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How Couples Can Split Household Chores Fairly. This Works!

The five questions to ask that will make housework equal.

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photo collage of basket of laundry and container of cleaning supplies on balance scale
Ethel Staff (Getty Images 3)
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When I was first married, three weeks after college graduation, I was so excited to move into my new husband’s apartment. I couldn’t wait to use the vacuum, kitchen towels and all that shiny new Farberware I’d received at my bridal shower!

The excitement wore off pretty quickly, especially on days I was lugging baskets of dirty clothes down to the washer-dryer in our apartment building’s basement. I was terrible at timing when laundry cycles ended so I was constantly running up and down those stairs.

Frustrated, one day I pulled still-wet clothes out of the dryer and hung them all over the apartment. Husband Rick returned home from work only to discover dripping shirts and pajamas dangling from lampshades and the backs of chairs.

“This is a mess!” he said. “From now on, I’ll do the laundry.”

An indignant me was about to protest, just as an inner little voice said: Are you crazy? Take this deal!

Anyone living with a partner or roommate has probably done some dealmaking when it comes to divvying up cleaning chores. Of course, for our moms and their moms, delegating duties was easy. Everybody agreed that one person was expected to take out the trash and the other person would do everything else!

For the longest time, no woman even questioned this questionable plan. At least not those spouses who only had to take out the trash.

All that changed thanks to the rise of women’s equality. To-do lists were renegotiated and we all lived happily ever after. Theoretically. But, maybe, one or both of you have recently retired or at-home work schedules have changed and it’s time for a fresh assessment of Who-Does-What.

If so, start by writing a chores list. Then ask these five questions:

Who's better at it?

Husband number two Randy has a master’s degree from Harvard in landscape architecture so it only makes sense that he’s in charge of watering our plants. He’s also an expert chopper, fryer, griller and broiler. He excels in the kitchen. Whereas kitchens and I don’t get along. But 40 years later, I have finally mastered laundry. Randy waters and cooks. I launder.

What's important to you?

If it matters, it’s motivating. Here are a couple of voices on the subject:

“I’m very picky at the grocery store,” says Ronnie Olitsky of Concord, Massachusetts. “I squeeze everything. If I send Jeff to the store, he won’t care. He doesn’t take the time to pinch and pull and sniff.”

And this from life coach Claire Fontaine of Bethesda, Maryland: “I’m compulsive about organization, and not leaving things where one can trip, so I’m the one to put away shoes and belts and rearrange drawers,” she says. “But my husband likes a made bed, something I don’t care about, and he happily makes it every morning.”

What annoys you the most?

Dirty dishes sitting on the table give Randy the heebie-jeebies. As soon as the last bite goes into anyone’s mouth, he’s whipping away that plate.

I’m fine finishing a conversation with gnawed chicken bones sitting in front of me. I linger. Randy clears. Immediately. He’s happy. I’m happy. But … here comes the but … Randy leaves the kitchen cabinet doors open. I swear he doesn’t even notice they’re open. If I’m the one annoyed by open cabinets, then I’m the one who should close them. I don’t want to turn into Randy’s scolding parent. I’m his lover, not his mother.

Who dislikes the task?

“I hate cleaning,” Olitsky says. “So that’s my husband Jeff’s job. I can feel guilty because Jeff still works full-time. But not so guilty that I volunteer to clean.”

Trade-offs and truces are important. If you both hate washing the tub, take turns hating washing the tub. Alternate by weeks or months. But do not delegate by who takes the most baths. You will lose. I know this for a fact.

Who enjoys the task?

Randy loves feeding our fish, George. So he’s always on George-duty. It gives him pleasure to watch George snap away at those flakes. My sister Gina and her husband Brett have two little dogs. They love their dogs so much that they still haven't noticed that Ashi and Zippy are the yappiest untrained dogs ever.

Brett likes walking the dogs. Gina likes watching them happily lap up their food. Brett walks. Gina feeds. But they take turns on cleanup when the dogs pee in the house.

The answers to these questions can help clarify a new game plan. But if list-making and mediating aren’t appealing to you, try what New Yorker Rachel Howald and her wife, Jennifer, do.

“We’re both Type A about tidiness, so either of us will do whatever needs doing,” says Howard. “Garbage can looks full? You take it out. Does the toilet paper need changing? You change it.”

Whoever stumbles over the problem fixes the problem. This is why I often pretend I’m unaware that the living room needs vacuuming.

There is one chore, though, that seems to necessitate agreeing to disagree. Even the happiest partnerships square off when it comes to loading the dishwasher. It’s certainly a sore point in my household. Randy insists his way is more efficient and that’s what I should do, too. My policy is: Whoever loads it gets to choose how he or she loads it. End of argument.

My Aunt Dorothy turns 100 in January. She has her own apartment in Florida and still does the housecleaning. It takes her longer, but she does it. She was married to my late Uncle Harvey for 59 years.

As she recalls: “Harvey didn’t want me in the kitchen all night. He wanted me to spend my time with him. I’d put away the leftovers. He did the dishes. Then we could go watch TV together. At our age, you learn what matters most is love, health and time."

I say Uncle Harvey had it right. Divide and conquer to free up more together-time. Or maybe the best plan is this: Just say, “Life’s short. We’ll clean tomorrow.”

What household chore do you absolutely hate doing? Let us know in the comments below.

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