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Vivian Shih
Vivian Shih

When The Division Of Labor In Your Relationship Becomes A Problem

How we've gotten rid of the imbalance in our marriage.

From the get-go in my marriage — as a young newlywed who knew that I was in love with my husband but not necessarily how to best love my husband in practice — I set things up wrong. My husband had a demanding, stressful, bread-winning career, while I merely had a job. His position required him to spend long hours away from home; mine facilitated the opposite. Here’s where I also need to tell you how much I initially loved, loved, loved playing house in our new home.

As a result, I happily took on the bulk of what needs to be done to maintain a home and raise a family. Eventually that morphed into being the showrunner for my husband’s personal life as well as my own. It was just easier that way and it seemed to make sense. Until it didn’t. Over the years, serving as our perpetual cruise director began to seem unsustainable and nonsensical.

There is typically a “doer” and a “drafter” in a long-term relationship. Often, one person does the bulk of the housework, social planning, child-rearing, finances and/or carrying the mental load, etc. The other happily drafts behind the one doing most of the work, reaping the benefits while laboring little.

Though this pattern may serve each partner well and according to their gifts for a while, over time the inequity can become undesirable and unmanageable due to burnout and changing life circumstances. Are you the doer or the drafter in your relationship? If you’re the doer and you’re DONE, there’s hope. Keep reading.

Years ago, our couples therapist gave us a homework exercise that helped shed some light on the uneven yoke we’d fashioned for ourselves. She asked us each to make a list of everything we were responsible for doing within our marriage, home and personal lives. My list covered three full pages, front and back. My husband’s list was half a page.

I don’t think he had a solid understanding of the disparity and disproportionate partnership we were rolling with until he saw it in black and white. I, however, knew exactly why I was feeling so resentful and discouraged within our marriage. The rub was I had done it to myself.

That I do and he draft wasn’t his bidding or request. He’d simply become more and more comfortable drafting over the years, while I’d become more and more enraged and disillusioned inside our marriage. No one’s fault. Just the cards I dealt us. And I didn’t want to be the dealer anymore.

I don’t blame the young, eager life-partner I was when I set up our relationship dynamics with me at the helm of most of what needed to be done. I had our best interests in mind and my skill set supported the gig. I just didn’t realize at the time that what made sense then wouldn’t necessarily always make sense and that it would take great effort to alter our patterns.

It has taken many repetitive and frank conversations to be able to move out of imbalance in our marriage. The conversations that proved most productive were the constructive ones. Yelling, crying, the cold shoulder and effectively giving up proved destructive. As did indifference, deflection and lack of ownership.

If you’ve realized change needs to occur for you and your partner and that equity in your roles needs to be restored, lead with patience, positivity and kind words during the adjustment process. Resist using words like always and never, for they likely aren’t true. Use “I” statements rather than the accusing word, “you.”

“You never pitch in or do your part” is convicting. “I feel partnered with and respected when you take initiative and action at home” is convincing.

While working toward change, don’t expect the change to occur overnight. It’s not that you don’t deserve for it to, or that a balancing of the scales isn’t long overdue. It’s that it simply won’t happen this way. You are not making a bowl of overnight oats; you’re endeavoring to change patterns that have been cemented in place for years.

And for the love, hear me on this: Stop doing all the things! Otherwise, there won’t be anything for your partner to take on. Even when we’re burned out and buckling under the burden of all the responsibility we’ve assumed, it can still be challenging to let some of it go. You must. Don’t react if your partner doesn’t load the dishwasher the same way you do.

When change does begin to solidify and relief ensues, don’t be surprised or overly discouraged if one or both of you eventually reverts to your old ways. And if this regression happens eight more times, don’t take it as a sign your marriage is irrevocably lopsided. It’s just that you’re human, and permanent change is hard for most of us.

Instead, restate the issues in your marriage calmly and with care. Ask again for the change you wish to see and commend it when you see it. A committed, loving partner will work toward equity again and again with you. Because love isn’t a feeling so much as action. And because no marriage is perfect, they will all require perfecting.

How's the division of labor in your own relationship? Let us know in the comments below.

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