This is How You Make Chores Work in a Marriage

a photo of black shoes and pink shoes

There are a lot of things I do fairly well: make money, make sure the bills get paid, keep things tidy. In fact, I grew up in a messy house, and as a result, I’m a compulsive tidier. When the house is a mess I feel like I’m slowly going insane, so I make sure the house stays very neat . What I’m terrible at is cleaning, not to mention cooking.

In our house, my husband runs the ship in terms of actual cleaning, which means I sometimes find myself ordered to mop a floor, hyperventilating because I’m confused about how to do it. Really, we should probably have a chore wheel, but we’ve never gotten around to it. In the meantime, our house is presentable and we’re generally happy(ish). This is how we do it.

Cleaning Myths

Myth #1: It’s not help if you have to ask for it

This is the comment I hear most often. It usually goes like this, “I love my partner, and (s)he means well, but I always have to ask him for help. That makes me feel like it’s all on my shoulders and I might as well do it myself.”

Here is the thing (are you ready?): your partner can’t read your mind.

If you’re dealing with the chore problem in the first place, chances are they are not very good at the chores in question. They are not quite sure how you clean a toilet (even if you’ve showed them), or how often a toilet needs to be cleaned, or when it’s been cleaned according to your standards. This means they are probably not going to volunteer to clean a toilet (they are not stupid, that would just be throwing themselves into the lion’s mouth). Until you get a system in place, you’re going to need to ask for help, and that’s a great thing. We should all get BETTER at asking our partners for help, not worse. Asking for help means you’re good at communicating your needs, not that your partner doesn’t love you.

Myth #2: (S)He’s not that good at it, so I just have to do it over anyway

For those of us that didn’t grow up trained in the art of chores, chores are: unpleasant (just like they are for everyone), embarrassing (because how were we supposed to know that you didn’t clean the inside of a toilet with a scrub brush?), and scary (because we get yelled at for not doing them right). This is not a particularly compelling mix.

If we gather our nerve, and our scrub brushes, and dive into doing chores, and Every Single Time our partner comes along behind us and tells us we did it wrong and does it over, guess what? We’re going to stop doing chores altogether. All that unpleasantness and then it’s done over any way? Just do it your d*mn self, since you know how you want it done.

So here is what I’m allowing you: when your partner is learning a chore, you can give them one simple suggestion each time. “Hey honey, you know, most people don’t clean toilets with scrub brushes. Why don’t you try this toilet bowl scrubber.” If you want to super sneakily improve upon the chore when your partner is out of the house, you can, but you might not want to mention that you did. They will get better, but you have to encourage them.

Myth #3: (S)He’s just not that into cleaning

This is the kicker of all myths. I’ve heard people in the comments say over and over again, “Well, I need to do all the cleaning, because my partner is just not that into cleaning. He leaves his dishes on the living room floor, and that’s all he’s interested in doing.” Because here is the thing: Are you interested in living in a generally tidy house? Is (s)he interested in keeping your rage-full monster self at bay? Then (s)he just got interested in cleaning.

This is the crux of what marriage is about. We’re into keeping our partners happy. We’re into growing as people so that we’re better partners. So if your partner isn’t that interested in cleaning, I suggest you go home and sit down and have a conversation where you explain that you’re not that interested in picking up after them, so the two of you are going to work this out. Now.

Your Game Plan

Have A Game Plan

You may need to keep asking your partner for help no matter what, but it will really help if you sit down and come up with some ground rules. Maybe you clean the house together every Sunday. Maybe you draw up a list of all the chores that need to be done (and how often), and you divide them up. This is helpful because it gives your partner a really clear idea of what to expect, and a feeling that the rules are not going to change on them every two seconds, and that they have to keep reading your mind on a subject they know very little about.

Embrace Roles (Even If They Change)

One of the things that makes household chores such a tinderbox is gender roles. It’s really easy to get caught up in the endless cycle of thinking, “If I’m a woman, and I do the cooking what does that MEAN?” If you and your partner have divided chores along the lines of who is good at what, or a random distribution of the chores that everyone hates… then it doesn’t mean anything. Cooking is only oppressive if you’re feeling oppressed by it. Cooking is not oppressive because you’re a woman. And if you start hating cooking? Switch. You can keep changing your minds on roles forever.

That said, there are good things about clear roles, even if they change over time. I’m supposed to do the dishes every single night. It’s my job. On nights that I get David to help me out, he doesn’t say, “Well of course I’ll do them, the dishes are everyone’s responsibility.” He says, “You owe me one.” And I do. It’s really helpful that I understand that, because it makes us fight less.

Remember To Ask For Help

Even with all this, you’re going to have to keep asking for help. Chores are going to continue to be unpleasant, embarrassing, and scary for the near term, so come Sunday morning, you may need to play cheerleader, “We’re going to clean the house together, and it’s not going to be that bad.” And remember, a little grumbling is par for the course.

Let Them Screw It Up (and be proud of themselves)

Remember how I said you can’t walk behind your partner re-doing all their chores? Well, for serious, you can’t. You need to give them a chore, trust them with it, and then compliment them when they work hard and do it wrong. They are learning. I know chores seem easy if you’ve done them all your life, but trust me, if you haven’t, they aren’t. So when your partner proudly shows you the tub that (s)he just spent 45 minutes cleaning and still looks like a mess to you? Remember, it looks really clean to them, and they worked hard on it. So give them a hug, and tell them good job. The more you do this, the more often they’ll clean the tub, and the better and faster at it they will become.

Lower Your Standards

If your standards for a clean house look nothing like your partner’s standards for a clean house, it’s possible you’ll have to meet in the middle somewhere (or divide and play to your strengths). I like a neater house than David does, so I do most of the tidying. It’s not always as neat as I would like, but we work at it, and I live. David likes a cleaner house than I do. That means he heads up the cleaning effort, and it’s not always as clean as he wants. But we’re getting better all the time. Are our standards lower together than they would be apart? Maybe. But combined, we make a pretty good team, and that’s good enough for me.

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