Just another day in my psychotherapy practice filled with women complaining about their husbands. You’d think, during a pandemic, spouses might grow to appreciate one another more. I’m sure this has occurred. But people don’t generally talk to therapists about how fabulous their relationships are. I’ve noticed that during this long pandemic, some of my clients’ relationships have become strained. The main reason? Their men are working from home.
At this point in the evolution of gender equity, most women I know envisioned a certain amount of equality in their marriages. With men and women home full-time, often both still working, they’d hoped their men would chip in with the chores more, share in the oversight of the kids’ remote schooling, help with meal planning and prep. But, according to my clientele, not so much.
I hear women reminiscing about pre-COVID, when they crossed paths with their partners at dinner time and maybe a few hours in the evenings and on weekends. If you’re wondering why many women are wishing for a little less time with their husbands, here’s what I’ve learned:
Men can be bossy. Obviously, so can women. But women often still run the household. Men, remote full-time, have brought home the bossiness usually reserved for the workplace. Women complain to me that their husbands are telling them how things should be done, wanting to make changes and switch things up that had never been on their radars before the pandemic. One exasperated client I’ll call Mary reported that her husband decided that all the sheets and towels in the house needed to be washed twice a week, although they’d lived for two decades washing them once a week. He also told their two teenage sons to do their remote schoolwork from their bedrooms, despite the fact that Mary knew that only meant more unsupervised gaming — which was why she’d set up their temporary school room in the dining room. Mary, who had managed the household herself for years, was feeling like she’d gotten a new boss who made unilateral decisions without even checking in with her. All day long.
Along the same lines, women are complaining that their husbands are opinionated about things they ignored for decades. “All of a sudden, he’s questioning everything I’ve done around the house for years, like he knows better,” Donna told me. “Shouldn’t you buy store brands at the supermarket? They’re less expensive,” or “It looks like you need to do more than vacuum the kitchen floor. You should get out the mop.” She told me, “I haven’t mopped in years. I’m not even sure we still have a mop.”
And it’s not as if those men are rushing to do the shopping or mopping. Another client, Ann, calls herself the short-order cook, complaining that her husband asks her, “What’s for lunch?” “What’s for dinner?” She knows he is working, but she is too. She wants to say to him, “You’re home all the time now, too, so could you prepare a meal?”
What solutions do I offer these struggling women?
- Speak your truth. Be vulnerable. I recommend that women share their feelings and experiences with their partners, and ask their partners to do the same so that they can feel closer to one another. Ann could find a time — not when her husband asks what’s for dinner — to say something like, “I’m really stressed taking care of the house, working remotely, and shopping for my parents. I know you have a lot on your plate, too. How can we better support each other?” Remember that your men are your teammates during this difficult time. Give them a chance to participate.
- Maintain a sense of humor rather than reacting defensively. One woman, when asked too many times, “What’s for dinner?” responded, “I don’t know. What do you want for dinner?” Her husband looked at her, dumbfounded, and she burst into laughter. “What are my choices?” he asked, seemingly without a clue, and she laughed even harder. He grinned sheepishly and said a hamburger was fine.
- Gently, patiently, encourage him to explain his perspective, without dismissing his input out of hand. Some suggestions may be worth accommodating. A fresh look at how things are done around the house can be useful, as long as there is discussion—not bossiness.
- Ask for help. If he thinks mopping will work better, invite him to show you. Sometimes, when invited, men not used to cooking a meal or cleaning a floor will rise to the occasion. They may even enjoy chipping in.
- Take a long view. I suggest to women that they try to have compassion. Their men are adjusting to big changes during the pandemic, too. As much as they’re getting on your nerves, remember that they have pent-up feelings as well. They don’t have their regular social outlets or domains. Some may want to be included in the family more now that they’re at home.
- Be grateful. I tell women to remind themselves about the characteristics their men have for which they are grateful. If one or both of you have jobs and your health in these uncertain times, count your blessings.
And if all else fails, I tell women to talk to their girlfriends. They’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.
Julia Mayer, Psy.D., is co-author, with her husband, Barry Jacobs, of AARP’s Love and Meaning After 50: 10 Challenges to Great Relationships—and How to Overcome Them (Hachette Go!, 2020).