Living with someone (or someones) can require a fair amount of sharing: space, noise levels, appliances, bathroom time, you name it. Perhaps most crucially, though, is the sharing of chores. It can also be one of the most contentious parts of cohabitation.
Most of the time, the division of household labor isn’t equal, leading to loads of pent-up resentment. Research among heterosexual couples showed women tend to shoulder the brunt of housework. Even when wives make more money than their husbands, they still spend more hours a week on housework, per a recent study. Another study found that a common belief among roommates is that the housemate who’s most bothered by stacks of dirty dishes and piles of stinky laundry should be the one to handle the messes.
“When we’re conditioned to have assumptions take the place of structured decision-making, everything goes wrong,” says Eve Rodsky, author of Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live), also adapted into a soon-to-be-released documentary.
While an even chores split (you take trash duty, I’ll take dishes) can seem like the easiest way to household bliss, sometimes such a breakdown isn’t the most equitable or realistic. Schedules change, people get sick, and the least-glamorous tasks can slip minds entirely.
Instead of stewing in silence while passive-aggressively scrubbing the toilet for the millionth consecutive week or blowing up at your partner for never sweeping, take a measured approach to splitting household duties, whether you live with kids and family members or roommates and romantic partners.
Time for a deep conversation
Everyone differs in what they consider “clean.” A study found that those with lower tolerance for messes will often complete housework quicker out of sheer discomfort. The more that same person tackles those chores — say, washes the dishes — the more likely they will forever be considered the designated dishwasher.
If you feel your fate being sealed as the forever tidier, you have to discuss boundaries and expectations with your housemates. First, begin the conversation as neutrally as possible by saying something along the lines of, “I really want to be a great housemate to you and one of the things I think would be helpful for our relationship is if we could come to an agreement on the expectations around the cleanliness and organization of the apartment. Are you open to a conversation like that?” suggests Tiffany Dufu, founder and CEO of The Cru, a platform connecting peer mentors, and author of Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less. “The conversation is not about the recycling,” she says. “The conversation is about the value of the relationship that you have with someone and aligning on expectations around household duties, responsibilities.”
As honestly as possible, share what’s important to you in terms of house upkeep, says professional organizer Elise Hay, founder of Organized Sanctuaries. Is having a clear sink absent any dirty dishes at the end of the day one of your priorities? A made bed every morning? No hair in the shower drain? Make your preferences known.
Then, after each party has outlined their priorities, leave space to talk through any challenges in meeting those goals, Hay says. Maybe your partner has hectic mornings getting the kids ready for school and doesn’t have time to make the bed and you’d be better suited for that chore. (More on delegating tasks later.) Or your roommate doesn’t know you prefer an empty kitchen countertop when you’re doing your meal prep. Expressing these goals and preferences can help those we live with understand why certain chores are so important to us.
Because division of labor is never just about to-do list items, Rodsky advises discussing your respective histories with chores. Ask your housemates what they remember about cleaning growing up. Maybe they weren’t responsible for much around the house, but your parents assigned you weekly jobs. Both of these experiences impact how you approach household tasks as an adult. “That’s what I recommend,” Rodsky says, “frequent high-cognition, low-emotion conversations where you tell each other stories. ... These chores that we’re fighting about are actually our stories. They’re our humanity. I think when you can elevate it to that level, you can understand where someone’s coming from from such a better place.” These soul-searching conversations can help uncover why you hate washing windows or your partner prefers to be the one who folds the laundry.
Chores and mess can dredge up so many emotions, so you’ll need to actively avoid letting them influence how you discuss division of labor. Seeing jackets and shoes strewn about the common area can feel like a personal affront when the closet is right there. Regardless of what boundaries and expectations you’ve already set about chores, remember that a personal attack isn’t likely to get you far. “When it comes down to it, belongings deserve respect, and our homes deserve respect,” Hay says. “It’s definitely not a reason to attack someone. Explain, ‘It makes me feel so much better when our house is clean and [we’re] treating our space with respect. … Is that something that you can help me on?’”
When all housemates agree to specific conditions — like the kitchen is considered clean when the sink is empty, countertops are clear, and the microwave’s been scrubbed — it becomes much easier to gauge a deviation from baseline. Still, it’s important to remain flexible and have compassion for those we live with, Hay says. “Being able to be flexible enables us all to have a little bit more understanding of each other,” she says. “There could be reasons why one person’s chore is going to slip, and there’s [got] to be compassion from the roommate.”
Before totally overhauling the house-cleaning schedule and issuing job assignments, look at the household’s already established habits to see where small changes can be implemented, Hay says. Common areas like the kitchen and living room tend to see the most clutter and foot traffic but can be easily managed through minor tweaks. If your roommate is frustrated that you leave your dishes in the sink in the morning, you both need to come to a happy medium of when the dishes can reasonably be expected to be washed. This may mean you clean them during your lunch break (if you work from home) in order to have the sink cleared by the time your housemate gets home from work so they can prepare their dinner.
Instead of framing the conversation as “This is what needs to be done,” Hay suggests phrasing the discussion as “If this could be done in this timeframe, it would make my life so much less stressful.” “It might be that the other person doesn’t realize that the other partner needs to have a clear sink to drain hot pasta or needs a clear sink to be able to do their dinner prep,” Hay says.
Assign tasks based on ownership, not assumptions
When it comes to divvying up chores, do not make assumptions that a housemate or a partner will do certain tasks based on their income, job, or gender; women often end up responsible for most of the household chores simply based on biases. “My job is more flexible. My partner makes more money than me,” Rodsky says. “That’s a terrible assumption because even if women make more money than their partners, they still do more housework.”
The way to encourage everyone in the house to contribute to chores involves getting all parties to “own” their tasks, Rodsky says. Rodsky uses the example of buying mustard. Ownership of mustard purchase begins in the conceptualizing phase — understanding what’s necessary to complete a task — which is as simple as knowing your kid really loves yellow mustard. The next step of owning a task is the planning: realizing your supply of mustard is getting low and putting the condiment on your shopping list. Finally, executing the chore means picking up the mustard when you go to the grocery store — rinse, repeat. “When you can have someone else in your system — whether it’s a roommate, a sister, a child — hold the full planning, conception, and execution of a task, 50/50 goes out the window,” Rodsky says, “and that was the biggest, most beautiful breakthrough.” Rodsky developed a system for assigning tasks, also called Fair Play, in which everyone discusses their feelings around each chore before figuring out who’s going to take ownership over the task.
Dufu finds it helpful to create a spreadsheet of all of the household chores and to assign each person a task based on their talents and schedules. Dufu calls her spreadsheet MEL — Management Excel List — and each chore, from taking out the trash to washing the car, is listed. Every family member gets their own column where they claim their tasks. Sometimes, certain chores aren’t claimed, like washing the car, and that’s fine. “Our kids now have columns,” Dufu says, “and we would put an X in someone’s column next to the thing that they would do, not because they’ve always done it before but because that was the task that fit better with their schedule, or that was the task that did better with their personality.” For example, Dufu says she’s more introverted than her husband, so it made more sense for him to manage the kids’ social calendars since he gets much more enjoyment out of chatting with other parents.
Of course, a massive spreadsheet may introduce more stress into an already stressful situation. Rodsky’s Fair Play method involves each task being written down on a card and each member holding a deck of cards outlining their individual chores; instead of a list, each person has their cards to refer to. Roommate chore apps help divide household labor with the help of notifications, schedules, and progress trackers. A colorful chore chart on a dry-erase board with visible rewards like smiley face magnets can help keep kids engaged.
Even if you believe you may do certain chores “better” than your housemates, you need to value the time and effort the people you live with put into cleaning and tidying, and how that effort helps you. “That person committed to our family or committed to our relationship in a way that makes our home feel more valued,” Hay says.
Don’t forget the kids — or the beauty of renegotiation
For households with kids or older family members, there are age-appropriate tasks to get everyone involved in chores. Kids are usually able to contribute to chores much earlier than most parents think, Hay says, and assigning them easy chores — like cleaning up the crayons or helping rinse vegetables for salads — helps instill a sense of responsibility. The same can be said for older relatives, Hay continues. By centering the conversation on responsibility and respect for the home, house members of all ages can understand the importance of a chores system.
However, not every kid is going to be jazzed about helping out around the house. Parents can support kids who may not feel confident (or excited) about the chores they’re assigned by letting them know they can get themselves ready for school, for example, and you need them to take on that task to help you out.
The assignment of tasks shouldn’t be permanent, either. Dufu suggests revisiting chores every six months or so, especially if you have children who may be able to take on more responsibilities. Ultimately, the division of labor in the home should feel like an ever-evolving process meant to keep everyone as satisfied as possible.
“At the end of the day, my goal when I work with clients and share advice online is to make people’s homes easier to live in,” Hay says. “So what can we all do, individually and collectively, to make this a more enjoyable place to live?”
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