Sometimes it Really IS Just About the Trash

The division of household responsibilities can spark intense conflict among many couples. A heated discussion over chores (why the trash hasn’t been taken out yet) is often the convenient forum couples use to vent about deeper conflicts that exist in their relationship.

However, sometimes it really IS just about the trash! Research has shown that when the division of labor is seen as unfair, couples may seriously consider ending their relationship. And even when chores are viewed as equally shared, partners may still be dissatisfied–especially if gratitude and appreciation aren’t regularly expressed for each other’s contributions.

While professors at Arizona State University, Jess Alberts and Angela Trethewey conducted research on how the role of gratitude affects couples’ satisfaction. They found that gratitude not only lessens the negative effects of an unfair division of responsibilities, but a lack of gratitude may even contribute to an uneven division of labor in the first place.  

If one partner isn’t bothered by a sink full of dirty dishes (referred to as having a higher “response threshold” in their study), but his or her partner has a lower tolerance for the kitchen mess, guess who usually ends up doing the dishes? We’ve likely all experienced or witnessed examples of this scenario. Statistics (not surprisingly) show that women perform two-thirds of household tasks, even when they work full time.

This difference in an individual’s level of tolerance (response threshold) can quickly lead to an unequal division of household labor if not addressed. Unfortunately, research has also confirmed that repeatedly jumping in to perform a household duty early on in a relationship, will quickly make it yours to do forever!  

Study results point out that our understanding of why our partner completed the chore is critical. For example, if we feel that our partner cleaned the kitchen for the benefit and good of the household, we are much more likely to express gratitude and appreciation for the act.  

However, if we perceive that our partner cleaned the kitchen because they can’t tolerate mess and did it for their own personal benefit, we’re much less likely be grateful. If you consider your partner’s efforts as a gift, you’re more likely to express your appreciation. This, in turn, creates less resentment on his or her part (regardless of the division of labor) and leads to greater relationship satisfaction.

So, if Johnny thinks his wife, Julie, keeps the kitchen spotless as a contribution for the good of the family, he’s more likely to feel and express gratitude for her efforts. If, however, Johnny views that sparkly kitchen as something she’s doing for herself (because she cannot tolerate a messy kitchen), he’s highly unlikely to express any appreciation.

Recently, in my practice, I addressed this division of labor issue with a couple. The husband had been making more effort now to participate in chores. After taking the trash out, he announced to his wife, “I did it for you” (instead of “I wanted to do my share to help out the household”). We had a good laugh about it in our session, joking that it was indeed her ultimate lifetime dream to have the trash taken out.

The bottom line is that it’s much healthier to understand that your partner is contributing to the household when they do chores (with few exceptions). This allows you to naturally be much more appreciative.

Here are some tips to help eliminate conflict over household chores:

  1. First, determine and understand the differing “response thresholds” of both you and your partner.

  1. Don’t completely take over a chore unless you really enjoy it–otherwise, you will soon “own” it. This advice is best instituted early in the relationship, if possible. Share household tasks from the beginning.

  1. Consider putting chores on a schedule versus waiting until the responsible person decides it needs to be done. Set a time/day for the task to be completed–well before it bothers the “lower threshold” partner.

  1. To fully appreciate your partner’s efforts and express meaningful gratitude, switch tasks every few weeks or months. Experiencing what the other person does and contributes by “walking in their shoes,” will increase your feelings of appreciation for their efforts.

Couples who share household responsibilities and express gratitude for each other’s contributions, clearly have the most successful, satisfying relationships. Working together to avoid any conflicts over chores also keeps partners from taking each other for granted.

If you find you need help eliminating this source of friction in your relationship, don’t hesitate to seek couples counseling for assistance–even if it’s just about the trash.

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