The first time I tried to explain to my husband why I felt like a cruise director in our marriage rather than a wife, it didn’t sink in. He understood my reference to Julie McCoy and the role she served on The Love Boat, but nothing happened after our conversation.
Or rather, everything continued to happen in our household, but only because I made sure it did.
I recently heard that an inequitable division of labor inside the home is the third leading cause for marital discord and/or divorce.
Nobody polled me, but I’d rank this issue a contender as well. It took my husband and me over 20 years to right the ship of inequity inside our marriage.
For a time, our wedded bliss was palpable. The first few years we spent together as husband and wife felt like playing house, but for real. It wasn’t until we had children and decided together I’d stay home to care for them that the scales of domestic duty began to tip in my husband’s favor.
I know exactly how and why we got out of balance, too. The problem was for too long, neither of us knew how to even the scales again.
My husband worked in law enforcement—a very exacting and demanding, while not very family-friendly, career. We had little to no understanding of how taxing his job would be when we were young, dumb, broke, and in love. It wasn’t until he began to advance in his field and we grew in numbers as a family that we started to feel the strain of his responsibilities away from home. Especially how they contributed to his growing lack of attentiveness at home.
Early on in the adventures of motherhood, it seemed prudent to me to take on the lion’s share of the duties at home and in raising our kids. My husband worked 12-hour shifts, and by twelve I mean 13+. He did shift work, too—working two day shifts followed by two night shifts each week. Factor in that he needed to sleep for most of his first day off and it totaled up to him not being around much.
As a stay-at-home mom, I was always around, though. So it made sense to me that our home and our kids became my domain while working to support our family became his. Until it stopped making sense and started making me feel alone inside our partnership. To date, I’ve never felt a more debilitating sense of loneliness than I did while being in the same room with my husband during our inequitable years.
The problem with our arrangement, one I myself configured, was there’s no signing off duty when your work is raising kids and taking care of your home. From sun up to sun up, there’s work to be done.
As a stay-at-home parent, if you’re not busy doing endless physical tasks in your home or with your kids, you’re noticing they need to be done.
You’re constantly engaged mentally. Forming checklists you strain to remember, making plans you’ll be the one to carry out, and keeping all the plates spinning. You’re both the full-time project manager and the workforce.
I realized I couldn’t keep up with kids and home on my own and I needed more help from my husband. Each time I’d ask, he’d happily help out. Even if he was exhausted from work. Even when he didn’t know how to accomplish the task I assigned him. For he had no qualms with asking 20 questions in order to learn how.
I was the one with all the qualms. Because answering an onslaught of questions about how to prepare a meal or how to clean a room is nearly as exasperating as just doing it yourself, already! I mean, I didn’t ask anyone how to do those things. I just did them.
This wee bit of improvement to the division of labor within our home helped for a time. Until I realized my husband rarely helped out at home, save doing some yard work unless I specifically asked him to. Which made me feel like a taskmaster, not his beloved, chosen partner in life. He didn’t notice chores that needed to be done or ways he could be more engaged and responsible for our family; he depended on me to do that and then mete out his share.
Feeling like my husband’s foreman or his cruise director is not what I wanted from marriage. I wanted to feel partnered with. I wanted my husband to be aware of what needed doing around the house. I wanted him to handle our kids’ bedtime routine or pack a picnic lunch for a family day. Without being asked. Without needing to be told how to do it all from start to finish.
More than anything, I needed to stop feeling like my husband thought he was helping me out.
It’s not helping “her” when a husband pitches in around the house. Noticing on his own what needs doing and then doing it, without waiting to be asked, is helping himself. It’s helping the marriage to feel more like the partnership it is and less lonely for the spouse who stays home.
When I explained how unbalanced our scales felt and why to my husband this way, he understood me better. It’s a relief when you can identify what’s causing friction in your marriage. But frustration only compounds when you don’t have the tools to create and sustain change for the better.
Due to my husband’s all-consuming career—along with the all or nothing way he approached it—and the long-term loneliness I felt inside our marriage, things got so much worse for us before they got better. At the 11th hour, we finally began to effect positive and lasting change via attending couples counseling.
The first piece of homework our therapist assigned us was to make individual lists of everything we felt responsible for in our home and for our kids. She instructed us to be sure to recognize what we each do on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis. My list totaled three full pages; front and back. My husband’s list filled half of the front of one page.
My extensive list opened his eyes. He finally felt the full weight of the issue, including my decade-plus of discontentment and committed to changing how he engaged at home. He began to focus up and notice when the sink filled with dishes. Instead of waiting to be asked to pitch in, he did the work on his own. When one of our kids asked me for something, he said, “Hey, let me.”
Positive change didn’t happen overnight.
It took some time to develop new and improved patterns of behavior. Which included me calmly voicing my frustrations and needs instead of icing him out, exploding in rage, or expecting him to read my mind when our partnership felt out of alignment.
Not only did I create the unsustainable infrastructure in our marriage, once I began to suffer the results I also levied consequences and punishment my husband didn’t deserve for simply going along with me. We were both to blame for the undesirable dynamics in our marriage, as well as our reactions to them. So the net result is neither of us is to blame.
Blame doesn’t help a struggling relationship. What helps is when both parties own their role in the dysfunction and commit to changing their behavior. I asked my husband to contribute to this story by offering his take on what helps effect the kind of change we’ve worked hard to achieve.
He said it takes two things—effective, unceasing communication and continually fighting back your own selfish tendencies and desires. It can’t be a one and done show of effort to your spouse. Like most things worth doing, achieving an equitable division of duties inside the home takes commitment and perseverance, steadfastness and motivation.
The motivation is the easy part. For when he pitches in and does his part, on his own, I’m overcome with gratitude and thanksgiving. Pleasantness spills right out of me instead of vitriol and rage. I’m more relaxed when our scales are nearer to balanced. I can laugh and let things slide so much easier when I feel supported and partnered with.
A happy wife makes for a happier life together.
Happiness is hard to come by when you feel like all the responsibilities for home and children rest squarely on your shoulders, though. That’s not a marriage or a partnership. That’s loneliness personified and it’s nobody’s dream for their relationship. When feelings of solidarity abound, loneliness inside your marriage gets edged out.
If your own scales lean too heavily towards one side, know that you’re not alone in this regard. Don’t forget, this issue is reported to be number three on the list of why couples call it quits. And remember, it’s nothing you can’t remedy.
Be honest about your struggles and approach your spouse with humility and grace. Instead of blasting them with blame or pent up anger, try retracing your steps to come to an understanding of how and why your marriage became off-kilter in the first place.
When our couples therapist asked us to describe how we each grew up, including what our own family dynamics were like, she helped us to see what we each unknowingly brought to the table in our marriage. I brought with me years of watching my divorced mom do everything on her own. There was only her. If she didn’t do the cooking, cleaning, shopping, child-rearing or one of the hundreds of other tasks at home, it didn’t get done.
To me, that seemed normal. So I went about doing what I saw my mom do inside my own marriage. All the while not realizing I had a partner who could and should help carry both the physical and mental load of domesticity and parenthood. Even though he worked outside the home and I didn’t. Because that dynamic wasn’t modeled for me, it took me a long time and some acute heartache to come to that belief on my own.
Seek that understanding in your own marriage regarding the issues you face together. Do the hard work of owning your missteps and doing better by the one you love.
Communicate effectively with each other like your marriage depends upon how well you do. For it surely does.
Fight against the urge to satisfy your own needs to the detriment of your spouse’s needs. Commit to continually make the necessary adjustments to balance both the physical and mental workload in your home.
And for the love, keep in mind they say the first 47 years of marriage are the hardest. At 23 years in, we can’t help but giggle at that sentiment and cheekily agree. Because we know that eventually, we’re going to get really good at being married.
You may also like: