I felt that this article perfectly summarised the burden of emotional labour in the home.
What many people – young adults living at home, and men who have yet to have this conversation – don’t realise is that certain tasks are emotionally taxing, not just time consuming. While some men are considered ‘good partners’ in the fact that they do as they’re told, I’ve admittedly met very few who take initiative and undertake tasks without being asked, and without expecting accolades.
The next person to even hint at implying that I’m being a nag by politely asking my husband to do his chores is forever banned from my homemade Christmas Glogg.
This post comes off the back of my earlier post on Matriarchy, which was about how labels and assumptions impacted me in a professional sense. Today’s post is about how these labels impact couples, especially in the home.
However, I would like to take the time today to point out that the relationship dynamic implied by today’s blog reference left me wondering if the gender imbalance in the home was less due to implicit sexism, and more due to a lack of communication between adult partners. Because the home, after all, is where people should have the most control over their environment and how they are treated. That, if the author describes her husband as a ‘good man’ and a ‘feminist ally’, then perhaps the issue in many instances isn’t perpetuated sexism via the male partner, but rather the distinct absence of important conversations. AKA, communication.
Communication? But The Article said…
I showed my partner this article the other night, and we discussed it. For the first half-hour, we were caught up by the ‘red herring’ of sexism, and the unfair burden of emotional labour in the home. I used this article as a perfect example of what I’ve noticed; that women undertake more housekeeping duties than men, and that women’s daily duties often encompass far more than is ever acknowledged. I used an example that felt like it mirrored the anecdote provided in the article; a recent event where my partner had not ‘noticed’ a box that he had pulled out of its high shelf and not put back. I cited the author’s examples of not wanting to have to ask for chores to be done, and that the author didn’t necessarily want the gift of a clean bathroom but more the gift of knowing her partner experienced the same labour she goes through every day. A sense of appreciation, and understanding of the double standard that women are raised with – as illustrated by this authors’ daughter. I tried to explain how emotional labour isn’t always ‘crises’ like trauma or disagreements, that sometimes it’s the everyday erosion of energy found in tasks like arranging service work and doing chores without appreciation.
This was where my husband and I began to disagree. My partner pointed out that men ‘aren’t mind readers’ and that the request for a gift of emotional labour ‘felt punitive’, because the wife felt hard-done-by and wanted her husband to feel what she felt. Once he diverted from the ‘herring’ of sexism, he began to work through the article methodically, indicating points where the dynamic between male-and-female interacted. Then, my husband made three incredibly good points;
– if the roles had been reversed, and it was a male author writing that their female partner ‘is well meaning, but hopeless’, the article would be overwhelmingly rejected as a sexist article,
– that due to the author’s description of her husband’s, and her children’s behaviour, it became clear that the mother praises the boys (husband and son) more than she praises her daughter for the same work (due to the male expectation, and female lack of expectation, of recognition) and
– that the wife who wrote the article appeared to prefer posting their issue onto the internet rather than have a frank discussion about their expectations in the home…a conversation that should have occurred long before any children were born from the relationship.
Upon the mention of these points, I considered the article again. Then my partner and I both looked at each other. “The husband and wife don’t communicate,” we agreed, “and praise is unfairly distributed around the home!”
Praise and Communication in Marriage and the Family
To make my point, here’s how it works in my relationship. When my husband and I were dating, we held long conversations about our ideal lives and what they would look like. Evidently, there was a bit of compromising.
One example was the adaptation of my Western upbringing with my partner’s Japanese living standards. He’s a minimalist, and I (essentially) have too much stuff. We compromised by my husband agreeing to be patient with my gradual transition to a less materialistic existence, while I carve out spaces in our home for him to be comfortable (such as the minimally decorated bedroom and futon-style bedding that we use). As such the bedroom isn’t perfectly the way I would like it, and my partner still doesn’t understand why I need such a large wardrobe, but the compromise allows us to happily keep the peace and consider our living space a home. There are, of course, many things that we will not compromise with – but that was the purpose of our pre-marriage conversations. To identify expectations and points of flexibility for our relationship.
So, when it comes to the household chore load and who is expected to do what, my partner and I struck an agreement with each other two years before we got married (when I moved in with him). The agreement went like this; Since my partner regularly works 60 hour weeks, and my employment tends to be casual or home-based in nature, I offered to do the housekeeping. The offer was twofold; since I spend more time in the home, and I have more free time than my partner, I am happy to clean the home to my standard. During times when my partner has time off work, I request that he do odd jobs for my convenience. This dynamic was not arranged under the assumption that I (the female partner) should clean more and ‘work’ less, but rather under the consideration of my structurally flexible work-life balance and my intolerance of accumulating mess.
Yet, as the author of the article pointed out, consistent un-appreciation of daily efforts for the benefit of other people can get on one’s nerves.
To generate a positive home environment, and to increase my satisfaction with doing the chores, we generate a habit of promoting praise. A nightly ritual in my home is to ask each other our daily activities (“What did you do today? How was work?”) and search for things to praise and congratulate (“Oh, you delivered a presentation! Well done!”). This permeates our interactions, from our work accomplishments to our little achievements, like going to an unpleasant dental appointment or remembering to do the taxes.
Furthermore, I’ve learned not to list all the things my partner is not doing, but to rather make as much fuss as he does. When I do the dishes, I point it out and wait for him to praise me. That way, I get praise for doing what I needed to do, and he starts looking for things he can do as well. (So he can get praise, too. But I digress).
Praise goes a long way, and is a way of life in our home – an adaptation I’m fond of. My partner has learned to praise me when I dress up for a date (Wow! You did something different with your hair! That must have been difficult) and I remember to show my appreciation when my partner arranges dinner before I get home.
Why do we constantly make a fuss over our little achievements and accomplishments? Simple – it makes us feel good about our work. No task feels thankless, because we thank each other every day. When my husband comes home to a clean shower, he’ll call from the bathroom how ‘extra squeaky clean’ he feels. When I open the fridge and notice that my partner has bought the ingredients for tomorrow’s dinner, I make sure to tell him how happy that makes me and how much time he’s saved.
My assumption about this reciprocal praise and how much it motivates both of us ties into the fact that we are both the first-born children in our respective families. Both heavily influenced by a sense of achievement and recognition, our modes of communication are consistent with each other. We both desire for our efforts to be commended, and for unconditional love to be expressed openly so there’s no ambiguity on the matter, so that’s precisely what we do.
I’m not professing our relationship to be perfect by any means, and we still have a lot of potential for improvements, but on the grounds of communication I’d say we’re on a roll.
Okay, so what does communication mean in relation to the article?
The article explained a few red flags about the author’s relationships, as indicated by my husband. In my initial reading of the article I had neglected to consider this interaction, yet after considering my partner’s points I realised what he had found. The author, in their emotional turmoil and frustration, had illustrated broken channels of communication that contributed to a perceived lack of initiative in their partner. In reading comments on this article, a lack of communication in relationships seems to be a common failing, as many women added to this post “exactly! My husband has NO CLUE!”.
How long have you been married to this husband, I wonder, and why does he still have no clue? Might it be because you’ve never sat down and listed your expectations? Or have you had this formal conversation, and your partner is wilfully ignoring your clear communications on the matter? In either case, perhaps marriage counselling is in order.
Continual ‘lack of initiative’ from a male partner who is described as ‘a good man’ and a ‘feminist ally’ implies not so much a lack of desire to contribute to emotional labour, but a lack of communication between the couple and their children. The female partner considers conversations about emotional labour distressing, yet she didn’t address whether or not she had approached the issue from a task-based perspective. Additionally, the author did not address whether or not her partner had sat her down and asked, specifically, what she expects of him around the home. As a reader, I assume that these important conversations never occurred, and that the author has continued fuelling her frustrations through unaddressed assumptions that regularly go unfulfilled.
To a certain extent, it’s easier for men to become confused and reply “just tell me what to do!”, because that’s how they approach problems. Abstract reasoning, and philosophical considerations of a topic at large, are less instinctive to men like my partner than concrete ‘to-do’ lists. Communicating in a direct, list-based manner for future expectations has worked exceedingly well for my husband – I have a drawn flow-chart for how to do the dishes, so that when I’ve cooked dinner and the dishes need to be done, he can do so flawlessly and without me having to ask. I detail to-do lists for every housekeeping task, and refer him to them when I want a particular room of the house done, so all I have to do on the weekend is say ‘I’d like the bathroom cleaned’, and he knows exactly what to do. I can sit at my desk and write posts like this with the ambient sound of a man humming and a brush scrubbing our tiles, assured in the knowledge that my partner isn’t about to kill himself by accident with an errant household cleaner, or explode our toilet with a similar mistake.
FloorAlg – Feel free to use my sample algorithm for cleaning the floor in an apartment. It’s the same one my husband uses, to guide ‘just tell me what to do’ into an easily understandable list of actionable tasks.
I, like the author of the article, understand that my male partner may not have been taught to do these chores around the house as a child. However, unlike the author in the referenced article, I understand that my partner isn’t clairvoyant and needs me – the person who spends the most time in the home – to indicate when a housekeeping task needs attending to. I am in the best position to assess when the shower gets too grimy, or when there’s a more-than-acceptable level of dust on the window ledges, so I use that position to guide my partner towards their fair contribution to the workload.
In the interests of fairness for our future family and role-model capacity for our children, I am teaching my husband housekeeping tasks in the expectation that he’ll do them instinctively someday (see ‘FloorAlg’).
Sexism is still a common issue in modern society, however not all inequities can be fairly attributed to sexist standards. In the context of the home, such as the distributed chore load between a married couple, the assumption of sexism could conveniently cover the deeper issue of ineffective communications. By not communicating expectations in a way that is understood by each partner, misunderstandings perpetuate and fuel negative emotions like resentment between the pair. This resentment can contribute to larger issues in the relationship – most of which could be solved by an honest and frank discussion on how each of you wish to contribute to the home, and whether there is a need for compromise. It is for this purpose that marriage counselling exists; the happiest couples that I have ever encountered have learned the art of effective communication, and how to utilise active listening for the best outcome. I can personally attest to this skill, as it allows both my husband and I to be clear and honest with each other and our needs.
This way, we can sort out the domestic workload between ourselves instead of waiting for the issue of inequality to come to boiling point, and resulting in a public article on the internet.