Relationship Roles and ResponsibilitiesApril 28, 2017
The issue of household chores and responsibilities is a common topic in couples counselling and marriage counselling.
While it may sound trivial, many couples find that disagreement on these issues can occupy a huge amount of mental space and emotional energy… often on a daily basis. And while seemingly petty, when disagreement on household chores and responsibilities is not resolved it can build up resentment over time.
Couples with this problem have commonly fallen into particular roles which have got them out of balance. Those roles typically play out in one of two scenarios:
- Competition and Score Keeping – Each partner asserts that he or she contributes equally to the relationship. This couple is stuck in a sibling rivalry style of interaction. They compete based on quantifying their contribution to the household.
- Taking and Renouncing Responsibility – One partner takes responsibility and the other partner renounces responsibility for the household. The partner who has taken responsibility is burdened by remembering and monitoring what needs to be done and trying to enlist their partner’s help. They over-function and therefore feel they do more and are tired of the daily battle. The partner who has renounced responsibility often feels nagged and can’t seem to ever please their partner when they do help.
The above two scenarios don’t capture all relationship patterns, but you may recognise aspects of them in the way you and your partner deal with household chores. And you may have noticed that these patterns tend to become more pronounced when the workload increases. For example, couples often seek marriage counselling after having their first child because the patterns have become aggravated by the additional burden of child rearing together.
So how do I help couples in this scenario, even when there is additional stress? Constant bickering about who has done more, or repeatedly asking someone to do more of the household chores won’t work long term.
The secret to addressing ongoing conflict about household chores is to get out of these reoccurring patterns by looking at the role each partner is playing in the relationship.
What is your role in your relationship?
Relationships are most successful when both partners have shared ownership and responsibility for the relationship.
If you find yourself and your partner stuck in a competitive style of interaction where you are keeping score and competing with your partner over ‘who does more’, your relationship satisfaction will decline, and it’s likely so will your sex life. An example of a competition based interaction might be:
When your partner offers you help with something, you decline and become defensive. This demonstrates that a sibling rivalry style of relating is present. You would prefer to tough it out alone rather than face the vulnerability of accepting support.
Are you trying to play the hero role?
“I don’t need your help. I am a better person, more reliable, higher functioning”. Competition can bring energy to the relationship initially, but love can’t exist in a hostile environment like that.
Accepting help when you are under pressure, or not well, is about allowing your partner to look after you when needed. It’s about demonstrating vulnerability which makes the relationship safe, and strengthens it. Offering support when it is needed by your partner does the same.
The key here is to trade your competition bias for a focus on team work. The relationship is what allows the household to function. Nourishing the relationship rather than competing with your partner will cause the household to function better. Your role is to strengthen the relationship and make it safe.
Equally, if you have relinquished responsibility in your household and relationship you will be dissatisfied because it is likely you will feel powerless. For example:
- Saying you are “happy to help” with the chores bears no responsibility for maintaining the list of chores or ensuring they get done.
- Thinking to yourself that you have “helped your partner out” by cooking the dinner or cleaning the bathroom demonstrates that you believe those jobs are your partner’s responsibility.
When you relinquish responsibility for household chores you tend to feel dissatisfied in the relationship because you have also surrendered your sense of autonomy. It is likely you will feel controlled in the relationship and begin to resent your partner for that. It is possible that you will start to distance, and seek enjoyment outside the relationship. Remember, this is not because your partner is nagging you. It is because you have relinquished your ownership and responsibility in the home and in the relationship.
The key here is to take a mature role in the relationship and that involves taking back some ownership of what happens in the household. That means taking ownership of shared tasks, and even being responsible for your partner’s tasks if your partner drops the ball.
The role we play in our relationship is also affected by our expectations and gender roles.
Gender and Expectations
Gender roles are typically picked up from our culture and family of origin. The danger with gender roles is that they carry with them hidden expectations, and this is where couples can come unstuck. We are rarely aware of what our underlying assumptions and expectations are when it comes to gender roles. So all of a sudden a conflict will just appear. This is because our hidden expectations conflict with our partner’s hidden expectations… and we don’t discuss and resolve it.
Thus, unspoken and conflicting expectations are the biggest risk to relationship satisfaction in the realm of household responsibilities. For example:
- You might expect the primary caregiver of children to also maintain the household. However, the primary caregiver might expect to focus strongly on parenting to give your children the best head start in life, and that household chores would be shared.
- Traditional division of labour might have seen men looking after ‘external’ chores such as lawns, gardens and vehicles; and women looking after ‘internal’ chores such as cleaning and preparing meals. However, apartment living means that that ledger has fallen out of balance and even a couple with traditional values might now need to renegotiate.
Be honest with yourself. What are your expectations of your partner based on their gender role? What jobs should your partner do and not do? What are your expectations on yourself based on your own gender role? What jobs should you do and not do? Are they fair or accurate assumptions? Questioning these assumptions will put you in good stead for a productive discussion with your partner.
Discussing these expectations honestly is the key to working out the roles and responsibilities each partner will play and how household tasks will be shared.
Some Practical Tips
To recap, understanding your roles and responsibilities in your relationship requires three steps:
- Drop the score card and instead nurture your relationship and your partner.
- Ensure you have equal ownership of the relationship and the household.
- Discuss your expectations [and how gender roles play into that] about the division of labour in the household.
Remember, trying to jump to step three without addressing steps one and two will just exacerbate the patterns we discovered at the beginning of this article because the underlying issues haven’t been addressed. If you are having difficulty with this, couples counselling can help you address your roles and responsibilities in your relationship and take you through the mindset shifts required in steps one and two.
Once that has been achieved consider the following:
- Workshop new ways problem tasks can be completed. Perhaps a cleaner or gardener might help you reach your outcome without adding relationship stress.
- Let your values guide you – we all value things differently so it makes sense to allow that to guide you. If eating nice meals at night is important to your partner, allow them to take ownership of that area. If you like a tidy bedroom, take ownership of that domain.
- Use the Pareto principal to your advantage. 20% of your work will get you 80% of the result. When it comes to chores, decide which 20% is important to you both and prioritise that. The rest can probably be let go or outsourced.
- Role fluidity is important – While your partner might normally cook the dinner, you are equally responsible for making sure dinner is cooked. If your partner drops the ball for any reason you will need to step in, knowing that ultimately it must be done.
- Complete tasks for the mutual benefit of the relationship, not because you are doing your partner a favour. You are doing yourself a favour because you benefit if the relationship benefits.
- Work on your friendship as this will help you to “see” your partner as they really are. When they drop the ball you will automatically be more forgiving.
- Remember to acknowledge what your partner does for you both and to thank them, rather than become defensive about what each of you might do.
- Your partner will feel respected if you check in with them before making plans that impact their workload whether this is work, play or a personal task.
- Re-visit the discussion from time to time to ensure that one person isn’t bearing most or all of the tasks. Couples are more satisfied when they feel like they work as a team and share ownership and responsibility. This is particularly important if there is going to be a change of circumstances in your relationship like a baby arriving or a new job or hobby. Are there any new expectations that need to be discussed?
- Develop a strategic vision together – What will your relationship feel like 5 years from now? What do you need to do to make that happen? What do you need to change?
These tips will help, but it is crucial you address the roles you are playing and the mindset you are bringing to the relationship. Couples counselling can help you reset your focus, adopt a mature mindset and role in your relationship and share in the mutual rewards of a relationship that is growing.
If you feel you could benefit from counselling and gain clarity over your relationship roles and responsibiltites, contact Sydney Couples and Family Specialists on 02 8968 9397.
Alex is an accessible and compassionate therapist. His clients appreciate that Alex listens with the intention of genuinely understanding them. He’s lovely with adolescents, who seem to warm to him
immediately, and he creates a space in sessions for any or all participants to have their say and feel heard.
Alex’s particular strengths are in the area of working with couples and he has extensive experience and training in this area. He is both Gottman and Systemically trained and draws on practical ideas that clients can immediately make use of to enhance their relationships.
Alex comes to Sydney Couple and Family Therapy Specialists from backgrounds as a Lifeline Crisis Line Counsellor and Trainer and Therapist at the highly-respected Jansen Newman Institute. He has supported individuals and couples through trauma, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and adolescent struggles.
Alex has helped many people through intensely frightening and painful life events – and to a place where they have the skills and confidence to carry themselves forward.
Alex is married with a young family and therefore easily relates to the stress and struggles that many couples and young families face today.
“It takes a lot of courage to share a moment of crisis with someone you don’t yet know. Even more so, to entrust your intimate relationship over to them.
I have been in the fortunate position to be trusted with that responsibility many times and have helped people – through their own bravery, honesty and effort – to transcend their suffering and improve their key relationships.”
Alex also runs the pre-marriage counselling course at the Sydney Couple and Family Specialists https://sydneycoupleandfamily.com/couples-pre-marriage-pre-commitment-course/
Qualifications and Professional Membership
Alex holds a Masters of Counselling and Psychotherapy from Jansen Newman Institute Sydney, and a Bachelor degree from the University of Sydney. Alex also holds a Gottman training certificate.
He is a member of the Australian Association of Family Therapy, the Counsellors and Psychotherapist Association of Australia, and the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia.
Why see a Couples Counselor?
Are you wondering if couples counselling is for you? In this interview Alex Ryder answers common questions we hear from people who want to understand more about this process.
And remember, if you are a new client you can book a free 15 minute telephone session with Alex.
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