"Here it comes again!"
The lecture that I’m a do-nothing around the house. I can keep quiet or fight back, but either way nothing changes and the I’m lazy, selfish one.
Sound like you?
It’s absolutely no fun to be “parented” by your spouse. Your instinct is to defend yourself and look at the faults or irrationalities of their side—and continue the fruitless debate to prove you are doing your part and that your spouse is super-critical.
We assume that you want out of those debates and that you’d like to be treated like a peer. Please note, if your spouse is talking divorce or ambivalence about the marriage, your problems are greater than just the complaints. You need ER level support. See our store or professionals page for a local Discernment Counselor.
It’s almost never about the content of the nagging.
Your spouse is feeling something behind the words about a task or chore: anxious, stress, helpless, hopeless, burdened, or feeling like a servant and not a spouse.
If the nagging is newer or more intense than usual, there may be other life stressors going on. It would be wise to gently ask what else your spouse is feeling stress about, if you aren’t sure, so they aren’t “leaking” life stress on you and accusing you of doing, or not doing things you two never agreed you’d be responsible for.
This brings us to the next, seemingly obvious strategy, but one that few couples think to implement.
Suggest sitting down and actually going through everything that needs to be done to make life happen.
Your spouse may have a big list, but you may have your own tasks they aren’t aware of. You can look at the full list, and acknowledge that this is a lot to do, perhaps acknowledging the things that your spouse does that you had not thought about. Hopefully your spouse is also interested in the tasks you do. If you actually very few domestic tasks, it may be that your career is highly demanding—but now is not the moment to remind your spouse of that.
This is a conversation for taking a solid look at all that happens and (in the next step below) honoring why your spouse is so stressed out.
The next step is to discuss who holds anxieties about the tasks on the list.
Own up to any element of gender socialization or family of origin issues that may be creating some of the tension. For example, it’s still common for men to be “the outdoor chores” person, and for women to be the “indoor chores.” At Modern Commitment we find gender differences important to acknowledge, but not as a set of rules that limit couples in their efforts to make changes. For example, if you're a husband, your wife's socialization in her family of origin might have left her with strict household standards that she can never live up to. Some of her stress is not about you at all, but a blow back from how she was raised as a female. (But do not point that out to her if she doesn’t seem to see it—she wants a husband, not a shrink!)
The reality, in our view, is there is no right way or wrong way to get chores done.
It’s very much a dance around logistics, cash flow (if you have more money you can hire housekeepers, lawn services, etc.) and practicalities around who holds more anxiety for certain tasks or who is more skilled.
From our standpoint, if one of you feels your marriage is stuck over shared workload, then it’s a problem for both of you.
We have two more strategies for you, but we want to note here that if you sense is there is a lot more than chores going on, and if your spouse is not softening when you are trying to be collaborative and compassionate, you may need a series of marriage counseling sessions to work through issues you may not be seeing but are present in your marriage.
Now that you’ve both got a new conversation going about the chores, it’s time to ask your spouse which ones they despise doing and which, if you did them, it would make their life easier.
And then demonstrate, in concrete actions, that you do care, and aren’t a helpless child. The idea here is to avoid your being slapped with a ton of tasks for no reason other than your spouse finds them tedious. We’re looking more at managing stress, anxiety, and having a sense of teamwork. So focus on the ones where you get the biggest payoff from change.
You may find that your spouse softens a lot, just knowing you do care, and that you’re helping to audit everything.
Your spouse may newly appreciate that you’re willing to be available for an extra busy week. Simply by knowing you see all that has to happen may be relieving to them. Sometimes just sharing to-do lists aloud with a supportive person takes away their potency.
Here is where you take an honest look at what else you should be doing and acknowledge that you’ve “let” your spouse do more than is reasonable.
If they’ve always wanted dishes put in the dishwasher, and you’re on year 10 and you still put them on the counter, now is the time to acknowledge that loading those dishes is not about the dishes at all, really, but about your spouse feeling like you contribute to a shared life. Commit not just to doing certain tasks but to being supportive of your spouse’s feelings.
We have a radical proposition for you right now.
Don't get hung up on disagreeing whether a task needs to be done at a certain time or in a certain way.
Just do some things the way your spouse wants because their anxiety or misery about it is greater than yours. We’re not talking existential matters here, like how to raise your children to be good people. If your spouse is feeling burdened and like you are not doing your part to help, you can suck it up, buttercup, and start doing some tasks your spouse’s way. (But don’t start using your new behavior as proof they aren’t allowed to ever feel stress again or are supposed to think you’re now some amazing spouse.) The dishes off the counter is an example.
You are doing more not in order to comply with a boss, but for deeper reasons like loving your spouse and wanting to remove burdens. The result is that you let go of small, symbolic battles that end up making you feeling you are living with a parent, not a spouse.
Here we have it.
Every marriage therapist has witnessed endless chore disagreements in the therapy room. Invariably it’s not about the chores but about people feeling underappreciated, stressed, time-crunched, energy drained or otherwise miserable at how small tasks turn into war zones.The way to the other side is not how you’ve done it before, lining up your rational debate notes and blasting each other with how you’re right, they’re wrong, they should chill out or how nice it would be able to “chill out” but they can’t because the house would be a war zone mess.
Since you are more of the “follower” who is feeling parented, you can choose to step out of that role by calling for an adult-to-adult conversation about all the tasks. Then, by following the other strategies above, you’ll begin to demonstrate to your spouse that you care more deeply than they’ve realized, and that you’re interested in changing the stuck critic/defender dynamic in your marriage.