a raise, and is now working longer hours. She’s often late to meet her boyfriend (as well as other people), and he’s accused her of deprioritizing him and being disrespectful of his time. They’ve also started fighting about household chores; it sounds cliché, but she doesn’t want to come home from the office at 10 p.m. to find him watching TV with dirty dishes in the sink and the trash not taken out. She knows that she can’t treat his time as being less important than hers, but objectively, her time is more valuable, in a monetary sense. Is she an awful person to want him to be more accommodating to her? Is there a middle ground?
Money might seem like an objective measure of time (you make X and he makes Y, ergo your time is worth more than his), but you know it’s not that simple. What’s your endgame? It’s not like your life has a fare ticker attached to it, adding up dollars and cents as the minutes pass. And if we all stuck our salaries to our foreheads and prioritized each other accordingly, would anything run more efficiently? Our calendars would be a mess, and most of us would feel insecure and even more confused about our relationships.
The beauty of time is that, unlike money, it’s the great equalizer — we all have the same amount of it in a day, and standards for its best use are wildly subjective. Amanda Steinberg, the founder of DailyWorth, recently had lunch with a young entrepreneur who started out seeking financial advice, but ended up complaining about his girlfriend’s laundry. “He said, ‘She’s the breadwinner and she’s supportive of me working from home on my start-up, But the other day she asked me to pick up her dry cleaning, and I was a little insulted. Like, I have a job, too,’” Steinberg recalls. “I realized that he felt that the type of favor was demeaning to him, versus the demand on the time. If she had been like, ‘Can you stop by the hardware store and pick up a hammer for me?’ He’d probably be like, ‘Sure.’ But because it was her dry cleaning, he felt it was beneath him.”
Her advice: “I told him to get over it,” Steinberg says. “Go pick up your fiancée’s dry cleaning. And not only dry cleaning — just do stuff for each other without questioning whether it’s worth your time. I don’t care how much money you make, or not. No one likes emptying the dishwasher, but you’re in this together.”
Still, Steinberg is the first to admit that dedicating your precious time to menial tasks — even for a loved one — is easier said than done. In fact, she and her long-term partner live separately to avoid this very conflict. “We don’t share a home, because we would be nitpicking at each other, and arguing about who was doing more of what,” she says. “Harping and shaming can get people to change in the short-term, but it doesn’t work in the long-term. I don’t know the perfect solution.”
You don’t need to move out, or break up — unless you really want to, obviously. But if your goal is for this relationship to be a happy one, then you both need to feel like you’re contributing and gaining equally —which isn’t about money or time, exactly. You can’t keep track of girlfriend points like quarterly earnings or hours logged. In fact, your reliance on metrics to gauge your performance — a huge asset, professionally — can be damaging to your personal life, says Dr. Maggie Baker, a psychologist and financial therapist. “We’re all social animals, so we’re constantly comparing ourselves,” she explains. “You’re part of a generation that’s grown up with devices that give you tremendous feedback about every second of your life, so you’re used to evaluating yourself in highly measurable ways, which then influences how you experience time and decide what is meaningful to you. And having empathy and love for your partner can be at odds with that.”
Rather than examine numbers, put yourself in your partner’s shoes. “Thinking about how you would feel in his situation is key, and vice versa,” says Baker. “If your boyfriend has empathy for the fact that you get caught up in your work, and your intent isn’t to be late or to annoy him, then that helps you, too. Say, ‘I’m so sorry to keep you waiting — I got completely absorbed. I mean no disrespect.’ And then, later, talk about how you understand that it was upsetting to him, and how you want to work through ways to prevent it from happening so often.” What not to try: a heart-to-heart while one of you is already fuming. “You cannot empathize if you’re really angry at someone, because you won’t want to do it,” she says. “Let the incident happen, get inflamed, cool off, and then try to talk about it.”
On the flip side, you also need to discuss what you want from him — in your case, more dish-washing, trash-emptying, and leeway with lateness. But you didn’t “earn” those requests because of money or your promotion; you get to ask for them because you’re his girlfriend, and asking for what you need comes with the territory. When you’re hyperfocused on concrete results at work (and the status and money that comes with them), it can be incredibly difficult to open your front door and immediately switch to the amorphous balance of power and control that exists in your personal relationships — but remember that there’s a difference, and making time for the latter will keep you much saner (and less prone to burnout) in the long run.
A word on domestic tasks, which carry a certain brand of gendered baggage: Coming home from a demanding job to find a boyfriend who won’t clean up after himself isn’t just gross — it bears a whiff of sexism (second shift, etc.). And if the health of your relationship isn’t enough incentive for you to devise a better system, a new study from the National Bureau for Economic Research shows that when housework falls disproportionately to women, it hurts society as a whole. (The researchers’ model predicts that if at-home labor was allocated in a gender-neutral way, occupational output would rise by 5.4 percent, because people would make better use of their time in general.)
“There are a few reasons why someone isn’t ‘carrying their load’ at home,” says Steinberg. “One is that they genuinely think they already are. They’re like, ‘What do you mean? I already did the dishes!’ And you’re like, ‘There’s stuff all over the kitchen!’ Or two, they might not be the type of person who cares. They’re going to let dishes pile up in the sink because it just doesn’t bother them — or even register.” (On a personal note, I realized early on in my own relationship that I like things a lot tidier than my spouse. After a few frustrating arguments, I suggested going halfsies on a bimonthly cleaning service, and we’ve never looked back.) Peeling back the reasons why he isn’t contributing more will help you both fix the problem — but just because he works less than you doesn’t mean he’s suddenly on the hook to earn his keep.
There is a third, more insidious explanation why one person might avoid certain tasks in a relationship: “The person might also feel like the task is not a man’s job, or a woman’s job, and so it’s confronting to their identity, and it feels like a step down,” says Steinberg. If this seems to be the case, there’s no time like the present to bring it up (see above re: good for society).
No matter how many billable hours you crank out, what makes you human is that not every hour can be assigned a monetary value — particularly those that you spend with a partner. That time is kept separate for a very good reason. What do you want to get out of it? Maybe once you figure that out, you’ll get there right on time.