Doing the Most is a special series about ambition — how we define it, harness it, and conquer it.
My husband was let go from his job a couple of months ago. Before that, our financial contributions to our regular expenses were roughly equal, with me covering slightly more as my income is more consistent. Now I am covering them all. I feel lucky to make enough money to do so and believe I have been supportive of my husband emotionally as well as financially. I am not pressuring him about his job hunt, and I’ve offered to help him find (and cover the cost of) a therapist, which he declined. Understandably, he hasn’t been feeling his best, but I don’t think he is depressed. In addition to looking for work, he has spent much of his free time taking online courses and exercising, which is great.
Where I need advice involves the “second shift” that I work in our home. I have always picked up slightly more of the domestic tasks like cooking and cleaning, and the clear majority of household emotional labor and decision-making falls to me in a way that unfortunately makes me feel like I’m the house manager. Ideally, we could have addressed this earlier in our marriage, but I didn’t mind it as much when we were both working and busy.
Now I am extra disappointed that so many of these chores still fall to me on top of my demanding job. If I were out of work, I would like to think that I’d pick up a bigger share of household duties — do all the laundry, cook, clean, and fix things around the house.
I have talked to my husband about how when he gets a new job, I would love to employ a regular house cleaner, but that we need to wait until we have a higher household income. He just agrees and seems to not realize he could do that for free, right now. I know cleaning isn’t a fun hobby, but neither is the job I do to pay our bills.
I’m not hoping or expecting to do nothing around the house — I just wish he would make more of an effort. He sometimes mentions trying to pass the time during the day, and I just think to myself: DUST SOMETHING. I don’t want to add shame to what I know is already a low period for him, but I’m concerned I will resent him even after he starts a new job and is able to contribute more toward our finances. To me, it’s almost like a math problem: I am now responsible for 100 percent of household payments, and still do about 60 percent of household labor. Those two percentages used to be not perfectly even, but at least somewhat closer to 50/50.
How do I explain to him that our household contributions look different when I am almost solely responsible for our finances, and ask him to do more?
Years ago, when we were both in our 20s, my live-in boyfriend went through a stint of unemployment. I remember coming home one Friday after a long week at work to find him sitting on the couch, the bed still unmade and the trash can overflowing with smelly takeout containers. For months, I had gently mentioned that it would be so nice if he’d please, please take out the garbage when it was full, and how much I loved when our apartment was tidy. (And to be fair, he usually listened.) That evening, I lost it and yelled, “What do you even do all day?”
We are now married (and both employed), and while we obviously recovered from that moment, I wish I could say that we’ve figured out how to divide chores equally and happily. Instead, it’s still a mixed bag, but we have gotten much better at it. Most important, we’ve learned how to have a civilized conversation when one person (usually me) feels like they’re doing too much, instead of snapping or grumbling (mostly). I can tell you what has worked for us, but I was also excited to research your question and get more advice from people who study these issues for a living.
But first, let me say that what you’re describing is infuriating and unfair. It also remains stubbornly common, despite study after study showing that female breadwinners in hetero relationships still do more housework than their male partners (even when those male partners do not work at all), and that this gap is damaging to marital happiness. You mentioned that in an ideal world, you would have worked harder earlier in your marriage to make things more equitable. I suspect that even if you had, you might still have found yourself in the same place. This is not your fault.
I love your math equation with balanced ratios of income to household labor, like a tidy economic model. But the problem is, humans are not rational and they don’t behave according to percentages. Especially when it comes to finances and the division of chores in the home, there’s so much emotional baggage surrounding gender roles and upbringing and social norms that even the most sensible, watertight plan is going to flounder from time to time.
Money has a way of bringing certain grievances to light. It makes sense that relatively minor chore disparities didn’t truly bother you — at least not enough for you to act on it — until you became the sole income earner, which comes with a lot of additional pressure. It also seems like a no-brainer that your husband should pick up more chores around the house now that he has extra time. Still, it’s possible that he is oblivious to (or in denial of) these dynamics, says psychologist Brian Ogolsky, a professor at the University of Illinois who studies how romantic partners maintain healthy long-term relationships. “We often get so ingrained in their routines and expectations that we don’t always recognize what we aren’t doing,” he explains.
In other words, your husband can’t read your mind. Which is why you have to tell him what you want, without making him feel worse about not making any money right now. In fact, you’d be better off leaving his employment status out of the conversation entirely, says Kathryn Lively, a sociology professor at Dartmouth College who has studied gender and its effects on emotional labor. “Your husband is likely grieving the loss of his job and the identity that went with it,” she says. “Don’t remind him that you’re paying for everything and therefore he owes you.”
Instead, Lively recommends presenting chores as an opportunity for him to make you happy. “Make an appeal,” she says.“Try something like, ‘I really need your help right now, because I’m overwhelmed. I would be really grateful if you would do these specific things.’”
Of course, it’s annoying to have to ask him every time you want something done — the “house manager” problem is very real (and also very gendered, typically). One potential solution to this is to pinpoint a few specific chores that you want to offload permanently and/or ask him if there’s anything he’d be willing to take ownership of. This is known as “specializing,” explains Ogolsky. “If I do the things that I’m either good at or I like to do — or I dislike less — and my partner does the things that they are more interested in doing and dislike less, then the balance works much better.”
One important step in that process is to get a clear picture of what Lively calls your “chore portfolio”: basically just a list of all the stuff that keeps your lives running (dishes, dog walking, paying the water bill, etc.). Sitting down and writing those things out — together — is a good way to get on the same page about what needs doing, how often, and by whom. It also invites him to lay claim to certain realms where he feels more confident rather than feeling like you’re handing him a chore chart.
Speaking personally, the divide-and-conquer strategy is a game changer. Here are a few examples of how we do it: My husband takes out the garbage and the recycling, which I hate and he doesn’t mind. I do all the grocery shopping and the cooking, which I generally enjoy and am better at. He does the dishes and unloads the dishwasher. I feed the cat because he thinks cat food is disgusting (it is, but I am less bothered by it). He cleans the litter box (ew). I water the plants. You get the picture. Sometimes the other person steps in (“When you run downstairs, could you please take the garbage with you?”), but by and large we take care of our respective tasks.
When new things come up (for example, we need a new microwave), it helps to determine who is going to “own” it from the get-go (I took care of it, because my husband had recently dealt with our broken air conditioner). Most of the time neither of us wants to do tedious things, and those conversations aren’t exactly fun, but usually we can come to some sort of agreement.
I understand your fear about resenting your husband, even once he gets a new job, and I think you’re wise to get ahead of it. You might even just tell him that: “I’ve been feeling resentful of how much housework falls to me, and I don’t want to blame that on you. Can we talk about divvying up some of the stuff on my plate?”
These balances will (and should) shift when your circumstances change. Presumably, your husband will go back to work at some point. Maybe you’ll be able to afford a house cleaner. But the most important thing is that you keep checking in. In my own case, these negotiations can be very transactional (“I’ll wipe the counters if you fold the laundry”), and, of course, sometimes we fight. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than it used to be — and most important, it allows room for improvement.