According to research, women are still bearing the majority of the burden when it comes to household chores like cooking, cleaning, getting kids ready for school, despite the fact that, in many cases, they work as much outside of the home as their partners do. This dynamic brings many couples into marriage counseling or couples therapy, because it creates relationship problems.
This imbalance understandably leads to many women feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, not to mention frustrated. When couples aren’t working together as a team, it creates conflict and resentment. Many couples struggle with figuring out how to create a more balanced, egalitarian partnership.
But why? In our modern era, shouldn’t we be past this? The roots of gender inequality in family roles goes deeper than having good intentions. Creating a more balanced partnership requires self-awareness, mindfulness, and open communication. By understanding the subconscious belief systems that both men and women may still be holding, you can begin to break old patterns and start creating a more egalitarian relationship.
Why Gender Division of Labor Problems Still Occur
The reason that traditional gender roles still play out in many modern families (families who intellectually know that a more egalitarian family structure would be healthier for all) has to do with two psychological principles:
1) Without a high degree of self-awareness and intentional living, we humans tend to subconsciously create dynamics that mirror what was happening in our families of origin.
Whether we like it or not, old, deep, subconscious expectations about who does what are baked into us by the time we hit junior high. It is easy to forget that many of the woman’s rights issues we take for granted today have only come to pass in recent decades. (Side-note: I once met a highly successful female entrepreneur who was not able to get a bank loan without her husband’s consent in 1985.) While male and female feminists have been successful in working to change the roles of women both in the home and in the workforce, the emotional and psychological expectations of gender roles we all carry are much harder to change than public policy.
Today’s parents were parented by men and women (who themselves were raised by men and women) who were the products of a socio-political zeitgeist that emphasized home-making and childrearing for women, and breadwinning for men. As such, today’s adult parents as children absorbed powerful meta-messages about gender roles from observing their own moms cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry, scheduling the social activities, and dad going to work and mowing the lawn. Both men and women often feel (not think, but feel) that the tasks they observed their same-sex parent doing are theirs, and that their partner should do what their opposite-sex parent did.
This is often played out even when people believe that each gender is both competent to do more, and bears a responsibility to do more. Women often feel vaguely guilty when “their” job needs to be done, and many men (bless their hearts) simply do not see “women’s work” as something that needs to be done at all.
Though no fault of their own, many men were raised in homes where magic elves (aka, mom) simply took care of things. These well-meaning women inadvertently created adult men who put a carton of milk with half-an-inch left in the bottom back in the refrigerator and do not think to make a mental note to pick more up at the store.
In order to create an egalitarian relationship, men must address their subconscious expectations plus get deeply acquainted with the reality of all the small, daily tasks involved in maintaining a functional home.
2) Families are systems, and systems are powerful.
Whenever even one partner in a relationship has an expectation about the way roles should be carried out, they do their half of the “dance” they expect their partner to engage with them in. It’s like leaving space for the other person to do their thing. This creates pressure in the system that pulls the partner into the role that their partner expects them to fulfill.
For example, my husband will run the laundry through the washer and dryer but he expects me to do the folding and putting away. His half of the “dance” cumulates in a laundry basket of clean clothes left on the bed. Then I dance in and (with great satisfaction, actually) fold things into obsessive little squares the way Mari-Kondo taught me and squirrel them away in to drawers. Our “dance” in this area feels balanced and it works for us.
What does not work is when one person’s “dance” ends substantially further away from the middle point, leaving the other person having to come all the way over and do everything. This is what happens in out-of-balance partnerships.
In families where partners are not living with a high degree of self-awareness and intention, even if one person (usually the female partner) would like a more balanced relationship in terms of housework, childcare, or home-management, the system may create pressure on her to do more than she wants to, or should. I have certainly experienced this in the past, in my own marriage.
For example, in the past (before we worked on this as a couple) if my husband did not recognize that tasks that need to be done (or did not perceive them as needing to be done by him, or did them but not the way that I thought they should be done, or didn’t do them quickly enough) I would often feel pressure to step in and do them because I felt they are important and they were not happening.
However, when I “just did it” I was inadvertently contributing to a dynamic where my husband was lulled into a familiar dynamic (as a son raised by another woman who handled things for the family) where there was an unspoken rule in the home that I would do things. So he never thought of them as his responsibility.
In short: The harder and faster and more I “danced” the less he had to. I was overwhelmed, and he was confused about why I was low-grade angry all the time and always tired.
How to Create a More Egalitarian Relationship
Changing both ingrained expectations and family systems require a high degree of self-awareness, communication, and intentional living. However, it can be done and it should be done. (Trust me, it feels SO much better).
Egalitarian families are generally happier, less stressed, have lower conflict, and are fairer to working women. Furthermore, modern parents who work together to model a more egalitarian family system for their children break the cycle of rigid gender roles of previous generations.
Here’s an example of how couples create more balanced gender roles:
Jane and John are a millennial couple with two kids, and they both work. Both Jane and John grew up in homes where mom (who worked too!) did all the inside housework except watering the flowers and dad did all the outside home-tending except taking out the trash.
Now, in their own family, Jane is struggling with resentment as she feels overly burdened with working, childcare, doing the lions share of meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, bill paying, organizing activities, and the general mental energy that many women exert on behalf of their families that men often do not feel.
The couple is fighting. Jane is feeling resentful and exhausted. John tries to help out around the house, but she seems annoyed with him when he does because he’s making the bed wrong, or bringing home the wrong brand of mayonnaise, or not doing things fast enough to please her. So he stops trying.
He does what he thinks he should be doing: Going to work every day, bringing home a paycheck, shoveling the snow, and getting the oil changed at regular intervals. John is frustrated because he experiences Jane as not affectionate or fun, nor interested in sex, and kind of naggy, and he doesn’t know what else to do.
Through couples counseling, the couple learns how to work as a team. First they start by talking about how each of their early experiences in their own family of origin shaped their expectations for themselves and each other in their own family. Then, they negotiate a plan where each of them agrees to take on specific responsibilities around the house in a distribution that feels equitable to both of them.
In implementing that plan, Jane needs to restrain herself from stepping in to do things that are John’s job (or to correct John, or nag John). In doing so, she is creating pressure in the system for John to not just step up, but to develop the homemaking skills that he may be new to him.
For his part, John needs to learn a very different way of thinking that women are often groomed for (and most men are not) which is considering both what currently needs to be done, and what will need to be done, and taking the initiative to do those things. (No magic elves to the rescue).
Changing both subconscious expectations and family systems are challenging, however, the rewards are immense and meaningful. Trust me: As a woman who is married to a man who now — without being asked! — does the dishes when he sees they are dirty, sweeps the floor when it needs to be swept, and goes to the grocery store to buy food of his own volition… it feels so much better.
Similarly, I see the same shifts occur in the couples we work with for marriage counseling and couples therapy: They reorganize their responsibilities in a way that feels fair and balanced to both. Squabbling stops, things get done, and most importantly — they start enjoying each other again.
You deserve the same, and I hope this relationship advice helps you create it!
xo, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby