Under lockdown the unequal division of domestic labour between my (male) partner and I (a woman) has become really clear: I do far more of the cleaning, cooking, tidying, making sure we have enough groceries, etc. Which was the case before lockdown but less noticeable when we weren’t both home and having to cook every night. He seems to either not notice these things need to be done or is just used to them happening for him. How do I convince him his laziness is harming me and driving me away?
Eleanor says: One of the problems with housework is that we expect people to do it out of love. What could be a more quintessential expression of kindness than an elaborately prepared meal, presented on a carefully set table? The trouble is that once we think people do this work out of benevolence, it becomes very difficult to get the frameworks of fairness to fit over it. Fairness is about what you’re required to do, and benevolence is about doing more than that. Of course, benevolence is part of the job of a spouse and a parent – but when we expect more of it from mothers and wives, and when we think housework is its natural expression, the result is literally and necessarily unfair.
You only really need to make two points to your partner: 1, this work should be distributed fairly; and 2, it currently isn’t. If he seriously denies 1, you should throw him out, I don’t care where to. Chase him with a mop.
But I think 2 is where the real work is likely to happen, and the problem here is that perceptions will disagree. Housework makes itself invisible, it wipes up its own trail, giving the people who don’t do it the dormant belief that the natural state of a surface is dust-free and that unattended windows will stay clear.
A male friend of mine once mused out loud that his old house didn’t seem to get as dirty as his new one. He’d had a professional housekeeper at the old house. She came once a week and earned hundreds for a full day’s work, which was then quite literally forgotten.
Household labour isn’t just performing tasks, it’s knowing which tasks need to be performed. To a partner who doesn’t know what work there is to be done, the fact that you do that work won’t register.
So as much as you can, before raising this with him, keep notes. Make them accurate – don’t deliberately elide the times he rinses and stacks, or be excited to note when he gets it wrong. He doesn’t need to do zero work for it to be unfair that you do most of it.
Once you’ve got the list of what needs to happen, divide it up systematically and – this is crucial – once. One big, slightly patronising divvying-up conversation is better than a daily “whose turn is it?”. Do your future selves a favour and remove opportunities to re-litigate what fairness looks like: agree on it once and stick to it.
This situation forces you into a role you didn’t want to be in. You can either mother him by doing too much housework, or do the most matronly-feeling thing available and ask him to chip in with the housework. But given that’s your choice, you have to make one: don’t fume silently, because the longer it goes on the more you will see him as an adolescent. Looking at him that way means you will very quickly stop finding him attractive. Don’t let something as trivial as housework ruin a good relationship. Give the man a chux.
Ask us a question
Do you have a conflict, crossroads or dilemma you need help with? Eleanor Gordon-Smith will help you think through life’s questions and puzzles, big and small. Questions can be anonymous.