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Resolving the chore wars: When couples fight about housework.

I often work with couples where the wife wants the husband to do more around the house.

I know how cliché that sounds. I almost don't want to talk about it. It sounds like a bad 90's sitcom.

But, it's my caseload.

I think these couples are a Rorschach for therapists. If you're more liberal you generally think, "Geez, get over your male entitlement and do the dishes."

If you're more conservative you're probably thinking, "Why won't this woman get off this guys back?"

And if you're like me you get stuck in the middle.

You think "well, if it's true, and this guy isn't doing the dishes, I mean this seems like a simple fix. Just do the dishes. But also, his wife is kind of intense. Maybe she's overreacting? But I can't say she's overreacting, I'm the therapist. So maybe he should just do them. She's saying if he would just do them she'd be happy. But he's saying he is doing the dishes..."and round and round it goes.

Overtime I've learned, the hard way, that if you try to solve the chore wars by saying who's right and who's wrong you are doomed to failure.

Despite how much you will want to, don't fall for the trap. DON'T TRY AND FIGURE OUT WHO'S RIGHT. You'll really really really really want to just figure out who's right because it's sooo seductive. It just seems so simple. BUT IT'S NOT SIMPLE.

In fact I have proof that it's actually super complex.

What proof? you ask. If it were only about who's doing the dishes, the couple wouldn't be in your office. They would have already solved their problem.

Which begs the question, what's this really about?

The chore wars and the mental load of the family.

A lot of wives carry the mental load of the household. Let me explain.

Say she goes to do the dishes.

Well, when she's placing plates in the dishwasher, she realizes she's also got to put away the leftovers. So she stops loading the dishwasher to put away the leftovers.

Then when she's in the fridge, she notices that there are leftovers from the night before that need to be thrown out.

So she throws out the old food, and now the trash can is full.

So she takes out the trash and comes back inside and realizes that she's out of trash bags. So she adds trash bags to her grocery list.

Which reminds her she needs to plan the meals for the coming week. Which means she needs to take inventory of what she already has and what meals she needs to make.

And as she's thinking about that, her eyes go to the half-loaded dishwasher, and she screams.

Woman screaming

What these wives want from their husbands is a man who can look around and see the world through their eyes. These women look around, and they don't just see dishes. They FEEL like their world is chaotic. Their way of feeling like their world has order is to order the chaos around them.

Here's the problem. They feel they are fighting this battle alone.

In general, I think if you're married to someone, you have pledged yourself to fight alongside them. Their battles have become your battles. I think more men would benefit from seeing the world through their wives' eyes.

This is why "to-do" lists don't work. These wives don't want to make a list of the 5 things husbands need to do because she knows once he does those 5 things he'll think, "I'm done." She wants to know he's scanning the environment like she is. She wants to know he sees the struggle she's seeing.

I have a hunch that if he came home, looked around the house and thought "If I take out the trash, what's the next thing that might need to be done?" the relationship would dramatically improve.

There is a problem with this though. I call it the peanut butter jelly problem.

Chore wars and the "Peanut Butter Jelly Problem".

A few years ago, I was talking with my friend's wife. They had just moved and she was telling me about how hard it had been on her.

Her husband, my friend, seeing this, decided to step up his game.

"Honey," he said, "how about I start packing the kids' lunches."

For about a week, things went great. Then one day, the wife asked, "Hey, thanks for packing lunches. It's helped. Just curious, what are you packing the kids for lunch?"

"Peanut butter jelly sandwiches," he replied.

The wife had to take a minute.

When she'd been packing the lunches, she'd always tried to make sure the kids had a balanced meal and not too many carbs. And here her husband was packing PB and J!

"Jordan," she said, "I had to realize that if I was going to let him help, I had to let him pack peanut butter jelly."

I think that's just true. If you're going to give up a task to your partner you have to actually give it up. You can't give it up and control it at the same time.

I think these women know this though. When I've asked them what they feel in those moments they usually reply "anxiety."

It's like there's this perfectionist voice in their head telling them if they don't correct or fix or do something then something bad will happen and the more they try to ignore this part of them the louder and louder and louder this part becomes until they just about explode.

Which brings us to the second problem. Oftentimes these women don't talk to their husbands about perfectionism or inner critic. Instead they correct how the husband makes lunches.

And I get it. It's hard to talk with someone if you're not quite sure they're fully in the battle with you.

What's the fix? I think this is where us therapists have to step in and help the wife with her anxiety, perfectionism, and inner critic.

It's our job to help with the pain under the surface.

So instead of just telling the husband to do the dishes what I do is:

  • Help the husband see the world through his wife's eyes

And if she can't off load things to him then:

  • Help her work on her anxiety.

This is easier said than done. It's so easy to get sucked into the "battle of the sexes," but that is a war we can't win. Worse, by fighting it we're actually diverting time and attention away from the very real pain many of these couples, especially the wives, are feelings. So if we get lost in who's doing the dishes we actually leave these women in their loneliness, their self criticism and their anxiety.

Which is probably something that's happened far too often.


Dr. Jordan Harris.



If you liked this post, consider reading this next. I think you'll like it ;)


Jordan Harris, Ph.D., LMFT-S, LPC-S, received his Doctor of Philosophy in Marriage and Family Therapy from the University of Louisiana Monroe. He is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist in the state of Arkansas, USA. In his clinical work, he enjoys working with couples. He also runs a blog on deliberate practice for therapists and counselors at

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3월 14일

“What these wives want from their husbands is a man who can look around and see the world through their eyes.” When I read this sentence, BOOM! Jordan gets it.

Great article. Except, I want to give up some responsibility and at least have quasi-control. Can you solve that?!

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