Smash Talks: Til Chores Do Us Part

Dear Smashera,

My boyfriend and I have lived together for almost a year now, and let’s just say it’s not going well. It seems like we fight constantly about chores and who does what. I feel like he doesn’t do anything and when he does, he does it half-assed. He says I don’t notice when he does anything and that I’m too critical he doesn’t even bother. When I bring up how sad and upset I am, I get called a nag, when I just want help. This has driven a wedge in our relationship and I’m scared about signing the lease for another year. We both work and are in school, so I get it, we’re busy. I just don’t want to feel like I’m his mom or that I have to beg in order for simple household tasks to get done. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there hope for us or should I just cut the cord now and save myself the hassle?

Not A Stepford Wife

Dear Stepford,

There are a few key topics that come up in about 75% of all couples therapy intake sessions: “communication issues,” boundaries around social media, and housework. Domestic tasks are steeped in politics of power, whether you’re romantic with the person you live with or not. It’s not unusual for platonic roommates to have conflicts over who does what and how, a[lthough it seems extra hurtful when a person feels that their romantic partner isn’t pulling their weight, especially after repeated attempts at communication and reconciliation.

The politics of housework have been deconstructed in many a feminist theory class and yet the problem persists. Why is it that egalitarianism seems to be such a struggle in modern couplings? Are people doomed to the circular fight over housework until they take their last breaths?

I have to believe that balance and fairness can be achieved in more relationships than not. I’ve helped plenty of couples get on the same page in this department, but I have a curveball for you: a lot of the time, this fight is about a whole lot more than housework.

You heard me. This isn’t about the dishes, or the laundry, or the dirty socks on the floor. People don’t decide to just break up because their partner didn’t fold their shirts straight away. No. These fights tend to be about support, power, and respect. Because this fight is now so entrenched, even if your boyfriend started doing the housework, I suspect this conflict would reemerge in a different area of your life and it would be just as nasty. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s break down on how you probably got here (and how you can get yourself out).

People tend to attach meanings to action. We are somewhat cognizant of our own motives, although sometimes it’s difficult to fully unpack those as well. Whether an action is done out of kindness or passive-aggressiveness can be a challenge to tease out unless we’re being very clear with ourselves.

Likewise, it can be reflexive to attach meaning to what other people do. It seems like at some point, your boyfriend not picking up his things stopped being read as “this is (sometimes) life with another person,” and began being read as “he doesn’t love, respect, or support me.” That’s way more hurtful to feel, so it’s easier to just get angry about the little things as a stand-in. He probably interprets your interaction as an attack on his character, and responds with a defense mechanism he picked up in childhood. So, it’s not even about the task for him either, but instead, “Why are you not treating me like an adult? Why don’t you respect me?”

It can be difficult to point out the deeper meaning of these dynamics, especially mid-conflict. People are reticent to acknowledge that the little things they do are making their partner feel super shitty about themselves and the relationship. You may have done all the right things by owning your feelings and using “I” statements, and still have been met with “BuT iT’s JuSt ThE DiShEs!!”

For those that are struggling with the idea of attached meanings, picture this: two partners have their household chores divvied up. One partner consistently does laundry and has usually done the other partner’s as well. While they do the laundry, they’re probably not thinking “this shows my partner that I love and support them.” However, that partner would certainly be communicating that they’re feeling some type of way if they were to suddenly STOP doing their partner’s laundry with no communication or explanation. That’d be passive aggressive and petty mcbetty af, but it would serve to communicate a message.

Another component to this fight is a lack of positive reinforcement or incentive. Imagine this little conversational flow chart. If he could do the task but then be told, “You did the wrong task,” or “You did the task wrong,” or “You should have done more,” he might as well chill on his Xbox and just get yelled at for that. There is no incentive to act like your partner if he’s going to be infantilized anyway.

In order to end this conflict cycle and build a better, stronger relationship, both people need to unlearn toxic mindsets and reprogram themselves into healthy belief systems. Following up on housework becomes second nature if everyone is on the same page.

The first step is to call out what’s happening. Sitting down when you’re both calm and saying something like, “I really don’t like the dynamic that’s happening and I want to change it because you are important to me,” is a lot easier to hear than, “GODDAMNIT WHY DIDN’T YOU DO THE DISHES?” Own your feelings, and use I statements. “I know it’s just the dishes to you, but to me, I feel like you don’t care about my well-being.” Then, the trick is, when your partner does something, you have to acknowledge it positively. Nitpicking how they do the task will not encourage them do the task in the future. Say “thank you” and keep it moving. Once things begin to improve, then constructive feedback might be able to be heard, but until then CHILL.

While it can sound simplistic, there is a mountain of science behind the effectiveness of expressing gratitude. Finding opportunities to feel grateful and to thank others for the contributions they make not only makes you feel good, it encourages them to continue making positive changes.

In therapy, I encourage couples to thank one another for the little things that they do, and when they are thanked, make an effort to respond with, “You’re welcome.” Don’t negate your own contributions with, “Well, I was just going to do it, anyways,” or “It’s not a big deal.” Own what you do and take a moment to feel acknowledged, supported, and respected. In the same vein, it’s crucial to not use “buts” in gratefulness. For example, saying, “Thank you for taking out the trash, but you forgot to sweep,” negates the positive effort the other person put into schlepping the trash out. By doing this, you might begin to notice what your partner does contribute, and in feeling seen and recognized, they’ll be inspired to do more.

Well-practiced gratefulness generates more gratefulness. I encourage couples to text or email each other three things that they’re grateful for each day. In those lists, they don’t necessarily need to be grateful for something their partner did. They can be thankful that they got a good parking spot, or that the weather isn’t terrible, or that there were doughnuts in the break room.

By continually finding things to be thankful for, it becomes easier to notice the little “yays” in life instead of focusing on all the nonconsequential little things that aren’t there. It’s also near impossible to be grateful and be angry at the same time, so it can help couples “reset” their day after conflict. It shows each partner that the other is showing up and still trying.

The next step to creating a new mindset is to assume positive intent. This requires each and every person to not take life so personally and to acknowledge that the world is not out to get us. For example, when you’re cut off in traffic, it means not internalizing a perceived attack or “That person’s out to get me.” It means instead saying, “We’re all just trying to get to work and it sucks right now and maybe they didn’t see me.” Gratefulness and assuming positive intent need to be done across the board with everyone in order to see effectiveness. Place others in context and understanding and you’ll be the recipient of patience and grace.

Lastly, in order to break free from this invasive conflict, you must choose to adopt a belief of being loved and supported. It’s important to identify what your toxic belief is. Baselines like “I’m in this alone” or “I’m not loved” make it hard to accept support and love. Think of beliefs as a low background noise. If you believe in your heart of hearts that you’re not loved and supported, none of the loving and supportive things that your partner does are going to be noticed. They could do ten loving and supportive things, but if one action reaffirms not being loved and supported, it’s easy to latch onto that and say, “AHA! I TOLD YOU! YOU DON’T LOVE ME!” If this is what’s happening, they could make all the changes you ask for and you’ll still find it hard to accept their love.

To instill healthy beliefs, you’ll need to do a bit of cognitive behavioral therapy on yourself. Identify a new belief you’d prefer, something like “I am loved and supported,” and create reminders for this. Change the background on your phone to something that affirms the belief you wish to adopt. Take a moment several times a day to sit and believe this, to feel what it would be like to be loved and supported. Flipogram and Insight Timer are phenomenal apps to aid you in this process. If you’re working from a baseline of love and support, it’s easier to see slip-ups on your partners part as anomalies instead of a mar to their character.

Back to the crux of this — and as I’ll say to anyone who asks, “Should I stay or go?” — the answer is really up to you. This fight won’t go away without work from both parties. There’s a ton of personal work to be done here, and if you’re doing all The Things and they still can’t be bothered to help you out with the menial tasks, you have to decide whether that’s a deal breaker. If they’re not willing to sit down with you and try to work it out, then the answer is made for you. There is, however, a path out, and if you both try to be understanding of the other, then I have faith that you could work as a team once again.