Communication and Conflict

How to balance responsibilities in your relationship

D

on’t you see how stressed I am??”

The dishes aren’t done…again…and I bet he hasn’t started anything for the kids’ dinner either…yep, sure enough! Ok, I’ll get that done, as usual! I’m sure thoughts like this have run through your head from time to time when there’s something you were really hoping your partner was going to help with and then discovered that they didn’t.

Having these thoughts occasionally is completely normal for most couples. The trouble comes when you feel like it’s always unbalanced, and you are responsible for taking care of most of the day-to-day chores and activities in the relationship. You look around and see each thing that needs to be done: laundry, food, errands, and you do them, because, well, they need to get done!

Time passes, and slowly you start feeling more and more frustrated and angry: “Why isn’t my partner doing any of this? Why is it always me?” You begin to resent your partner for not helping more, and it’s easy to start believing they merely don’t care that these things need to be done and don’t care about your sanity.

“Why isn’t my partner doing any of this? Why is it always me?”

Let me state the obvious here: resentment is not good for a relationship. It erodes the feeling of mutual support and respect that is crucial to a healthy relationship and – to put it bluntly – leads you to believe that your partner simply doesn’t give a s#!t.

Here is the good news: this is fixable, and there are some straightforward strategies that you can use to start bringing balance back into your relationship. Practicing these skills and strategies can improve the quality of your relationship and reduce resentment and burnout between you and your partner.

Be Clear About When You Need Help

It’s important not to assume that your partner can read your mind and see when you are overwhelmed and stressed. It may seem obvious to you, but not necessarily to everyone else. So, it’s important to be clear about both when you need help and what you need help with.

It’s easy to assume that the things that feel important and obvious to you should feel that way to your partner, but each person has different priorities and a different tolerance level for messes etc. You have to explain what is important to you, be willing to accept that this won’t match up perfectly with your partner’s idea of what’s important, and recognize that that has nothing to do with how much that person cares about you.

Allow Your Partner to Do Things Their Way, Not Yours

If you are the person who is most aware of things like messes around the house, kids who need baths, or when the bills are due, you are most likely to step in and take care of those things first. This may be because they bug you more, or simply because you’ve gotten into the habit of paying attention to them and taking care of them regularly. This doesn’t necessarily mean that those issues are not on your partner’s radar, but they may jump out as important for them later than they do for you. Also, you’ll likely have different ideas of what it looks like to do a good job on those tasks.

So, if it hasn’t been done yet, or it isn’t going to be done “right” you might as well do it yourself now, am I right? While this attitude is understandable, it makes the cycle of getting burned out and overwhelmed worse.

Let’s take the example of doing laundry:

You do the laundry most of the time → you get more and more efficient at it, you know what shirts to hang up and which to throw in the dryer → you become more likely to keep doing the laundry → your partner tries to help one day but does it “wrong,” ruining your favorite shirt → they stop trying to help → you feel frustrated that you are the only one taking care of this.

If you and your partner are going to share a task, it is crucial to agree together on what a “good enough job” looks like ahead of time. For example, checking the tags on the laundry to avoid ruining shirts. Once you have agreed on “good enough,” step back and don’t offer suggestions or criticism during the process.

Getting some balance back means letting go of some control and allowing your partner to figure out their way to take care of things. This may mean that they don’t do it as soon, as quickly, or as efficiently as you feel you could, so you will have to make peace with that if you want the help. It took you time to work out how to do each of those things so well, and the same goes for your partner.

Don’t Try to Split Everything Up Evenly

Interdependence is not a dirty word. It’s not a bad thing if you and your partner rely on each other for certain things.

The term “codependent” has gotten a lot of attention in psychology over the past few decades. It gets thrown around a lot and, frankly, misused and misunderstood in casual conversation. Unfortunately, the bad rap that codependence has gotten has made it difficult for people to understand that inter-dependence, or people relying on and supporting one another, is part of being human and not unhealthy.

Healthy relationships are not made up of two people who split everything evenly – they are made up of two people who have figured out how to divide responsibilities in your relationship in a way that makes sense for them and doesn’t feel like too much of a burden.

For example, if you hate budgeting and your partner is good at it and doesn’t mind taking care of it, let them! Be involved in financial decisions and understand your finances, but there is no need to split that task 50/50. Work with your strengths and share the responsibilities that neither of you particularly wants to do.

Talk About Improving Your Relationship When You Aren’t Fighting

One common mistake I see couples make is to only address issues in their relationship while in the middle of a fight. It’s so tempting to tackle problems head-on while in the heat of the moment, but it’s rare that you make much progress on relationship issues while you’re both mad and defensive.

Any suggestion that you or your partner make when you’re both angry is likely to get shot down pretty quick. Instead, try bringing it up another time, when you are both in a good mood and doing something you enjoy, like going out to eat or relaxing on the couch in the evening.

Try starting the conversation by being curious about how to make the problem better, instead of listing how your partner could improve, or pointing out how they are doing things wrong now. For example, “I feel really overwhelmed by the housework lately, and I’m trying to figure out how to change that.” You can follow this up by asking what your partner is willing to do more of, rather than focusing on telling him or her what they don’t do enough of. You might be surprised how open your partner is to your suggestions when they are posed in this light!

It’s critical to remember that a relationship is a blend of two unique people, both of whom need to be invested, flexible, and open to change for it to be successful. It’s your responsibility to ask for what you need and make space for it to be possible to help you, but it’s your partner’s responsibility to be open to listening and making changes when necessary. It isn’t your responsibility to single-handedly get your partner more invested in your relationship.

Sometimes it’s the case that one partner doesn’t seem genuinely motivated to work on or improve the relationship. When this is the case, couples counseling is a great way to determine together whether you are both invested in making your relationship work, and if so, how you are going to do that as a team.

It’s important to remember that a relationship is a blend of two unique people, both of whom need to be invested, flexible, and open to change for it to be successful.

I find that so many couples who come in for therapy have waited until their relationship is completely on the rocks. It’s a bit like waiting until you need the ER rather than getting a check-up now and then. At this point, it’s still usually possible to get you back on your feet when you come in for therapy, but it takes a lot more work!

When you spend time improving your relationship and restoring balance ahead of time, it’s so much easier. These skills aren’t complicated, but it takes some practice to incorporate them as a natural part of your relationship. If you can practice communicating what you need in a caring and non-attacking way, and sharing responsibilities in your relationship according to what you both are good at and willing to do, you can help keep anger and resentment out of your relationship for the long haul.

Plus, when you get a few breaks from dishes, bathtime, or laundry, you might actually get a little time back for you! I know, crazy concept, but you’d be surprised how much taking a little time for your mental health improves everything else!

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