Real Good Housekeeping

How to get your spouse to help around the house

Sharon plopped onto the couch and sighed. "Derek came home last night, took one look at the living room, and said, 'Honey, what do you do all day? This place is a mess!' But I did clean. It's just that the kids messed it up again while I was making dinner. And what's worse is that instead of offering to help, Derek went into the bedroom—where he piled his clothes onto a chair—then came back out and parked himself in front of the TV for the rest of the evening."

Ted and Sally are newlyweds and both work full-time outside the home. They assumed each would do "his or her share" of the housework. Except soon Ted found that Sally wasn't interested in housework. "I'm doing everything," says Ted. "After awhile I get frustrated with her not helping. When I mention that, she gets this blank look and helps clean—for a day or two. Then it's back to me cleaning again."

A common problem with housework is that we may think were talking about the same thing when were not.

While housework is necessary, it's also depressing because it's never done. You may have just vacuumed your carpet, only to find your three year old has been trailing you with crackers, or worse, that your spouse has been trailing you with crackers. When one spouse deals with this aggravation and work alone, resentment can build quicker than scum on a shower wall. If you're feeling taken for granted, here are some steps to share the load.

Talk it out

All of us enter marriage with expectations of how our homes will run: the house is hers to take care of, or we'll each do 50 percent. But many times we don't communicate clearly our expectations to our spouse. Instead we assume he or she will just "get" it. Which is usually an incorrect—and unfair—assumption. Yes, it seems obvious to you that you're the only one who washes the dishes, and if you let them go a day or two, your spouse wouldn't notice them—or do them. These expectations may not change even when our work situations do or when children enter the picture.

That's why it's a good idea to discuss openly and honestly your expectations. Find a time to talk when you won't be interrupted and when you're not already annoyed.

Sarah was frustrated by the state of their home. "I feel as though I have two full-time jobs—one outside the house and the other as a homemaker! Josh mows the lawn and that's it." She could never understand why he wouldn't help with chores—until they visited Josh's parents for two weeks. "A light bulb went on for me during that visit," Sarah says. "I watched Josh's stay-at-home mom do everything, while his dad didn't lift a finger. I realized Josh had learned his behavior from his parents." On their drive home, Sarah approached the topic. "I started by telling him how frustrated I get when I feel he doesn't help. Then I explained what I'd noticed at his parents' house, and how I wanted our family to be different. Of course, it also helped that I mentioned how his help would free our time for other things—such as sex." Her talk did the trick.

Define "clean"

One important thing to discuss is what "clean" means for each of you. A common problem with housework is that we may think we're talking about the same thing when we're not. I value clean. My husband values tidy. I can walk by knitting projects strewn everywhere and not notice them, while he may never notice a bookcase that needs dusting. Saying "keep the living room clean," then, means something different to each of us.

Sam is a neat-freak; Ellen likes a clean house, but doesn't fuss over mess. Much of their aggravation early in their marriage revolved around what "clean" meant. Ellen was fine mopping the kitchen floor; Sam insisted it be scrubbed by hand. "You can't really get it clean with a mop," says Sam, "not like you can when you're on your hands and knees." Finally, Sam and Ellen reached a solution: Sam would clean the kitchen.

Delegate tasks

Once my husband and I understood each other's definition of "clean," it was easier for us to divvy up the housework. He makes sure things are picked up, and I concentrate on dusting and vacuuming.

Together, list the work that goes into maintaining your home. Some-times we start this exercise to show our beloveds how unfair they're being, only to find that our interpretation of the workload is skewed.

A few years ago my friend Aimee was trying to organize a house and small farm with four children under the age of 7. It would have been wonderful to have her husband, Paul, help her with the laundry, the cooking, or the cleaning. But when he wasn't at work, Paul was keeping up with the yard or busy installing drywall in the basement so the kids would have a playroom. Aimee did all the housework, and she was exhausted. That didn't mean Paul wasn't doing his part, though! The chores he tackled were different, but just as necessary. Spelling out the jobs that need to be done, and how long they take, can give you both a more balanced picture of each other's workload.

Be respectful of your spouse's "stuff"

Lisa was tired of her husband's packrat tendencies. Their basement was crowded with boxes and tools, spilling into two rooms and a hall. Lisa couldn't navigate her way to the laundry room without tripping over something. When their church hosted a fundraising yard sale, Lisa, without Phil's permission, liberated many of his boxes.

When Phil found out, he was furious, and drove immediately to the church to rescue what he could. Lisa apologized for getting rid of his things, and explained what a problem the boxes were for her. Phil's response helped her understand that he didn't keep things out of laziness; his boxes, which to her were junk, meant something to him. After Phil simmered down, he agreed to confine his boxes to one room.

While Lisa still wishes Phil would keep that room tidy so they could use it for something productive, she's glad she can at least shut the door and ignore the mess as she walks to her laundry room unimpeded.

Adjusting to a reluctant spouse

While talking about our differing priorities can put us on the right road to a solution, in some cases it's not enough. The patterns are too ingrained, and some spouses aren't interested in talking in the first place. That doesn't mean things can't get better. We just need to change our approach.

Recruit the kids.

Often the greatest source of clutter in a home are the little ones with their toys, homework, and pillow forts everywhere. If your spouse is reluctant to clean, that's no reason not to insist your children do! Small children can be taught to put away their toys. Once kids reach school age, give them specific chores around the house, such as dusting the living room, or spraying and cleaning the mirrors. If you start this when they're 4 or 5 and excited about helping, it's more likely they'll do it without complaint when they're 10.

You may want to be specific when assigning jobs. "Clean your room" may be too difficult to understand—especially if your spouse doesn't get it! "Pick up your toys, put your books on the shelf, and place your dirty clothes in the hamper" is easier. Another way to reduce kids' complaints is to make cleaning a natural part of your day, like brushing teeth. Take 15 minutes before or after each meal to have the children tidy any toys or clothes lying around. When your kids get their mess under control, you'll find it easier to handle the rest of the house without losing your cool!

If your kids are older and whine, "But Dad doesn't clean! Why do I have to?" stand firm. Tell them, "Your dad is an adult and is responsible for himself. However, as my children, it's my job to teach you about responsibility. So you'll need to help clean up after yourself—regardless of what your dad does or doesn't do."

Designate personal space.

If you're tired of tidying up after your spouse, consider designating an area of the house or garage where you can stick stray items for him or her to deal with later. Let your beloved keep this area for hobby paraphernalia, paperwork, or anything else he or she likes to leave out. This gives your mate an area to let loose without incurring your anger, yet the mess is out of your hair.

Mess, however, has a habit of migrating into other areas, and you don't want this personal space to encompass half the house! The best antidote to creeping clutter is storage. Invest in baskets, in and out trays, and shelves above a desk to make use of wall space. Rolling drawers are inexpensive choices to hold larger items. If people have places to put things, chances are greater they will.

Eventually, though, some stuff will need to be tossed. Once or twice a year, throw "Clutter Killer" weekends, when everyone—even the children—has to weed out their stuff. You can even hold a contest! Weigh the items people throw out, and the one with the most on the scales at the end of the day chooses the restaurant for a dinner out, a board game to play, or a movie to watch. If you know you'll all have fun together later, everybody's bound to feel more motivated about cleaning now.

Stop protecting.

A powerful way to influence your spouse's behavior is to allow your spouse to live with the consequences of his or her messiness. In her book The New Messie's Manual, ex-messy Sandra Felton shares this advice: "When leaving his underwear on the floor means he runs out of underwear, that gets his attention. If you pick up the underwear, put it in the hamper, wash it, and replace it in his drawer, you're not letting his problem impact his life." She also suggests that if you kick clothes he drops on the floor into the back of his closet after you've told him you'll wash only clothes put into the hamper, he'll eventually "get it." "Invite people over," she continues. "If you cease having guests, you protect him from the results of his messy behavior. Having friends over gives some Messies the nudge to pick up their stuff."

Accept reality.

It may be that your acceptable level of cleanliness just isn't as important to your spouse. So you may need to compromise or, if you can't lower your expectations, you may have to do the lion's share yourself. If that's the case, don't allow your decision to make you bitter toward your spouse. Any help your spouse does provide will be a bonus!

The ultimate motivation

Nothing motivates better than appreciation. A simple "thank you" when your mate does something to take care of the house provides him great incentive to do more. You may be thinking, Why should I thank my spouse when I'm the one who does most of the work? My spouse doesn't thank me! While that may be true, a genuine "thank you" will go a lot further than silence. If you don't say anything, then he or she may not even do that one chore again!

If your spouse still doesn't help, it's easy to feel bitter. Bitterness, though, won't improve the situation. Your spouse will sense it and likely become even more unwilling to help. During those periods when you're feeling taken for granted and the house seems out of control, remember that a spotless house isn't the most important thing—even though it's nice to have! The most important thing is making a comfortable home for everyone who lives in it; a place where we can nurture vital relationships. Then, even if we don't receive the practical help we desire, we can still have the emotional and spiritual connections we need even more.

Sheila Wray Gregoire is author of To Love, Honor, and Vacuum and Honey, I Don't Have a Headache Tonight (both Kregel Publications).


Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Cleanliness; Marriage; Spouse
Today's Christian Woman, Spring, 2005
Posted September 12, 2008

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