Kia and I have recently stumbled across a principle that has significantly altered (for the better) our dynamic regarding who does what work and how we each feel about it.
To be clear, I’m not talking about the work of marriage. Honestly, I don’t think being married to somebody should be that much work. It should be fun (at least most of the time), and relatively easy. The real work is finding the right person — someone you love for who they are, someone you feel relaxed around, and someone you’re physically attracted to (and vice versa in all cases — which is sometimes the harder bit).
What I’m talking about is the work in marriage; who takes out the trash, who does the dishes, who takes care of the kid, and so forth. Most of this work exists for single people as well, but if you’re married (or live with your romantic partner) then questions surface — questions of division of labor.
Secret Balance Sheet — A Dysfunctional System
Division of labor is often a source of conflict in a marriage. A common dynamic is for one (or both) partners to feel like they are doing more work, or more valuable/important/difficult work, than the other person. Maybe they have a secret balance sheet in their head, on which they are constantly accruing credits on their own side and debits on their partner’s side (or it is the other way around? — I always get those accounting terms mixed up). If each partner has a secret balance sheet (one that is never discussed), then there’s never any chance to reconcile the two. A giant blow-up argument is inevitable; the secret balance sheets are eventually brought out into the open and are found to differ massively. The “you owe me” dynamic is destructive — it leads to resentment on both sides of the relationship.
Do you know any couples where one person supported the other one financially through a degree program, and then as soon that person graduated they dumped the partner that supported them? From the outside it looks cruel and callous; the student who was being supported was obviously just using the other person, right? Well, maybe. But an alternate interpretation is that after graduation, the secret balance sheets were compared, and didn’t match. The partner who was being supported financially was presented with a gigantic “you owe me” bill which didn’t line up with their own view of things. Perhaps they felt that while they were in school, being financially supported, they were contributing to the relationship in other ways. Or maybe they felt that because they were working so hard, things must have somehow been equal in the relationship. When they suddenly realize that the other partner has been expecting something in return for financially supporting their broke ass for all these years, they freak out. Faced with the giant debt, they bail.
I’m not trying to justify the behavior of either partner in my hypothetical situation — I’m just saying that the secret balance sheet method is a bad system — one that leads to disappointment and heartbreak.
Open Balance Sheet — A Less Dysfunctional System
A somewhat healthier dynamic (which I think describes my work-sharing dynamic with Kia before we discovered our new principle) is to communicate regularly about who does what and who is responsible for what, in essence frequently reconciling the balance sheets. Thus, no hidden debts accrue.
This kind of arrangement can exist with varying degrees of symmetry. Maybe one partner contributes more money, and the other contributes more household work (childcare, cooking, cleaning, shopping, social planning, vacation planning, handling finances, etc.). Kia and I both work — she earns a bit more hourly but I have more passive income (from music royalties), so we contribute the same amount of money to our household fund. On the other hand, she spends more time with Tesla Rose (two-year-old girls tend to be slightly more focused on mommy — I try not to take it personally) so I try to make up for that by doing more cleaning, and more household organizing. It doesn’t really matter what the division of labor is, as long as neither partner feels like they’re getting the short of the stick. It’s important to remember that 1) there’s a built-in efficiency boost to co-habitating; if you didn’t live with someone you’d both be taking out the garbage and paying the electricity bill, and 2) some degree of asymmetry is probably a good thing; what is difficult for one person might be easy for the other.
Sounds like a pretty good system, right? It is — but with the extra work generated by parenthood, Kia and I would still sometimes get irritated or snippy with each other around work issues, despite the fact that both of us were working hard. Was there just too much work to do? Maybe some disharmony is inevitable for parents of a young child (or children) who also both work, and who also both have artistic pursuits.
Origins of the Principle — Home Improvement
The prequel to our new work-sharing principle came about as we were contemplating our long list of home improvement projects. We were making very slow progress on our list, while at the same time constantly adding new items. We’re in the process of converting our garage into an office for Kia (so that Kia’s current office can become a bedroom for Tesla Rose). It’s a lot of work, but our logic was that it would be easier and cheaper than selling our house and buying a bigger one. The logic still holds, but the project has been dragging on for many months. In addition to that project, the house needs painting, the deck needs some work, the gate needs fixing, and so on and so forth. There’s no end to it. We started to feel overwhelmed.
In response to these negative feelings, we devised three principles of home improvement, as follows:
- Only do one disruptive project a time. For example, don’t try to remodel the kitchen and the bathroom at the same time. Regain total functionality in one area before tearing up the next thing.
- Make it better than it was before. You’d think this would be obvious. It’s home improvement, right? But sloppy work is all too common. Spesh has dubbed the previous owners of our house “The D.I.Y. couple”; there is evidence of sloppy paint jobs, unfinished mouldings, unevenly placed electric outlets, etc. This principle helps us resist the urge to rush jobs just to “get them done.”
- Only do what you feel like doing. The list will never be completed. All houses are in a constant state of decay, and all you can do is stem the tide. Keeping this in mind helps take the pressure off. Each person can work on whatever they want to work on — whatever they feel like needs doing.
We found ourselves enjoying the last principle in particular. If one of us feels like painting, we put on our painter pants and pick up a brush. No artificial deadlines, no schedules, and no nagging. Do what you feel.
We’re making progress at the same rate as before, if not slightly faster. I’m not sure when exactly, but I’m confident that Tesla Rose will eventually have her own bedroom. If she starts demanding it sooner, we may hand her a paint brush.
Getting To The Principle
Recently, for various reasons, Kia was thinking about the term “guilt-tripping” and what it meant exactly. She asked me for my definition, which resulted in the following conversation (this version is much condensed):
Me: ” ‘Guilt-tripping’ is what you do when you want the other person to want to do something, as opposed to just asking them to do it.”
Her: “Do I do that? Do I guilt-trip you?”
Me: “Yeah. Sometimes.”
Kia has an unusual, one might even say preternatural, to instantly change her behavior once she makes up her mind to do so (I, on the other hand, usually have a time-delay of one to ten years). Kia completely stopped guilt-tripping me from that moment forward. Instead, if she wanted me to do something, she would just ask me to do it, politely and directly. Usually I don’t mind doing something even if I don’t want to do it, so the new dynamic worked better (much more so than the previous dynamic, wherein she would drop hints about what she wanted me to do, and I would miss or ignore those hints, and then be confused as to why I was in trouble).
This was a big step towards our new principle, but we weren’t quite there yet. We arrived at the other half of the equation when I recently asked her if she could finish putting away some dishes I had just washed. I’d been pulled away from my dish-washing task mid-stream — some time-dependent errand I needed to run (I forget what) — but I really wanted to job to be completed (in a slightly OCD kind of way). Since I had to run off and do something else, I asked Kia if she could finish the task for me. I may or may not have said please.
I returned from my errand (whatever is was) to find the dishes not yet put away, and my wife feeling resentful about the request. She explained why. It has gotten dark in my absence, and Kia had felt nervous about working downstairs in our wide-open-to-the-jungle house (we’re temporarily living in Costa Rica). It wasn’t an unreasonable fear; we had already sighted howler monkeys and agouti nearby, giant jungle rats running through the kitchen, and one morning we found a paw print on the table (either dog or jaguar — the two look remarkably similar). In addition to the jungle proximity issue, she had witnessed a horrifying drama unfold on the kitchen counter; a live moth being forcibly dismantled by large black jungle ants. We have since moved to a beach house. In any case she had felt the burden of my request quite heavily. It hadn’t helped that I had delivered it a little tersely. In my mind it was just an off-hand request, a preference — no big deal if she didn’t feel like doing it. But she had perceived the request with more weight, and was a little upset.
We talked about it, and came to a joint realization. It’s a drag to have someone else control your agenda, even a little bit. I had tried to use Kia’s work units as my own, assigning a task the way I might assign a task to myself. In the process, I had circumvented her work autonomy.
The Breakthrough Principle
Psychologists who study motivation have known for a long time, via numerous, oft-replicated experiments, that one of the best ways to motivate a person is to give them more autonomy. People, in general, like to work. They especially like to contribute and to feel needed and appreciated by their peers. What they don’t like is to be told exactly what do, how to do it, and when to do it.
The same is true in marriage. Unless you’re married to a lazy bum or a mammoni, your partner probably likes to work; to contribute to the household. They also have a strong desire to do it — the work — their way. Nobody likes being micro-managed (or even managed, when it comes down to it).
So what’s the principle?
Both partners are free to do, or not do, whatever work/tasks they feel like doing, when they feel like doing them. Asking your partner to do something is allowed, but only as you might ask a friend (politely), and the other person is free to cheerfully decline without fear of repercussions. No guilt-tripping, delegating, or nagging allowed. Do what you feel. Radical work autonomy.
So How Does It Work?
Pretty well, so far. It’s not that there isn’t a balance sheet — of course there is. We’ll still have conversations about who is responsible for what — a constantly moving target. So it’s not that different from the Open Balance Sheet method discussed above.
What’s different is the moment-to-moment dynamic. There’s a new respect for the other person’s emotional state, in regards to work. Sometimes a person is out of willpower, and the smallest request can feel like a giant weight. So now … there’s more slack. What if something needs doing and nobody feels like doing it? Usually someone steps up. If not, it gets done later, or maybe it didn’t really need doing. Sometimes tasks just go away.
For the most part, I think we’re more efficient. What needs doing gets done more easily, and we have more energy and attention to do what we enjoy, and to enjoy each others’ company. There’s definitely less resentment and struggle around division of labor issues. It’s like R.O.W.E. for the home — you immediately weed out the bums (neither of us, fortunately), and after that it’s all increased productivity and happier people. It’s free freedom.
I don’t mean to imply that we’ve discovered some kind of magical, argument-free zone in which we live in perfect harmony, subtly communicating our preferences with loving non-verbal signals and sharing the household work with perfect equality and efficiency. That would be a little too precious, wouldn’t it? Nah, we still sometimes bicker and get irritated with each other. But there has been a real breakthrough — a mutual realization that any attempt to delegate, manage, or in any way control the other person’s work autonomy is going to backfire. Of course we still ask each other to do things (very politely). Of course we each have a different awareness of what needs to get done in certain areas. But we’ve committed to abandoning the habit of directing each others’ actions. We still backslide at times, but we catch ourselves at it (or call each other on it) more often than not.
Freedom In Marriage
It’s a truism that what you sacrifice for the stability, comfort, and warmth of marriage (or any long-term, committed, intimate relationship) is freedom. A more nuanced view is that each couple decides how much freedom they want to grant each other in each area of life. Turning up the freedom dial in a given area usually has both costs and benefits. If you crank up the sexual autonomy dial (open marriage, to whatever degree) then you might gain excitement and the thrill of sexual novelty, but the cost might be jealousy, emotional distance, and long complicated conversations about what is and isn’t allowed and how everybody is feeling (what The Ferret calls “the sex bureaucracy“). If you turn up the spatial/geographic autonomy dial, perhaps living in different houses (or even different cities), or traveling separately for extended periods of time, then you might experience alienation, or just drifting apart (“separate lives” — that’s probably what happened to Al and Tipper).
The work autonomy dial seems to operate differently. I don’t see what the costs are when you turn this one up; they’re illusory. If you’ve married a person who likes to contribute and feel needed (and most people do — watch the video below), then the work still gets done.
So why not crank the dial to eleven?