"Boy, am I tired."
"I thought my workday would never end. It seemed like every phone call and every memo just dumped another problem on my desk."
"I know what you mean. I must have dealt with 25 angry customers since lunch."
"At least you don't have productivity quotas to meet. You have no idea what a headache those are."
"No, I just have to figure out ways to keep the customers happy without giving away all the company's profits. No pressure there."
"Talk about pressure! Jean called in sick today, and she was supposed to do the month-end reports, so I had to do them."
"That's nothing. We just found out there's going to be a special inventory review starting next week. Do you know what it's like to get ready for that?"
"It's not anything like trying to meet productivity quotas and do the month-end reports at the same time; I'm pretty sure of that. I'm exhausted. What are we doing about dinner?"
"Don't look at me! I'm too tired to fix anything."
"So am I. Guess I'm not all that hungry anyway."
"I'm going to the gym."
"I'm going to walk the dog."
Does this conversation sound like:
- two contestants battling it out for the title of Hardest Working Person in the House?
- spouses who both desperately need each other to recognize their efforts?
- a couple who are both feeling overwhelmed by the combined demands of work and home?
It's all of the above, of course. At the end of the day, when workplace frustrations are still fresh in their minds and the evening's domestic tasks are looming, the setting is ripe for The Contest to begin—or to resume where it left off on a previous night. If one spouse begins describing how hard he or she worked today, the other spouse may feel a need to balance the scales with a similar recital in order not to feel lacking in industriousness or worth. If allowed to go on very long, this unhealthy competition can cause hurt feelings, growing anger and festering resentments that may take years to repair.
My husband, Dan, and I fell right into this trap about ten years into our marriage. Our child was in school, our careers had progressed and both of us were in high-intensity jobs in which we were trying furiously to prove ourselves. At the same time, we were struggling to keep up with chores around the house in the face of these daunting new work responsibilities. Our competitive conversations became so frequent—and so predictable—that if one of us uttered the words "I'm tired," the other automatically tuned out, knowing another salvo in The Contest was about to begin.
Why does this pattern arise in so many marriages? Blame it on good old human nature. All of us have a fundamental need for recognition. Of all the people in our lives, our spouse is the one whose appreciation we most need. We need our mate to respect what we do and to value our efforts—from folding the laundry to earning a promotion. If we don't receive the recognition we need and want, we start devising strategies to evoke it. Unfortunately, these attempts often come across as trying to make ourselves appear harder-working or more put-upon than our spouse—not at all the result we wanted.
One or both spouses may also have fears about their own competence, either within or outside the home. The Contest started in our home at a time when Dan and I were both feeling insecure about being able to measure up at work. That insecurity undoubtedly multiplied our need for each other's recognition and escalated the competition.
Some spouses may feel inadequate at domestic tasks, too. A husband who feels lost in the kitchen or inept at parenting may feel a need to let his wife know how hard he worked at his job all day. That way, she won't expect him to come up with an imaginative dinner or get a wriggling, cranky toddler bathed and into bed.
Cultural and societal norms also feed the scenario. Studies continue to show that even among couples who say they divide tasks equally, in reality that's not the case. As a society, we still delegate domestic tasks primarily to wives and breadwinning tasks mainly to husbands, regardless of which spouse is actually the chief breadwinner. This pattern has persisted even with the entry of unprecedented numbers of women into the workplace.
With all these factors creating a fertile field for The Contest, how can couples put an end to it before it damages the very foundation of their marriages? A few guidelines may help.
Be alert and responsive to pleas for encouragement
If your spouse expresses frustration with preparing the month-end reports or enduring a co-worker's inefficiency, try not to counter with one-upmanship: "Well, at my job . …" What your spouse may need most is assurance that he or she can handle the challenge: "I can see how overwhelming that must seem, but you always come through under pressure." Maybe you can cite a specific instance in which your spouse succeeded at a difficult assignment.
Express appreciation often7
A friend of mine says marriages would work better if we all envisioned our spouses wearing huge signs that say "Appreciate me." Remember to praise his or her efforts, whether at home or at the office. "You finished the month-end reports—let's celebrate!" "Thanks so much for putting the laundry away. It just seemed to take more energy that I had tonight." "Ah, beef stew. How did you know comfort food was just what I needed?" The fact that our society assigns certain roles to each gender doesn't give us permission to take them for granted. For a wife who comes home from her "day job" and immediately takes charge of the household, a word of acknowledgment and recognition from her husband will mean a great deal, even if she believes that those domestic responsibilities are rightly hers. Similarly, a husband who takes seriously his role as breadwinner and works hard to succeed likes to know that his efforts are valued by his spouse.
Reinforce your spouse's efforts to help
Without meaning to, we defeat our spouses' good intentions when we criticize the way they do things, like sorting the laundry or dressing the baby or mowing the yard. Picking apart the way a spouse does a task is a virtual guarantee he or she won't do it again. And re-doing a task the "right" way after a spouse has done it hurts just as much as saying out loud, "You did it wrong," because the message being sent is exactly the same.
If we want our spouses to share household chores, praise and appreciation will achieve that goal. Criticism and nit-picking will have the opposite effect. My son went to pre-school in some pretty outlandish outfits—but it was a small price to pay for the help of having my husband dress him.
In fact, Dan and I put an end to The Contest when we finally realized just how counterproductive—not to mention annoying—it really was. We decided on a three-pronged agreement: we'd be fully respectful of each other's work demands, recognizing that even though our jobs were different, they were both difficult; we'd be sensitive enough and flexible enough to lighten each other's load by helping out with tasks whether or not it was "my job" or "my turn"; and we'd outlaw the sentence "I'm tired" at the end of the workday. We were both tired of hearing it!
And neither of us was sorry to see The Contest end.
After more than 35 years together, Alicia Howe and her husband no longer compete over who works the hardest. Special thanks to licensed clinical psychologist Candice Frankovelgia, Psy.D., of Colorado Springs, Colorado, who contributed generously of her expertise and insights in the preparation of this article.