Woman, thou shalt not shovel. Man, thou shalt not cook.

For better or for worse, there are no such labour laws in marriage. Neither timeless Biblical commandments, nor contemporary Canadian social norms provide a recipe for the who, what, when, where and whys of household management. No formula, no code – no problem?

In reality, the opposite is true. Without guidelines, the jumble of daily life, labour and love leads to conflict in marriage. Tiny chore battles quickly escalate into full-blown chore wars.

As a Pew Research survey reports, 60 per cent of households with children under age 18 are dual-income. Not surprisingly then, couples struggle to navigate the blurred line between his and hers, public and private, home and office labour. In fact, marriage experts Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott, authors of The Good Fight, flag housework disputes as one of the five primary sources of marital conflict.

Wherever the line is in your marriage, conflict will arise in your home about your home.But don’t worry, there’s hope for harmony!

In another Pew Research poll, couples ranked sharing household chores as third most important for a successful marriage, next to faithfulness and fulfilling sex. To this end, keep reading to find out how you can turn burden into blessing in your marriage!

Heed the Word on work

The Bible doesn’t specify who has garbage duty. Rather, it encourages each spouse to use their skills to make a house a home. Men are called to manage their household well (1 Timothy 3:12), women to watch over their household (Proverbs 31:27) and both to abstain from laziness (1 Timothy 5:8). In a home with two healthy spouses, each is to actively contribute to the household, whether through paid employment, unpaid housework or both.

Consider the first couple, Adam and Eve. God created their union as complimentary. According to Genesis 2:18, God fashioned Eve as a help who was fit or suitable for Adam. Her skills were customized to compliment Adam and his commission to care for the Garden of Eden. The original couple didn’t have social norms to follow. They couldn’t copy a parental example. Instead, Adam and Eve cultivated a thriving home by recognizing and exercising their God-given skills.

Define and understand equality

The age of the 1950s housewife in a dress, high heels and pearls, serving a five-course meal promptly at 5 p.m. when her husband returns from work is over. But it’s not replaced by exact equality in marriage – nor should it be.

There are two dominant definitions of equality regarding marriage: one Biblical, the other societal. One states that man and woman are valued the same, the other suggests man and woman are the same. According to God’s perfect plan, He created all humans equally valuable, but not all identically designed. He intentionally created male and female, each distinct and unique (Genesis 1:27).

This complimentary relationship, in which each spouse contributes a specific skill set, cultivates a respectful and supportive marriage. On the other hand, an inflexible pursuit of work equality – or an exact 50-50 split – nurtures selfishness and breeds resentment (1 Corinthians 12:12-26). For a thriving marriage, find strength in your differences!

Agree to be free from ambiguity

Communication is necessary at some point for effective partnership. Adam M. Galovan, a graduate instructor in the University of Missouri’s department of human development and family studies, notes the "big key" to fairness and marital quality: it doesn’t matter how couples split work as long as they are content with the arrangement. To achieve satisfaction, you and your spouse must feel like you are on the same team with the same game plan; you have different roles, but the same goal and an agreed-upon winning strategy.

A study by the University of California, Los Angeles’ (UCLA) Sloan Center suggests communicating the whats, whens and hows of household tasks reduced confusion-based conflict. That is, spouses who were clear on the management of chores reported spending less time and tension debating duties. Conversely, when couples lacked clearly defined task divisions, they had to "renegotiate responsibilities from one day to the next," generating conflict.

Decide on a division of labour

In a workplace, the division of labour matches workers with tasks based on specialization. This strategy plays into the strengths and interests of each employee. As a result, the company benefits from high production and high staff morale.

Your marriage can reap similar benefits! Wouldn’t you rather do chores that you find rewarding? With a clear division of labour, couples reduce conflict over chores and increase satisfaction because each spouse takes pleasure and pride in their work.

Divvy up the duties

In place of the husband or wife doing certain tasks by default, divvy up chores based on personal strengths and interests rather than on gender. Begin your path to conflict-free chores with six practical tips:

  1. Make a list and check it twice. Schedule a time to sit with your spouse to list all the daily, weekly and monthly household tasks. You may find it difficult to recall all the tasks in one sitting, so adjust the list over the next few days as you think of more. Outline the expected frequency and standards of tasks. For example, specify that a daily floor sweeping includes cleaning under,not just around, the kitchen table.

  2. Cater to talents, not traditions. What jobs do you do well? What jobs take less time and effort for you than for your spouse? The "collective gain fromdoing what you specialize in helps both of you to reclaim moments you’ve been missing together," the Parrotts encourage.

    Make a copy of your chore list so you each have one and write your name beside tasks you want or wouldn’t mind to handle. Then rank each job on a priority spectrum from one to 10. If washing windows weekly is a seven for you, but three for your spouse, you do the duty.

  3. Rotate the jobs neither – or both – of you enjoy. Cleaning the toilet is hardly something to be passionate about, but it’s necessary. Take turns on jobs that aren’t easily allocated. Swap frequently enough so that the turn is bearable, but not so often to confuse who’s on duty.

    Julia* faithfully cooked every family meal for 17 years while she was a stay-at-home mom. Then when she started working and attending university part-time, her husband Colton* offered to take a turn in the kitchen. Considering schedules and energy levels, Julia and Colton negotiated and now have a cooking rotation that fits on both their plates. What a treat for the couple to share this duty and delight!

  4. Encourage the effort, or embrace the task. Alan Hawkins, a family studies professor, says "the same woman who complains about her husband also gatekeeps."That is, she critically supervises the domestic efforts of her husband. If you’re a gatekeeping spouse, consider your partner’s feelings. It can be "difficult, even somewhat humiliating, to live under the implied disapproval of a spouse with overly high expectations," the Parrotts caution.

    If you clean up after your spouse has done a chore, the division needs revision. Reduce conflict by identifying jobs you would find unsatisfactory, even after your spouse’s best effort. Harness your abilities and care for that particular task.

  5. Verbalize appreciation. According to the UCLA study, an underlying sense of spouses being on the same team is essential to partnership. A word of appreciation from one spouse to another encourages a hard-working heart. Work with humility, without expecting thanks, but remember to honour your spouse for their efforts. Empathize with your spouse and inspire your marriage team by acting as each other’s biggest cheerleader!

  6. Flex with the flux. In the day to day, your spouse will occasionally need a break. Bless them by tackling the chores they usually do. Nothing says "I love you" like, "I’ll do that today, honey."

    Mary Jo Pedersen, author of For Better, For Worse, For God, calls marriage organic. As you and your spouse grow and change, household chore allocations will change too. Perhaps your wife is pregnant, or your husband is working overtime. This season of life may seem unfair to you, but be patient. Humbly commit to serve first and serve often now, with a hopeful anticipation of what change next season might bring.

According to the UCLA report, marital satisfaction and sense of well-being were tied not only to how couples allocated chores, but also to the "nuanced ways couples interact with one another about and during these tasks." The researchers identified several interactional styles based on couples preparing a meal together:

  • Silent collaboration: Partners work together on the task without directly speaking.
  • One partner as expert: One spouse assumes authority over the task and respectfully guides the other spouse’s contribution.
  • Coordinating together: Partners work in harmony, verbally organizing the effort.
  • Collaborating apart: Partners accomplish their assigned tasks in separate physical spaces.

Identify your style and tailor chore lists to your marriage. As the Parrotts say, "Put away the calculator, quit keeping score, and do a little give-and-take based on what really works best rather than what you think should work best." Release the pressure to fit your duty distribution into the social cookie-cutter, and shape your own cookie for a smooth-running home and satisfied marriage!

*Names changed to protect privacy

Reference to the individuals and organizations quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organizations.

Cara Plett is an in-house writer for Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2013 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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