Arguing with Your Spouse or Sweetheart About Household Chores During COVID-19? Consider These 13 Suggestions.

couple cooking

I’ve written before about the challenge of shared work. It’s tough to share tasks without resentment.

And it’s a particular problem these days, when couples and families are spending so much time together. The COVID-19 situation means we’re using our space in an unfamiliar way, our time is spent differently, all our usual habits are disrupted.

It’s causing a lot of conflicts in couples—who’s doing what, and is everyone doing their share of the household chores? Here are some principles to keep in mind.

13 suggestions for managing household chore conflict during the Coronavirus

1. Have an explicit discussion about expectations.

You may not agree with each other, but you should talk about the fact that you don’t agree. Fuming silently when someone doesn’t unload the dishwasher isn’t helpful; that person may be oblivious to the fact that you expected them to do it.

It’s especially important to have this discussion now, because everyone’s usual workloads may be significantly disrupted. For instance, your household might have more dirty dishes, or more general mess, because everyone’s home all the time.

In particular, work related to children may be very different right now. Depending on your circumstances, you may need to figure out an entirely new way of divvying up work related to kids.

2. Just because something’s important to you doesn’t mean that it’s important to someone else.

You may value a clean kitchen; a messy kitchen doesn’t bother your sweetheart. Which means…

3. Because people are more likely to do work that they value, assign chores accordingly.

If you care about a clean kitchen, make that your job. If your partner hates a grubby bathroom, bathroom-cleaning should be that person’s job.

4. Watch out for “unconscious overclaiming.”

In unconscious overclaiming, we unconsciously overestimate our contributions relative to others. This makes sense, because we’re far more aware of what we do than what other people do. Studies showed that when spouses estimated what percentage of housework each performed, the percentages added up to more than 120 percent.

It’s easy to think “I’m the only one around here who bothers to…” or “Why do I always have to be the one who…?” but ignore all the tasks you don’t do. And maybe others don’t think that task is as important as you do, anyway.

Also, work done by other people sounds easy. How hard is it to walk the dog for a few blocks? Remind the kids to do their homework? Take out the trash? Disinfect the groceries? Wipe down the faucet and toilet handles, doorknobs, light switches, TV remote? It sounds easy, when you’re not the one doing it.

Be sure to recognize how others contribute.

5. If you don’t want to do a task, don’t do it yourself.

This sounds so obvious, but people often don’t observe this principle! If you keep doing a task, why would someone else start? Leave it undone. Don’t prepare lunch for your spouse and your two teenagers. Of course, this means that the task is most likely to be done by the person who cares most, so be strategic. It’s true that some tasks must be done; on the other hand…

6. Some tasks don’t need to be done.

There’s no law requiring that we make our beds, hang up our clothes, put away the kids’ toys every night. During the COVID-19 situation, you may want to change your usual standards, for harmony’s sake. This is hard for people like me: for me, outer order contributes to inner calm. But different people feel differently.

7. Don’t criticize the way people do their chores.

If you want it done your way and in your time frame, do it yourself. Maybe you like the laundry to be done frequently, but your sweetheart thinks it’s more efficient to wait, and then do many loads in the same day. If the laundry is that person’s job, that person gets to do it in their own way. (It must be noted, however, that some people use deliberate incompetence to try to shirk, which is very annoying.)

8. Praise the person who sets the assignments.

It takes energy and effort to say, “We need to clean the kitchen” or “The laundry pile is too high” or “Time to take out the trash.” Praise the person who makes the chore chart, who gives reminders, who’s nudging other family members along. Except for the truly clutter-blind (and such folks do exist), most people do prefer to be in an environment that has benefited from a lot of housework.

9. Recognize differences.

We all deal with negative emotions differently. Under stress, my urge (as an Upholder, see below) is to become more scheduled, more regular in my routine, more strict with my habits, more orderly—I find discipline to be comforting and energizing. By contrast, many people find comfort in lowering expectations and relaxing routines; they’re easier in their minds when they go easier on themselves.

It’s helpful to remember that a household clash might be arising out of different coping systems. One person is tightening up while another person is loosening up.

10. If people aren’t doing their part, consider their Tendency:

Upholders — Make expectations very explicit.

Questioners — Explain why you want something done. “Because I want it done” or “Because we have to” isn’t a good reason. Good reason: “We want the kids to feel like our little world is safe and normal, so it’s helpful to keep our household feeling orderly, with the laundry getting done, meals eaten at regular times, etc. If our household feels chaotic, they’re going to feel anxious and unfocused.”

Questioners are interested in efficiency, so discuss how systems could be made more efficient. They are also often interested in fairness, but they need facts, so calculate how much time you’re spending on chores vs. how much time your partner is spending on chores.

Obligers — Provide outer accountability. Note that sweethearts often don’t count as “outer” accountability, so don’t try to hold your partner accountable yourself. Try accountability systems like chore charts, scheduling, everyone in the household doing chores at the same time, the duty to be a role model, the duty to a future-self, keeping the house nice for others.

Rebels — Give freedom and choice. Let them do their work in their own way, in their own time. Note, they will sometimes choose to do something out of love for you. They want to live up to their identity: a loving parent, a thoughtful citizen, a responsible family member. Don’t remind, nag, or give helpful reminders—you may ignite the spirit of resistance.

Don’t know about my “Four Tendencies” personality framework? To find out if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel, take the free, quick quiz here. More than 2.8 million people have taken it.

11. Make a joke of it.

A little humor goes a long way. Can you find a funny way to make your point? Can you poke fun at yourself, while still saying what you need to say? I told my family that my COVID-19 mantra is “Put away my clipboard” as a way to make fun of myself and my urge to hustle everyone along. Now I can say, “I’m sorry, I can’t resist pulling out my clipboard to point out that you haven’t put away those clothes yet.”

12. Remember that the only person we can change is ourselves.

We can’t control other people, we can’t change what they do. But it’s also true that when I change, a relationship changes; when I change, the atmosphere of my household changes; when I change, others may imitate me. So sometimes we can bring about larger change, just by changing what we do ourselves. This was one of the most important lessons I learned while writing The Happiness Project.

13. Remember love.

This is an unprecedented time. We’re all anxious and fearful, and for some, that anxiety and fear is may feel almost unbearable. This is a time to remember love.

  • If we can overlook a neglected chore, maybe this is the time.
  • If we can perform a chore even though we think it’s pointless and unnecessary, maybe this is the time.
  • When someone asks for help, maybe this is the time to jump up and say “Sure, what do you want me to do?” instead of muttering “I’ll do it later” while continuing to scroll through email.
  • Maybe this is the time to let go of things that would ordinarily bother us.

What do you think? What did I get wrong–or forget to include? What strategies are you using to handle conflicts around household chores?

Right now, we’re in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, and it will continue and change for a long time. While everyone across the globe is affected, it’s hitting people differently in different places. Countries are experiencing it at different times, and within the United States, states are being hit at different times. The crisis affects individuals very differently, too; people’s fears and challenges vary dramatically. Wherever we are, we’re all so grateful for the healthcare workers and other essential workers who are doing such important work, so courageously, during this time.

I’m writing from my own experience, at this moment, in New York City.



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