Things you should know going in:
This is a two-for.
I am not calm, collected, or unbiased about this topic.
Dear Captain Awkward,
Been married 14 years, I think happily. We are affectionate, and sympathetic to each other’s problems, and want to help each other out. No kids.
My problem is that I’m unhappy with our household division of labor and I can’t make Spouse understand. Somehow, over the course of our relationship, I became responsible for 100% of our at-home meals – planning, shopping, cooking. I try to mitigate this burden by preparing larger portions on weekends so that we can have leftovers for dinner during the week, but it doesn’t always work; maybe the recipe doesn’t yield as much as expected, or maybe it turns out to be awful and I have to throw away what’s left – plus, cooking with an eye for leftovers really limits the available recipes. So inevitably I’m left scrambling and stressed a couple of weekdays per week, not to mention all the time I put in on my supposed days off. And on top of that, Spouse often (once or twice a week) has off-site gatherings in the evenings, meaning that I have to come home from full-time work and immediately get their dinner ready so they can eat and run.
This wouldn’t be a such a problem except for two things. One is that I’m not sure that Spouse offers an equal household contribution elsewhere. It’s true that they deal with most things related to the outside world: vet appointments, travel arrangements, calling contractors/repairpersons, things like that. I’m introverted and really don’t want to do those things, so I’m grateful that Spouse does them. But does it balance out the day-to-day grind of shopping and cooking?
The second is that Spouse flatly refuses to make any changes to this arrangement for any reason. “Can you maybe be responsible for dinner one set day a week?” No. “Can I just have an official day off once a week and we can fend for ourselves?” No. “I’m feeling a little fat – can I have two weeks off from doing the cooking for both of us so I can try out a diet?” No. (The worst is when they pull out the “but I like it when you cook for me, it makes me feel loved” argument. That drives me BONKERS.) Every so often I just can’t take it anymore and I break down and talk about how the arrangement is ruining my life, and all I get is “You poor thing, I’m sorry this is hard for you” and then everything is the same the next day.
What do I do here? Are there some magic words I can say to get Spouse to get them to realize that this arrangement is unreasonable? It is unreasonable, isn’t it?
Dear Letter Writer #495:
I am sad to say that I do not think that there are any magic words that will make this division of labor more reasonable. You have asked, straight up, to make a different division of labor. You have tried, respectfully and straightforwardly to renegotiate the terms of your marriage. You have used your words like a boss and been flat out refused.
Your spouse understands. They have just decided that it would be easier and more successful to manipulate you than to make a sandwich once in a while.
You eat dinner 7 times/week. Multiply 7 meals by 14 years and you get 5110 dinners cooked by you.
I assume you ate out some of those dinners, or sometimes back in the day your Spouse cooked every now and again, but I also assume that you’ve made many breakfast and lunches, so I feel pretty good using a number around 5,000.
Have they made 5,000 vet appointments? Have you bought a zoo? Perhaps you should marry a veterinarian who can see to your hypocondriac animal farm.
Have they made say, 3000 vet appointments for the menagerie, arranged 1,000 home repairs and planned 1,000 vacations?
Unless you are doing SELFISH ASSHOLE MATH with IMAGINARY NUMBERS I find this equation to be unbalanced.
Now. Marriages do not have to be 50/50 partnerships where every task is split exactly evenly in order to work. People do negotiate different arrangements based on their different strengths and needs. So let’s head off the “My spouse does all the cooking, but I swear I am not an asshole/they just like cooking/I do all the laundry/Don’t tell us how to live our lives!!” justification right here. Whatever domestic division of labor makes sense for you and makes everyone feel like they are doing their share and being loved and respected and taken care of is a good and workable one.
There are several problems that make the Letter Writer’s situation extremely unworkable.
1) You, Letter Writer, feel it is unworkable. Blanket statement: It is unworkable because it is unworkable for you. It is exhausting you and making you angry & resentful.
2) You have asked your spouse to make very reasonable accommodations (accommodations that would still have you shouldering the majority of dinner-cooking) and have been met with contempt & manipulation.
It makes your spouse “feel loved” when you rush home from your full-time job and put dinner on the table. In my most generous possible assessment of what is happening, there is some primal “this is what a family feels like” thing around being fed/eating together As A Family desire that is being met for your partner. However, I get the sense that it makes you feel pretty fucking unloved when you ask for a break and it is refused. And maybe your dreams for “what a family is” involved being fed sometimes.
So not only is your relationship one where you do the majority of a daily task that involves a great deal of time, mental energy, and drudgery, but it is also a relationship where you are not allowed to renegotiate any terms or ask for things that you need. You say it’s a good marriage, and I am sure there are many good parts (There would have to be. 5,000 dinners in a row. Jesus.) but the ability to renegotiate and ask for things you need is a pretty essential part of a good marriage, in my opinion.
If you can see a marriage counselor, I think this is an issue worthy of it. This relationship could benefit from some serious renegotiating of roles and from dragging some assumptions out into the sunlight and examining them.
- Script: “I know we have talked about this, but the dinner thing is still really bothering me, and I would like us to see a counselor who can help us work something out.“
- Script when/if you get resistance to the idea of counseling: “Yep, we will pay some stranger $100/hour to work this out. That’s how important this is to me, and that’s how angry and upset I am about this.“
- Script for if spouse refuses outright: “Well, I’m sorry to hear that. I’m going to start seeing someone on my own in that case.” Then do so. During the dinner hour.
I don’t think you are going to get any more mileage out of asking your spouse to change. You’ve done that work and been refused.
Which leaves me with some suggestions that *might* help you reset things but will not be easy or without friction. Let me say for the record that anytime you are doing this much managing & strategizing about a relationship it is an indicator of major, major trouble and that this is work you should not have to do.
I think “could you cook one night/week?” or “could we fend for ourselves this week?” are reasonable, specific requests.
But I think re-setting the relationship will require getting 1) more specific 2) with small, specific requests, that are 3) backed up with action.
When you go to the grocery store, buy a few more:
- Sandwich makings
- Frozen one-step meals that just need to be microwaved/thrown in a skillet or an oven
- Cans of soup
- Healthy but substantial snacks – cheese, crackers, hummus, carrot sticks, apples
…than you usually do. You want the house to be stocked with a few things that can be turned into a meal with 15-20 minutes of effort or less. Also collect a few takeout menus from local places and stick them to the fridge or in a prominent place.
Once you have a few things in the house, start with your extremely specific requests. Except, you don’t have to actually ask permission, so think of them less as requests than as you telling your partner how things will be.
Stick to the current week. In fact, in the beginning, stick to the current day. Pick a day when your spouse has that regular evening commitment. I suggest that you do this as a text message during the workday or some other way (like, right before one of you leaves the house, or as an email) to keep discussion to a minimum.
Script: “I forgot to tell you – I won’t be home right after work today, so you’ll have to make a sandwich or heat something up. See you tonight!“
Keep it terse. Resist the urge to give detailed descriptions & directions of what food to make or otherwise mother this person. Repeat after me: “Fucking adults can make a fucking sandwich if they are fucking hungry.” You don’t have to swear AT your spouse, but let the anger out. It will feel good. Include zero apologies or justification.
Then, don’t be home right after work.
- Go to the library.
- Visit a farmer’s market.
- Attend a poetry reading.
- Go to the movies.
- Go the gym.
- Take a long bike ride.
- Have a drink with a coworker or friend.
- Check out a Meetup in your town.
- Have a drink by yourself and read a good book.
- Schedule a haircut, massage, or other self-care service for that time window.
- Put on zombie makeup and wander around in a shopping mall like you are an extra in Dawn of the Dead until mall security kicks you out.
While you’re making these changes, it’s a REALLY good time to sign up for a class or a new activity that will regularly take you out of the house one night a week doing something only for yourself.
If this goes well, you will get very little friction. Your spouse will want to know where you were, probably, and you will have a cool place that you were.
If this does not go well, your spouse will give you sadface and ask 10,000 questions and talk about how unloved they felt eating a turkey-on-rye alone for 15 minutes before they rushed out the door.
This is a manipulation strategy. It can be an unconscious one on Spouse’s part, but it is one. A person who behaves this way is trying to create a lot of friction & difficulty for you so that it’s easier for you to just give into what they say. “Where were you? Who were you with? I couldn’t find the mustard, where did you leave it? How can I make a sandwich without mustard? You know I like mustard. And you got the wrong kind of bread. And I don’t like Progresso Soup, I like Healthy Choice. You know I like Healthy Choice, so why did you buy Progresso? I just feel more loved when you cook for me. It’s important that we eat dinner as a family every night.”
Please (with the help of a counselor, if you can) learn to recognize this for what it is and withstand it. The message you want to send, with your silence or “I’m sorry that you feel that way, I really wanted to catch that show before it left town” non-apology) is to show the other person that this kind of manipulation won’t work. Stay calm. Do not apologize. Do not argue or get sucked into logic or reason – this isn’t about that and there is no winning. “Cool, next time I’ll buy the soup you like. The ballet was fantastic!“
In the beginning, do this every now and again. Don’t ask for a night off from cooking, TAKE a night off from cooking. Give as little notice as possible. Keep the fridge & cupboard stocked to minimize excuses. Meet groans and complaints calmly and don’t let them change your mind or suck you into apologies or unwinnable arguments.
I said already that this is a good time to find some kind of weekly class or activity or self-care ritual that is just for you? Let me say it again. Theater season tickets. A concert series. Join a choir. Find a D&D game. Don’t ask Spouse to fend for Spouseself. Just find an airtight reason to be elsewhere and reset the de-facto arrangement.
This is a baby steps thing. This is the beginning. First you change the dynamic by making it so Spouse has to fend for Spouseself once in a while. Then you show them you cannot be manipulated back into doing 100% of the food prep, even if they give you lots of guff. Then you see how you feel. Is it getting better? Is all this work & tiptoeing around worth it? Then you re-negotiate the terms of your marriage, hopefully in a way that holds onto the “affectionate, sympathetic” part.
Which leads me to our next question, #507
Once upon a time this person was on Team You but I don’t think he is anymore.
“….he’s just hiding in his room, playing games or watching YouTube” while you do all the housework and evening parenting? If you hire a cleaning person (and a nanny, presumably?), will he be working extra hours to pay for that so that y’all can afford it? You dropping out of school is somehow a viable option, but him going into the other room and taking out a load of trash and wiping down the counter is not? You are supposed to study and keep an eye on children at the same time, but he cannot watch YouTube and keep an eye on children?
You mention his anxiety, which, sure, is probably a factor that affects energy levels and housekeeping and capacity to be around small children. And I would imagine that he has some shame around this that is contributing to the avoidant behavior.
BUT BUT BUT I know lots of parents who have mental health issues, including anxiety. They deal with this by going to the doctor and doing whatever they can to make sure they stay on top of their shit. They build in breaks for themselves – to faff about on the internet, to be in a quiet room for a little while – so that they can be present for their children and their partners. I don’t think anyone has an obligation to *be* mentally healthy, but I do think that people in relationships – especially domestic partnerships, especially PARENTS – have some obligation to work on their own issues so that they can be there for the other person. He has done something approaching his share of the housework before, and occasionally pitches in with a task here and there, so he’s not incapable or unaware of what needs to happen. I think it’s worth checking in to say “Are you okay? Do you think if you went back to therapy/adjusted meds you might feel more able to do this?” but I also don’t think you can count on that as a reason or as a way that things will get better. I’d suggest couples’ counseling, but where would you fit it into your schedule? You could spend a lot of time working out the exact proportion of “just can’t” vs. “Don’t wanna!” going on with your spouse, but in the meantime you would still be shouldering all the work. This stress is harming you, and I can’t imagine that your kids don’t notice that their dad avoids them and that their mom is about to break.
You had a good past with this guy.
You have an incredibly shitty present.
And he has told you, flat out, that it will not get better and that it is on you to make any and all changes here. To quote Miss Oprah: When someone tells you who they are, believe them.
All signs point to: DO NOT MARRY
Like, take the wedding date off the calendar, stop planning it, tell people it’s been postponed indefinitely.
Whether that leads to him moving out, you guys ending the relationship, or is a wakeup call to him that this is a serious problem, I don’t know. I think relationships can survive temporarily hard times if people love each other and commit to working through it. I don’t know how they can survive when one partner just abdicates from everything and tells you the future won’t be different. You can’t take your marbles and go home in a shared home.
Communication-wise, you could try specific, direct, timely requests. Big talks around “I need you to help out more!” once you get overwhelmed leaves “more” as a theoretical thing. So, when you need to study, what if you physically carried the kids into the room where he is on the computer and said “I need you to watch them for the next hour while I knock out some homework, thanks” and walked away (maybe to a coffee shop or library)? Do you trust him to step up for that hour? (If not? Again I say, DO NOT MARRY). You could set a timer, Unfuck Your Habitat-style, and ask him to help you focus-clean for short bursts, 20-30 minutes at a time and do a little each day. That might make things feel less anxiety-making for him and give it more structure. This still involves you doing the “mental energy and organization” portion of housework and parenting, which is still unfair, but has some hope of taking the pressure off a little bit. Family Cleaning Hour is also something you can model for kids and get them to participate in as they get older.
I don’t know how fixable either of these situations are for the Letter Writers. When one partner makes an extraordinary power play, like “No, I will not cook, ever, and I will not let you NOT cook for me” or “You’re on your own as a parent and a housekeeper, despite working and being in school,” there is so much entitlement and contempt and coercion there that I do not personally know how you come back from it without dropping the “If this does not change I will leave you” ultimatum.
If anything, maybe these letters can form a cautionary tale to young people who are just forming domestic partnerships for the first time.
That tale is: You can have all the great sex and great conversations and feelings of love in the world! But if you live with another person, making a happy life together means that you must do your share of mundane household stuff and make some kind of fair, equitable agreement about how that stuff will work out. Sometimes love means cleaning up cat puke or making the other person a sandwich or filling out the “Eat” notepad on a regular basis. Before I lived with a partner who did not have a lot of interest or competence around food preparation, I did not understand how very, very angry the question “What’s for dinner?” in a certain too-casual tone of voice could make me. Asked enough times in a row, that question can murder all of your love for a person and turn your dinner into a constant diet of FUCK YOU.
Not everyone grows up in families where this stuff is handled functionally or those skills are taught, so it doesn’t necessarily come naturally or easily and it can cause a lot of anxiety and shame and depression (and be exacerbated by those things). That is okay. You can learn it! You can learn it together. You can work on it a little at a time. But you have to accept that no one is more “naturally inclined” toward cleaning a toilet. Everyone can learn how, it’s everyone’s job, and the toilet must be cleaned whether or not you feel like you’d be good at it or want to.
This stuff doesn’t fix itself just because you have an emotional connection and pantsfeelings for a person. It takes sustained effort and out loud conversation about boring stuff like toilets when you’d rather be watching YouTube videos or having awesome sex. Avoiding it doesn’t mean that you live in a magic world free of mundane responsibilities like toilet cleaning, it just means you have a dirty toilet and one of you is angry all the time.
The best blanket advice I can give about this is, if you’re thinking about moving in with someone, but somehow all practical discussions and negotiations about running a household, money, logistics, etc. become deferred to “later” or “why worry about that now?” or “it will all work itself out, why we gotta talk about it?”, DO NOT MARRY or share a roof. The relationship is not necessarily unsalvageable, perhaps it you will work it out in time, but it’s a good sign that you’re not quite ready.
This is still very much a gendered issue. I know it. You know it. Letter Writer #406, very scrupulously used only “spouse” and no gendered pronouns, but how many of you pictured the LW as a woman and the spouse as a man? Me, so much so that I had to physically go back and delete he, him, etc. out of the first draft of my answer. They don’t have to actually be a heterosexual couple for their dynamic to be very, very illustrative of that kind of conflict and power imbalance. Which is still going on, as so many young men and women, raised by feminists, reading all of the articles about fairness, knowing all the pitfalls, are STILL falling into unfair and anachronistic divisions of labor at home.
I think one way to fight against this is for people to really understand that there is no normal. There is no default setting for who does what around the house. You get to make up your own normal, and you get to negotiate it explicitly ahead of time, and you get to re-negotiate it over and over again as things grow and change. My folks and I have our issues, but let me praise them roundly for creating and modeling what an equitable relationship looks like. My dad was the youngest & only son in a Greek family whose mom lived to feed & take care of her kids. When he married my mom, a registered nurse who later went on to get an MBA in health care finance and run entire nursing home facilities and units of hospitals, Yia-Yia panicked because she was worried her precious baby would starve in the hands of this non-Greek feminist. And I think in the beginning my mom tried to be SuperWife who comes home from a nursing shift and fixes her man some pork chops. But it quickly became untenable, and somehow they found a different way of handling things.
Throughout my childhood, my dad got home from work earlier than my mom and had a rock-solid predictable schedule. So he was the one to take us to soccer practice and get dinner on the table during the week. Mom would handle weekend dinners. We all packed our own lunches and at cereal/toast/fruit/yogurt/fend for yourself breakfast except for Sundays. Mom does the laundry. Dad mows the lawn & does yardwork. They split cleaning tasks equally (with a lot farmed out to us as weekly chores when we lived there), do renovations & take care of the extensive vegetable garden and landscaping stuff together. They took turns taking us along on errands or for outings, leaving the other parent with some alone-time in the house. When my mom was in graduate school while we were in high school, she came home at night every night to a clean house and dinner waiting for her on a covered tray in the microwave or fridge, because that’s what you do when your partner is the one with a harder schedule.
My dad did not know how to do much cooking or taking care of a house in 1968, but he learned because he loved my mom and didn’t want to be parented by his wife. They figured out, as a team, what kind of life they wanted to have and they slowly negotiated how it would work. And they renegotiated it periodically as their lives changed.
If a more “traditional” division of labor feels good* and make sense to you, by all means, do that, but don’t do it as a default. Negotiate it. Verbally work out how and when everything will be done.
Ideally, before you live together.
Then again, once you live together and have had a chance to see how your plan is working.
Then, periodically, to check in.
Then again, AT ANY TIME, if something is not working or if something changes. Both of these Letter Writers are perfectly justified in having a “This worked before, except really it didn’t, and now it’s really not working, so let’s figure out how to fix it so we can stay on the same team” conversation right now, 10 years in, 14 years in. Someone who is on Team You says “I hear you, ok, how can we make this work?”
Get down into the nitty gritty details; that’s where the Devil lives.
Once again, it’s Pledge Drive Week, where I shake the tip jar and ask people who like the site and who have a few $ to spare to contribute a little something. Non-tax deductible gifts can be made through PayPal or via Dwolla (for which you must be in the USA with a bank account). These drives really end up being bread and butter for me during lean times between adjunct teaching and help me save up for purchases like a new computer, so I greatly appreciate the support people have shown so far. Thank you!
*Do not, please, feel the need to defend or justify it in my comments section (If you’re happy then it’s working!) or use any kind of gender essentialist language (“But ____ gender is just more naturally suited to ______!”) in replying to this.