Till Dust Do Us Part

How to Divide Chores So You Don’t Kill Each Other

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Even the healthiest relationships out there suffer from this problem: How in the world do you split household responsibilities in a way that leaves both parties happy and satisfied? As is the case in so many relationship conundrums, communication is the key (giant sigh).

When it comes to communicating about housework, start by knowing what your chores are. One of the biggest causes of friction around the doing of housework is differing definitions of what that entails. One partner might consider getting the dishes done and the bed made the definition of keeping the home clean; the other might feel that the house isn’t clean unless the floors are scrubbed weekly. So define those things together — not just what gets done, but the frequency with which the work is carried out.

That process should involve some give and take; it’s unlikely that both partners will be in total agreement on what needs to get done and how often. Part of the give and take may be agreeing to ownership of a chore that’s important to you but not at all a priority to the other person. Take cleaning the baseboards: If it drives you nuts to see dusty baseboards, and your significant other literally would never notice or care about such a thing, you may just have to bite the bullet and attend to the task, reminding yourself that you’re the one to whom this is a priority. With that said, beware of the “whoever cares more, wins” school of thought, which can leave one person bearing an unreasonable amount of the workload. Actually writing out a list can be crucial to establishing balance: it provides a visual representation of the division of labor for both parties to react to.

So how do you go about sorting out what your chores are? Have a conversation and make a list. You’ll be surprised what you learn about the person you live with! Some people actually love doing laundry, but hate vacuuming — but you won’t know that until you actually talk about it. Are there things you feel nervous about? Bring that up. I regularly hear from people who are about to move in with a boyfriend or girlfriend who are worried that they’re “the messy one in the relationship.”

On the flip side — and I know this from personal experience! — it can be highly stressful for neatniks or clean freaks to consider ceding control of their living space. It will help things down the line if you can be open with your partner about what might be worrying you. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable! This person loves you, and wants you two to have a happy life together. (If your partner doesn’t love you and want you two to have a happy life together, then dividing chores is the least of your problems!)

It’s best to make the list together, because that process is going to facilitate the initial conversation you two are having about the division of household labor. “Initial” is a deliberate word choice and brings us to this important part of this advice: This will be an ongoing discussion. You will not hit on the perfect system or schedule the first time you try. Your home will likely change over time, meaning new chores or responsibilities will arise. Accepting that now will allow you to face those shifts with less angst than if you feel broadsided by change.

With the philosophizing out of the way, let’s talk some specifics.

First and foremost, seriously consider hiring a cleaning professional

A lot of couples feel like that’s cheating or feel a sense of guilt for not “being able” to clean the home themselves. That line of thinking needs to go — your time and energy are valuable, and cleaning can take up a lot of both! Even bringing in someone once a month to handle heavy-duty tasks like scrubbing the grout in the bathroom, doing the floors and hard cleaning the kitchen can lead to a much happier home for the two of you. Remember those baseboards?

Upgrade your gear

Two people naturally generate more laundry than one, which means you’ll want more hamper space. If you have two laundry bins, you can dedicate one to lights and one to darks, which cuts down on the amount of sorting you’ll need to do come wash day. Hair is also a thing that will likely increase in volume with two people sharing a space, so you may want to get a lightweight upright vacuum that you can run regularly to keep hair clumps at bay. They may not be as fun a new home purchase as a new set of wine glasses, but down the line you’ll be glad for them.

Be willing to try new systems

In theory, scheduling 15-20 minutes a day to clean sound great. In practice, it may not work out for you. That’s okay! Try switching to a divide-and-conquer-one-hour-a-week system. Or designate, say, Tuesdays and Thursdays as cleaning days. There’s no right answer — except for the one that works for you!

Use a shared calendar

Cleaning is work, so treat it like a job and schedule tasks. Using a shared calendar also helps with accountability, and email alerts can do the nagging for you.

Be mindful of your language

When it is time to adjust a system that isn’t working as well as you’d like, take you and me language out of the discussion and replace them with our and us. Instead of saying, “This isn’t working for me!” or “You aren’t doing enough!” Try “This isn’t working for us,” and “We aren’t staying on top of things.” It’s also helpful to avoid keeping score. It’s not a competition, it’s a collaboration. Both the cleanliness and relationship harmony are things you can both enjoy.

Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and the author of My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag . . . and Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha.