Psych Services: Major issues can lurk below the surface of seemingly trivial disagreements

Lisa Garmezy

Don’t leave your boxers on the bedroom floor, the wife said. Please don’t leave your boxers on the floor, she repeated and repeated. Finally, the husband walked in on his wife nailing them to the floor in their usual spot, because apparently, they were a permanent part of the décor. Another therapist swears it’s true.


We weren’t taught towel-folding in graduate school, but I’ve moderated at least three conflicts about it. Some wives—it hasn’t been a husband, yet—are mad committed to a tidy linen closet. Oddly, spouses who were bright enough to pass the TCOLE exam can’t learn to fold towels in thirds. Edges on the inside, please.


The “I don’t know how, so you have to do it” strategy is a favorite trick of both sexes. Clients use it to wiggle out of balancing a checkbook or using financial software, too. If you’re using this excuse, get some training and get over it.


Don’t just live with toxic arguments over chores. Major issues can lurk below the surface of seemingly trivial disagreements. When spouses feel, “You don’t care a bit what I want,” it hurts. That’s one cause of the fights over messy towels and discarded boxers.


Hidden power struggles are common. Fights about housework may really be about who gets to be in charge, and of what . . . including the organization of the closets.


Quarrels also blow up because spouses feel unappreciated and exhausted from doing Damn Near Everything. Inside, the tired spouse may be grieving: “You used to think I hung the stars and the moon.”


A Better Future


To fix things, the slacker can pitch in. (Women find men who do housework strangely sexy.) Or you can hire help. Although it feels spoiled and wrong for many of you who grew up without much money, it’s not a bad solution.


You can cut back on socializing or progress toward a degree or other activities in order to have a home that meets your standards.


You can drop your standards. Unless the house is on the market, no inspections are scheduled. Some evidence suggests that millennial couples who expect housework to be split equally are living with more mess and chaos than their elders. If it works for you, go for it.


You can keep fighting about who needs to scrub the bathroom.


Or, if you don’t like these options, two ideas are left.


You can train the kids, if you have some. Parents, like spouses, are not personal maids. You can seethe with resentment as you clean up after your kids, or you can make it clear that in your family,

everyone helps. Kids learn the valuable lesson, discussed in this column before, that when you are part of a group, you contribute and participate. Pro tip: middle-schoolers can do routine laundry.


As a bonus, research tells us that kids who do more chores at home tend to feel more competent and confident as young adults. To this day, girls get this ego boost more than boys, because they still do more housework than their brothers.


Adjusting the Load


Last, you can talk it out. Sit down with your partner, compare notes, and see if the division of labor seems fair. Loads shift over time. For example, a parent who is coaxing a kid through a tough semester of schoolwork may need to be excused from another responsibility.


The “Who Does What List” in John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work can kickstart your conversation. It highlights the invisible half of housework that, unlike mowing or laundry, produces no obvious results. These time-consuming stressful jobs include managing finances, maintaining vehicles, attending teacher conferences, tracking medical care, dealing with children’s emotions and cycling out unused or expired household stuff while acquiring new stuff.


Gottman’s clinical work and respected research show that men underestimate how much their wives do. In my experience, it works both ways. Many wives have vented to me about absent husbands who do nothing for the family, as if the extra-job absences were not all about family support.


It’s Your Choice


As you might guess, even in dual-income households women do more chores than men. Partners may have a “She wants it more,” attitude, that is, if the marriage or home or cute storage system was her idea, she can maintain it. More than that, we tend to try to do everything our parents did, unconsciously copying the lopsided way things worked in their homes.


Surprisingly, the working women who earn more than their husbands take on a larger share of housework than the working women who earn less than their husbands. No one knows why, Ms. Sergeant, but it may be that these higher-earning women want to hold on to some part of the traditional wife’s role. Like living with the mess, if it works for you, great.


If it’s not working and nothing helps, it’s time to consider counseling. Again, these simple issues aren’t so simple. Creating a reasonably comfortable home matters in a marriage.


Look at it this way: if you’re on the third floor of a building and see a ladder propped against the window, you’ll ignore the ladder on a beautiful spring day. But when a fire is raging around you, that ladder becomes a lot more attractive. Like the ladder, HPD Psychological Services is there for you.