They say what you don’t know can’t hurt you, but tell that to a guy who recently moved in with someone who doesn’t know how to load a dishwasher. Worse: They do know how to load a dishwasher, but are too lazy to do it. If that sounds like a petty reason to fight and slowly become filled with poisonous hatred for a person you once loved, welcome to cohabitation!
A survey from 2013 found that the most common cause of fighting in couples after money is disputes over division of domestic chores. Two-thirds of couples say they fight once a week about cleaning up, and one out of five couples have actually broken up over it. Some 30 percent of divorces are attributed to partners who simply won’t do their fair share of cleaning, and the gripes include leaving too much stuff on the floor, not cleaning stuff right or at all, and not putting stuff where it goes.
While it’s obvious cleaning is almost entirely about putting stuff away in a timely manner, it’s not always as simple as she cleans, he won’t or vice versa. It’s really about cleaning values — what should be cleaned, when, how and how often.
Some people like newspapers and books strewn about and can leave fettuccine in the sink overnight; others are classic plastic-covers-on-the-couch crazies, always dusting behind you like a maniac. It’s your job to figure out who someone is before the sobbing; it’s your job to figure out how to live together, or alternatively, to get some therapy.
“After your boyfriend shaves, your bathroom will be covered with tiny hairs, and no matter how many times you tell him to please clean up the hair, he will inevitably miss all the hairiest places — the space behind the toilet seat, the back of the sink by the handles, THE ENTIRE FLOOR,” one woman warns in a piece at Cosmopolitan.
Sometimes it’s that you’re both interested in the place being clean, but you go about it differently. “In our house, I am a big ole slob,” a woman writes at Glamour. “J was used to cleaning his apartment little by little every day and I would wait and do a huge thorough cleaning when the mood struck. According to J, this was the biggest adjustment for him. ‘I’ve never seen someone tear through a closet at 7:30 in the morning like you do.’”
Here’s where men must be given a bit of a hard time. All these guides to cleaning up and how to handle it, it must be noted, are at women’s magazines. GQ, a men’s magazine that wrote about the pitfalls of moving in and not screwing it up, didn’t mention cleaning at all. To be fair, they wrote a guide to cleaning up your bachelor pad in 30 minutes a few years ago. But what happens when that pad turns into a love nest?
I’ll tell you what happens! What happens is women, trained from birth to notice dust and generate feelings about it, will simply do more (83 percent do household chores, compared to 65 percent of men) and hate you for it, openly or otherwise. One minute, it’s all bliss and TV and stuff, but cut to several months of her doing everything around and the house, and she is writing up a scathing indictment of your inability to pick up a box of gift wrap off the floor…. that functions as a highly gendered commentary on how Men Don’t Clean… and goes viral.
She loves that guy, but boy, does she also hate him. Do you really want this to be your fate? Try cleaning.
To be fair, men literally don’t clean as much as women, and there are all sorts of reasons that mostly come down to conditioning. In part, they simply aren’t raised to do it. Women are brought into kitchens as girls by mothers who want to make sure they have a magazine-friendly sensibility about the home when it comes to cooking and tidying up. Boys are taken into garages and shown how to use a miter saw or whatever. This leads to men who are able to fix some stuff and mow a lawn but may never grasp all those beard hairs floating around. That sounds equal — she does inside stuff, he does outside stuff! — but it isn’t, because there’s more inside stuff to do than outside stuff. Mowing a lawn is not a daily activity unless you’re Edward Scissorhands.
To be more fair, women can be total slobs, too, and men can be fastidious cleaners. And arguably a lot of this stuff doesn’t matter all that much. But what does matter is simply agreeing on how chores will be split up in advance based on who is good at what, and to make sure you agree to check in and see how it’s going. That way, there’s no secret resentment that will boil up into a roiling cauldron of anger and bubble over.
It’s actually quite easy: Just look at what gay couples do. They talk in advance about splitting up chores and divide them based on skill and preference. A 2015 study of chore division in couples found that gay couples are really, really putting heteros to shame on this front. “Same-sex couples tend to communicate better, share chore duties more fairly and assign tasks based on personal preference — rather than gender, income, hours worked or power position in the relationship,” The Washington Post reported on the study.
In other words, without any of the hang-ups heterosexuals have about chores and gender, there are no “pink” chores like laundry and cleaning for women, or “blue” chores like mowing the lawn or fixing things for men. Chores were doled out as equally as possible. And that was true regardless of hours worked or income earned, which is the opposite of how it works with straight couples, who tend to give the lower-earning worker the more pink chores, like cooking and cleaning. And that person in most straight couples tends to be the woman.
I write this not to make men feel bad, but to make clear that this is actually easily preventable. In the study of same-sex couples, they reported being far more satisfied with the division of labor, and that was for one reason: They talked about it up front. That’s all it took. Talking a little.
“Men in gay partnerships were much more likely to say they had discussed how to divide the labor when they first moved in together,” the Post writes. “Women in straight partnerships were much more likely to say they wanted to, but didn’t.”
Wanted to, but didn’t could also be any man’s tombstone if he doesn’t just learn how to divide some chores. So even if you’ve already moved in with someone who now despises you, it’s not too late. Go home, draw up a little chart, and start discussing who will do what and how. Make it fair, and make it reasonable. And buy yourselves some happiness and time to fight over something else, like how even though you’re cleaning, you’re not cleaning right. Or how much sex you’re not having anymore, because you’re still fighting about cleaning.