How to Split Household Chores so Everyone Shares the Work

Whether you have a busy partner, lazy roommates, or messy kids, it's possible to divide household chores fairly in your home.

girl loading dishes into dishwasher
Photo: Kraig Scarbinsky/Getty Images

I have a generally terrible memory, but if one thing has seared itself into my brain, it's the household chores the people I've cohabited with have done poorly—or left for me to do, no questions asked. There were the piles of body hair on the bathroom floor from the two guys I lived with in college. There were the dishes another roommate left in the sink after near-nightly cooking experiments. And nowadays there's the sticky residue I discover on our white countertops (side note: Never get white countertops) after my husband has "cleaned" the kitchen.

That's not to say I'm any kind of angel when it comes to housework. I rarely take out the compost bin. I tend to clean out the lint catcher after doing a load of laundry—and promptly leave the wad of lint on top of the dryer rather than throw it in the wastebasket that's mere feet away. And I act like an entitled, grumpy teen when I think the lion's share of the household chores is falling on my shoulders, even though I haven't explicitly communicated that I want help.

We can laugh about it (sometimes), but dividing up household labor in a way that feels fair to all members is no joke. Bad situations with a "roommate"—whether someone you're romantically involved with, related to, or not—are more than annoying; they can breed toxicity in your relationship.

"In today's world, almost everybody has too much to do. People are feeling overwhelmed by work and by how much they have to do in the family. If someone doesn't seem to be doing their fair share, however, an individual defines that for the couple, it is a tinderbox," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute and a senior research adviser to the Society for Human Resource Management.

A fair division of housework is not just about avoiding resentment, disagreements, and breakups. For women who work, it can significantly influence career decisions and opportunities. While 43% of women who share responsibilities evenly with their partner aspire to become top executives, only 34% of women who handle the majority of housework and childcare have the same aspiration, according to a 2015 McKinsey & Company — study.

At every professional level, the study goes on to say, women are at least nine times as likely as men to say they do more childcare and at least four times as likely to say they do more chores. With so many women serving as chairperson and CEO at home (not to mention gender-based workplace discrimination and poor support for working parents), it's no surprise that women are still underrepresented on every rung of the corporate ladder.

So is the goal a clean 50/50 split? Maybe not. All the experts I spoke to agreed that 50/50 simply doesn't exist—and that's OK. "The notion of 50/50 implies that things are equal, but it's always shifting," says Galinsky. "We've got to give ourselves a little slack." Much more important than minute-by-minute division of labor are the following make-or-break factors that have a huge impact on whether your home feels harmonious.

How do the other people in your life divide things up?

If you're surrounded by couples, families, or roommates who seem to happily clean the bathrooms together every weekend, it's going to feel pretty awful if you're scrubbing the tub solo. "People assess their relationships in relation to others, and the more often others share a task, the worse it feels for you not to share it," says Daniel Carlson, Ph.D., assistant professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The reverse is true too: If your husband joyfully handles your kids' bathtime routine every night while your friends' partners have never wielded a rubber ducky, he's going to look awesome.

The Stressors of Parenthood

Parenthood adds a slew of new chores to a household and, along with them, a slew of new stressors. For heterosexual couples who both work, chances are good that if either parent gets paid leave, it's the mom—and that sets a pattern it's hard to break out of.

"Women who take time off following a birth end up doing more housework while they're at home, and dads tend to engage even more in the labor force to provide for their families," says Carlson. That's certainly true for me: When I was on maternity leave, I handled laundry, since I knew my husband would appreciate a little extra time with the baby when he was home from work. Nine months later, I'm still doing six loads of laundry for every one he does. "Even though we're seeing both men and women embrace the notion of gender equality, we see this pressure toward more conventional behavior. It's about the widespread lack of paternity leave and the workplace culture that assumes employees are always available," says Carlson.

Adoptive parents may be happier with how they divvy things up, research finds. That's partly because of the absence of pregnancy and breastfeeding—both parents start out on a more equal playing field—but it's also possible that the process of adopting a child can help create a stronger partnership.

"People who may have dealt with miscarriages and infertility and IVF and the adoption process and are still together—they're very resilient," says Abbie Goldberg, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, who studies parenthood, relationship quality, and well-being among different types of families. "Couples who've been through this long journey and haven't broken up can sometimes be set up to be a really great team."

What’s your work situation?

If both partners work full-time or if one partner works and the other stays at home, it should (theoretically at least) be relatively easy to decide how to allocate chores: In the first case, the couple tries to share things equally; in the second, the stay-at-home partner takes on significantly more.

The hardest scenario, particularly for straight couples, is when one partner—typically the male—works full-time and the other—typically the female—works part-time. "Things are much less clear-cut. There's an expectation that she's going to pitch in more, in terms of childcare or housework. But where does that stop? It's very hard to negotiate what 'a little bit more' looks like," says Goldberg. "In those couples, women are more likely to be dissatisfied. They feel like they're just doing everything."

How do you share powder-keg tasks?

Carlson's most recent research looked at how specific housework tasks affect relationship quality among middle- and low-income heterosexual couples. His team found that couples today are much more likely to share most routine chores than couples were in the past. They also learned that it's especially critical how partners divide two particular tasks: dishwashing and shopping.

Women who wash all or nearly all the dishes are more likely to report relationship trouble and worse sex than women whose partners handle at least some of the dishes. Why? Well, to begin with, washing dishes is unpleasant. It's also thankless. "Everyone praises you for cooking a good meal. No one praises you for the clean silverware," says Carlson. But when you share dishwashing duties—one person washes, one dries—it's a chance to catch up, connect, and feel like a team. In fact, for women, washing dishes with a partner leads to more happiness than sharing any other household task.

For men, the key task seems to be shopping. While the effect isn't as strong as with women and dishwashing, it's interesting (and a bit counterintuitive) that men are slightly less happy in their relationship when their partner does most of the shopping. If you're the mayor of the supermarket, you might want to discuss a more even grocery split.

How do you show appreciation for your partner’s or kids’ efforts?

In my less charitable moments, I hesitate to thank my husband for picking up the living room—after all, no one really thanks me for putting away the baby's toys and scrubbing sweet potatoes off the floor. But the experts say that's a missed opportunity. "If you're doing a ton around the house but your partner is telling you every day, 'Thank you for making a delicious meal, thank you for cleaning up my mess,' that mitigates the resentment you might feel toward your partner," says Goldberg.

Married friends of mine in Chicago give each other silly job titles—Czar of Laundry, Head of Waste Management, Tax Preparer, Weeknight Line Cook. It's a fun way to acknowledge that the person doing that task is taking on important work. "Demonstrating to people that you value them is one of the most important, fundamental things you can do," says Tiffany Dufu, author of Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less. "It's not about the task; it's about the person. Anyone you've signed up to do life with is deserving and worthy of gratitude, and it goes a very, very long way."

Are you a 'gatekeeper'?

Helping someone out is no fun if that someone looks over your shoulder the whole time, corrects your technique, or redoes it all when you've finished. That's called gatekeeping, and it's a major issue when it comes to housework.

"The person who is responsible for a task assumes a psychological responsibility, and that person can often be critical of the other person doing that task because they aren't doing it the same way. And that pushes the other person away from doing it," says Galinsky. When it comes to childcare, gatekeeping has the additional side effect of depriving your co-parent of time and bonding opportunities with your kids.

Opening the metaphorical gates and allowing your partner to develop a unique approach may even help you discover a new, better way to do things. Take Dufu, for instance. She normally wakes up an hour before her kids so she can get ready and then get them ready. While she was on her book tour last year, her husband took over the morning routine.

"I was thanking him for giving up so much sleep for me, and he said, 'Thanks for the gratitude, but I'm not giving up any sleep,' " says Dufu. She couldn't imagine how he was getting by without waking up at the crack of dawn. "When he explained, my mouth fell open," she says.

"He gets up at the same time he always does, and on his way to the bathroom, he wakes up the kids and says, 'In 45 minutes, I need you at the front door with breakfast in your stomach, hair and teeth brushed, homework in your backpack, and coat and shoes on. Mom is not here, and I do not have time to get you guys ready.' It turns out they can do that!"

Most importantly, how well do you communicate?

While we might like to imagine a world where household duties just magically fall into place, in reality, they won't get sorted without an open dialogue with your partner, roommate, or kids—or more likely, an ongoing series of dialogues. One strategy is to list every task you can think of in a printable chart, note who does it, and rate how satisfied you feel with that arrangement. Then share your notes.

Conversations like these are one reason same-sex couples are somewhat more likely than straight couples to feel their division of chores is fair, notes Goldberg. Why are they better at chatting it out? When partners are of the same sex, they're less likely to fall back on traditional gender roles and make assumptions about who will do what. "There's a better chance these choices will be thought about, talked about, and most important, perhaps done based on preference, ability, and natural inclination," says Goldberg.

In heterosexual relationships, the consequences of not having these conversations tend to affect women more. "Women often get the short end of the stick. Unless we're intentional about the decisions we're making, we'll operate based on default norms," says Dufu. Not talking about it and not sharing tasks well are also missed opportunities to deepen your bond with your partner or children.

I've certainly found that to be true. The most meaningful and fair-feeling division of household labor my husband and I have experienced? Taking care of our son, Aadi, who's 1 year old. We truly share childcare—diaper changes, feeding, early wake-ups, bedtime—as evenly as possible, and that's a beautiful thing. It means we spend lots of time together and with Aadi; we both appreciate all the effort the other makes to ensure the baby is fed, clean, clothed, and happy; and we both get to admire the strength of our partner growing into a parent.

It's almost enough for me to stop worrying about those blasted white countertops.

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