Ownership of chores and maintenance in a relationship
July 8, 2021 1:59 PM   Subscribe

My partner and I have had an ongoing lack of understanding about the default ownership of chores, bill, and general house maintenance that I'm struggling to put into words that are understandable to them as well as being respectful of how they chose to show up in our relationship. I could use some perspective and advice on reframing, both for myself but also to maybe find a way to communicated my feels comprehensibly.

Right now the main issue is that I feel the default ownership of any new task, bill, or chore falls to me. If there's an issue with the car, a new service we'd like to try, or organizing the plumbers visit, I feel assumption is that this is mine to own, and that if I need help I have to specifically ask for it. To me it's less about the division of labor, though sometimes it's frustrating seeing a pile of dishes from lunch when I wasn't even home for, but more about me feeling like the font from which the work flows. It feels like the load of caring for our life and house is a coat they can slip on when convenient, or opt out if if they want to.

I brought this up recently in conjunction with a car issue that occurred. They were running with it and dealing with insurance, but because I'm the main point of contact I got a bunch of emails about it. I thought I tried to let them know some new information I gleaned from those emails, but it came across to them that I was trying to butt into their process. In the conversation they said ok well I'm done with this now, I'm stopping and you have to take care of it. I was incorrect that it was new information, and have apologized for being wrong, but that prior statement brought this issue again to the forefront.

I've been clear that it's not just any one thing, it's not that I don't feel they help, it's that by framing it as let me know how to help you, it's perpetuating the issue that I find frustrating. By saying I want to help you need to let me know how, it's reinforcing that I'm the owner of all these things and that they are doing me a favor by taking it off my plate. This though has hurt my partner who feels that their sincere offer of help and resources isn't appreciated, and that I need to tell them more about what I need done so that they can help. Their solution is that I need to communicate more about these pitfalls so they can assist.

We've talked about it both with our therapist and together since then and I feel like I'm not being heard. One of the take aways the therapist said to do is write down all the tasks that we do to help make sure things are balanced. This is making me feel like it's another thing to add to the to do list, another piece I have to own, and it's a bit frustrating.

I understand I'm not the easiest person to live with, and that I have opinions about how to approach different solutions, but I'm not sure why that means I have to always be the default person for these tasks. Is there a better way to phrase it? I've tried saying "when you object to my feelings by saying you've offered to help, it perpetuates the structure that can frustrate me" but that has come across to them as me dismissing their offers to help. I've tried to explain but have been said I'm manipulating their words and am being hard headed. I don't know how better to say that it comes across that you're offering to lift my burden rather than owning joint challenges that arise from living life together, that your phrasing it as help is what I'm talking about. The asking rather than doing means it's another thing on my plate and my checklist.

Is there a better script or approach I could use when talking about this? I'm very grateful for their help and their contributions towards our household. It just rankles when they make it clear they also view this as something I own rather than something we jointly own. I don't want to be hardheaded about this, and I can see why they'd be hurt if I wasn't appreciating their efforts. No one taught me this though, I learned by doing, but that doesn't seem to be in their playbook. How can I navigate this?
posted by Carillon to Human Relations (22 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Do you have a clear idea of what you'd like the solution to look like, ideally? It might help if you can propose a concrete alternative system to what you've got now. By concrete I mean not something like "we should both have equal ownership", which is vague and almost an invitation to defensiveness, but "here's how we can deal with the next task/bill/chore, and the one after that, and so on". And "here's how we can approach issues like being a contact person, updating each other, etc."

Once you've got a concrete idea about what your ideal solution would look like, you can talk together about whether that would work for your partner too and what they'd like to modify. Then try it out together, see how it feels, iterate if necessary.
posted by trig at 2:17 PM on July 8, 2021

Best answer: Metafilter on emotional labor. Note that the thread presents the issue in a gendered way, as it usually is, but it doesn't have to be.
posted by praemunire at 2:18 PM on July 8, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: If your partner lives in the home with you, they are not 'helping you' with chores anymore than a dad is 'babysitting' his own children if the mom isnt there.

Your partner is pulling a classic move of wanting to assign you the role of their manager in the home, which exactly no one appreciates being on the receiving end of.

To fix this you will need to make a list of household tasks and maintenance (sorry, ypurtherapust was correct here). Sit down with them and divide the tasks up. Those tasks are now theirs to own. Do not instruct on, interfere with, or do these yourself. This is critical. Let your partner step into an adult role and figure out how they can get them done.

If they do not rise to the occasion, they no longer have the out of saying you need to let them know how to help. They know, and are refusing to do so, which is another kind of conversation.
posted by ananci at 2:20 PM on July 8, 2021 [35 favorites]

What will happen if you tell them that, from now on, you will assume that anything new that needs to be done will be their responsibility, but if they want your help they should let you know? Putting it explicitly on them might help. It might also backfire because they won't do it, but then it still might be a learning experience for them, if they eventually start wondering why that sink still isn't working. And you'd only be asking them to do what they've been expecting you to do all this time.

My ex and I had pretty good success dividing up large areas of responsibility, so it didn't require as much day-to-day discussion or explicit requests. One of us was always in charge of dealing with people we hired, one always in charge of everything surrounding yard maintenance, one always in charge of laundry, etc.
posted by metasarah at 2:39 PM on July 8, 2021 [11 favorites]

If I can encourage you to do the task list, it will help establish roles. If you are the default person, writing out that list will likely give you feelings--I felt so frustrated and overwhelmed when I did it. But once that list is out and chores are divided, the hardest part might be holding your own on not falling back into the default habit of picking up the slack.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 2:43 PM on July 8, 2021

Best answer: This could be me, cast in your role, and Mr. DrGail cast in the role of your partner. We've talked about it a great deal, as you have, and what I've come to realize is that he is more passive about these things and is waiting to be asked. In fact, he *wants* to be asked to take charge of whatever it is. He just, for whatever reason (which, frankly, could be my innate bossiness), doesn't want to step forward and assume control of the task.

So I've accepted the emotional labor, such as it is, of determining that something needs to be done and, when appropriate, ask him to take charge of doing whatever is necessary on that task. And then I stay out of it. It's a work in progress, though, as he often gets frustrated and I frequently restrain myself from offering unsolicited advice.
posted by DrGail at 2:45 PM on July 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

I brought this up recently in conjunction with a car issue that occurred. They were running with it and dealing with insurance, but because I'm the main point of contact I got a bunch of emails about it. I thought I tried to let them know some new information I gleaned from those emails, but it came across to them that I was trying to butt into their process. In the conversation they said ok well I'm done with this now, I'm stopping and you have to take care of it. I was incorrect that it was new information, and have apologized for being wrong, but that prior statement brought this issue again to the forefront.

I don't think your partner responded to this situation greatly, but there is a kernel of truth in this that if partner was dealing with it, sometimes it's best to just let them do their thing, even if it's not how you would do it, even if you have info that might help. At the most you could say "hey I'm forwarding a bunch of stuff about the car" and then leave it.

It might help you to have a scheduled "chore check in" once a week, let's say. You may at least initially feel you are directing these meetings, but hopefully a time boundary will help. It may be that you are in fact better at directing the mental load, but in that case, your partner needs to acknowledge that this is in itself a high-level chore and that you do not split the chore list 50/50 AFTER you've done all the work of maintaining the list.
posted by nakedmolerats at 2:50 PM on July 8, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This sounds very similar to my relationship. My husband is you and I am your partner. For me, I’ll happily take care of chores but if someone else is going to do it I’ll let them. Which could be deemed lazy, moochy etc but for me it’s just practical. Why should 2 people do it? Also I just tend to skirt closer to the margins of preparedness than he does. You could as other suggest take it as a simple exercise in divying up responsibilities. For us there was more going on - it was (is) about my husband feeling valued and appreciated. Anyway just thought I’d say that there are lists - look up ‘parentlightly’ and also ‘property management’ - for canned lists of household/adult chores. To save you a bit of the emotional labor.
posted by goalie at 2:55 PM on July 8, 2021 [3 favorites]

A few thoughts:

The list needs to be jointly created and agreed upon. Maybe even in a therapy session.

Identify a mutually workable method(s) for sharing information and assigning tasks, such as: whiteboard in the kitchen for a grocery list, a family project management software account, or a weekly check-in to plan meals/take on new tasks/update each other about ongoing tasks.

Do things together when possible, such as cooking, folding laundry, or cleaning (“I’ve got the bathrooms if you’ll get the kitchen”), after agreeing on the basics (e.g., what are the essential tasks of cleaning the kitchen?).

Identify easy things like “Carillon likes grocery shopping, so assume they’ll do it unless they ask Partner for help,” or “Partner wants credit card points, so they’ll put all the utility/phone/subscriptions on auto-pay with their card.” Likewise, if hiring a cleaning service, ordering a meal subscription kit, etc. is financially feasible and would make your life easier, strongly consider it.

Stop doing things just because your partner doesn’t (like dishes). For any such issue, consider whether your partner does it slower/differently than you or never. Those are two different issues.

Consider any skills or emotional processing needed to get some of this done: does handling unexpected bills make your partner feel overwhelmed? Does seeing dirty dishes make you feel like you’re the parent? Does one of you need to watch some YouTube tutorials or read a book on cleaning/yard work/finances? It’s perfectly normal for adults to have gaps in their knowledge, practical skills, or emotional regulation abilities. Don’t assume you’re both coming at this with perfect clarity and skill.
posted by theotherdurassister at 3:06 PM on July 8, 2021 [4 favorites]

OP: "I have opinions about how to approach different solutions."

I find this the biggest challenge when it comes to evenly sorting out labour in my (hetero) relationship.

I have learned that I CANNOT HANDLE watching my partner cook because he does it (in my opinion) in the least efficient way possible. E.g., picking up vegetable pieces from the cutting board and putting them into the pan one small handful at a time -- rather than lifting the cutting board and dumping them off the edge. But what I absolutely CAN HANDLE is eating a delicious meal full of vegetables that someone else made!

Using your example, the car repair situation: instead of reading those emails and extracting the necessary information and carefully communicating it to your partner and trying to divine if it was new to them or not... just hit Forward, Send. Or you could also add a quick, factual note saying, "I got these 4 emails from the car place. I haven't read any."

Then let the chips fall where they may.
posted by cranberrymonger at 3:29 PM on July 8, 2021 [15 favorites]

Best answer: There is a book, Fair Play, that is specifically for this conundrum. I recommend it. One of the concepts you might find useful is borrowed from corporate contexts, but it is CPE (conceive, plan, execute). The author asserts that for any given household task, one person should be fully in charge of CPE. Currently, it sounds like conceiving of a task is coming from your partner, but then planning and executing is up to you.

Another idea she discusses is that of the Daily Grind. They are the time-bound tasks that cannot be slipped on and off like an old coat, and while you did not name genders, usually Daily Grind tasks fall to women. They're things like making meals (people have to eat at certain intervals in the day, it just has to happen). Most men in cis-het relationships have non-Daily Grind tasks, which they can do at their own convenience, like mowing the lawn. Anyway, just another concept to consider in looking at the balance of labor in your own home.
posted by purple_bird at 3:39 PM on July 8, 2021 [5 favorites]

Red and Blue Rule: it's not bleeding and no one is turning blue -- it's not a crisis.
Most of daily living is not a crisis, so take a step back about what you and your partner "need" vs what you each "want."
Your therapist is helping you each and collectively come up with a system which (mostly) works for you. Sometimes the system breaks down. You need a reset point, agreed upon by each other. Regular visits to the reset point help keep the resentment from percolating below the surface.

Various methods for division of responsibilities have been mentioned: written lists, explicit division of chores, doing jobs together, etc. My husband and I have tried these, along with switching chores after a few months or years.
And sometimes, we just let it go. The person who is most annoyed about the chore does it, and the other person tries not to make the chore more annoying.
You can do it. Partner can do it. You can pay someone to do it. You can make the chore easier (paper plates for personal lunch, autopay for the bills). There are dozens of ways to work this out.
What you cannot do is have a parent/child division of labor. Both parties are resentful, and the dirty dishes pile up.
But it's just dirty dishes, unless you or your partner make it into something else.
posted by TrishaU at 3:42 PM on July 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I hear you on the not wanting to make the list thing. I think that’s an understandable thing for a therapist to suggest, but I also know I would hear that request as frustrating. Because how can “everything and the planning and things I can’t think of, but will be my job” be written down? I think thinking of the list as a list of standard household chores (or chore categories) is an easier starting point. And what if your partner was the person who drafts the list? Then you could add to it. I like the idea of going over the list with your therapist a lot.
posted by areaperson at 3:49 PM on July 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I like the idea above of dividing tasks by broad areas, if it works for you, which helps with the "how can I know every single task??" problem. Broad areas: calling maintenance people to fix stuff, car stuff, grocery planning, pet stuff, buy a new thing for the house stuff. I bet if you had an initial meeting where you just brainstormed all the Stuff you've had to do in the past few months, you would be able to see the broad categories.
posted by nakedmolerats at 3:56 PM on July 8, 2021 [3 favorites]

And you will have to be OK with some things being done differently than you would have done them.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:57 PM on July 8, 2021 [9 favorites]

This may not be a helpful analogy, but maybe it will help your partner understand what your experiencing.

How would your partner feel if they were always the one who had to initiate sex? Even if, after things commenced, you asked what your partner would like, they would still be the one who always had to light the spark. How would your partner feel? Would they feel desirable? Would they feel cared for? Or would they eventually feel some niggling sense of rejection and resentment that they were the person who was making sure sex happened in the relationship.
posted by brookeb at 4:08 PM on July 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I wish I could offer you a helpful solution. Instead, I can tell you that this dynamic was a big part of the failure of my marriage.

Having been through that experience, I now believe that if someone is otherwise a functional adult (i.e, can hold down a job and deal effectively with most other aspects of life; executive function challenges are a different situation), then conflict about domestic life and shared responsibility is not a matter of them *not understanding* the complaints and how terrible you feel. It’s that they don’t care. They get something out of taking advantage of the inequality, so much so that it is even worth it despite having to sit through your repeated complaints. I really think the only play you have is to just withdraw your effort on their behalf.

Last, it takes two to develop those dynamics. It is worth reflecting on how you became accustomed to overfunctioning in relationship, and how you could be intentional about not slipping into that same dynamic in your future relationships, even from the early stages.

Wish I had a happier answer. I wish you the best of luck.
posted by Sublimity at 6:31 PM on July 8, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The ”you should have asked” cartoon on mental load might help you communicate that the issue is about feeling responsible.
posted by meijusa at 5:27 AM on July 9, 2021 [6 favorites]

One of the take aways the therapist said to do is write down all the tasks that we do to help make sure things are balanced. This is making me feel like it's another thing to add to the to do list, another piece I have to own, and it's a bit frustrating

You should both sit down together to make this list and divvy it up. Also talk about expectations: Does your partner not care if dirty dishes aren't washed immediately, for example? Since people can have different opinions about what's acceptable, if it's bothering you, you'll need to talk about what can work for both of you, and both of you may need to compromise a little.
posted by pinochiette at 7:39 AM on July 9, 2021

Best answer: I suggest a few things.
1. Read the thread on emotional labor linked by praemunire above. This thread will explain to you why it feels, and is, so burdensome to be in charge of everything. Also, have your therapist read it. Explain to your therapist that her assigning you the task of listing all the chores is effectively worsening your situation, and deepening and prolonging the conflict. If anybody makes that list, it should be your partner.
2. I have never found that a list of everything that needs to be done at home was very helpful. Things change, new things come in, toilets overflow. It is more helpful to list general areas of responsibility, like yard work, cooking, grocery shopping, bill paying, laundry, car maintenance, house maintenance, cleaning the bathroom, cleaning the kitchen, or just cleaning, and put one person in charge of each area. (Someone suggested this above but I can't find it now.) Then leave you partner to it. No help, no advice, no criticism, nothing unless your partner asks for it.
3. As someone suggested above, if you are the house manager or parent, and your partner is the helper or child, that is not good for your relationship. You have to each take adult roles. That is why it is better for each of you to have complete charge of certain areas of responsibility. You can't spend the rest of your life managing another adult if that adult is supposed to be your partner.
posted by KayQuestions at 5:24 PM on July 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: 4. You asked for a script to talk to your partner about this. The cartoon linked by meijusa perfectly explains what you are trying to tell your partner. I suggest you present that in therapy to your therapist and your partner, copies for all three of you.

I'm going to use that cartoon myself to explain the amount of supervision and decision making I have to do for the dementia patient I care for.
posted by KayQuestions at 5:36 PM on July 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks all for the help and the insight, I spoke with my partner and it was very focused on what specific things they could do to take stuff off my plate if I'm feeling overwhelmed. I tried saying it was less about specifics, but that rather than feeling like I was the coach and they were the player I needed to feel like we were teammates.

I don't think I did a good job though of conveying that as it fell back to requiring me to give specifics and a clear sense that it wasn't going to be something that they wanted to step up to without clear direction.

We'll see I did try and I hope maybe some of what I said made sense to them.
posted by Carillon at 6:44 PM on July 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

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