Spouses Probably Shouldn't Try to Split Household Tasks Exactly Evenly

Obsessing over a completely fair division of labor defeats the purpose of marriage.

Art Institute of Chicago Museum

Marriages should be equal, and that has to mean equal housework too. Laundry, cleaning, child care, scheduling playdates, and buying groceries—it should be split as nearly down the middle as possible. Keeping a running tally of who has spent most hours on what is vital. Ideally, spouses should also sit down together and work out a good rule-of-thumb for particularly onerous or unpleasant tasks and figure out how many hours of those can be translated into regular duty hours, and vice versa. For example, two minutes of changing diapers should probably be worth four minutes at least of just regular doing the laundry. Car pool pick-ups should be placed on a graduated scale depending on how many kids there are, average decibel level, and so forth.

All of which sounds quite rational and orderly. The only problem with it being—as anyone in a relationship could tell you—that it is insane.

Nobody actually argues that you should split up housework by using time charts or ranking the dirtiness of diapers. But the logic of quantification can be appealing. Alexandra Bradner, in a post here at The Atlantic, suggested that couples sit down together and work out what percentage of different household tasks each of them does. ("Record your answers and compare notes.") Andy Hinds, in a response to Bradner, toyed with the idea of keeping track of the hours spent on chores. "If my log shows that I'm putting in as many hours as she is, I'm vindicated. If it shows that I'm not, then I have impetus to step up my game and make my wife happier. Win-win."

Hinds's solution here gets at the heart of why this kind of quantification is pretty much useless when you're talking about domestic chores in a relationship. Imagine that Hinds discovers that he is in fact putting in as many hours as his wife. Is that actually going to make his wife less unhappy? Here, honey, I have data showing that you are complaining for no reason. My figures confirm that your unhappiness is your own damn fault. Now, I've done my hours for the week, so I'm going to watch the tube while you fold the laundry. Ain't objectivity grand?

I can say with some assurance that if I said something like this to my wife, she would be displeased. Hinds acknowledges, "It's easy to imagine that keeping track of the hours spent on chores at home could make them seem even more onerous." He says it would open up a "whole new dimension of nitpicking," which it certainly would. But the problem is not just logistical or practical. It's philosophical. There is something inherently insulting about quantifying your relationship with your spouse.

The way that relationships are quantified, and what this means, is one of the central themes of anthropologist David Graeber's recent book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Graeber explains that economists, and economic models, have led most of us to see exchanges most of the time in terms of debt—specific obligations owed. Debt, Graeber argues, came historically before money, and tends to bring money into being as a way of measuring, or quantifying, specific obligations. When Bradner talks about percentages of housework, or when Hines contemplates tallying hours, they are, then, moving housework into the realm of debts, which can be quantified and, therefore, discharged ("If my log shows that I'm putting in as many hours as she is, I'm vindicated.")

The problem here is that a marriage is not a short-term loan. You are not in a transaction with your spouse; you're in a relationship. In fact, as Graeber argues, part of the point of debt is to turn relationships into objective transactions, so that you don't have to worry about messy emotions like pity or neighborliness when you toss that farmer into prison or force his daughter into debt-servitude in your palace.

In contrast, many egalitarian societies make an enormous effort to keep clear of the logic of debt. Graeber tells a story about an Inuit man who offered a hungry anthropologist named Peter Freuchen a huge mound of seal meat. Freuchen thanked the man profusely. Freuchen recorded the man's response.

"Up in our country we are human!" said the hunter. "And since we are human we help each other. We don't like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs."

The meat is not a loan—nor even, in the hunter's words, a gift. Instead, it is a testament to the fact that the giver and receiver are both human—and both part of the ongoing social relationship that is humanity. To quantify that relationship, or even, in this extreme case, to give thanks for it, is an insult. You share meat because that is what humans do, not because you expect a return. Or, rather, because the return you expect is not a return, but the relationship itself, which cannot be circumscribed within the logic of exchange and reciprocity.

Many economists usually argue that people shouldn't behave like this. Exchange should be about maximizing self-interest, not about tending relationships. But, as Graeber points out, this kind of giving actually occurs all the time on a small scale even in Western societies. When a worker on a job site needs a wrench, she doesn't have to haggle for it—somebody will just pass it along. If someone asks you for directions on the street, you'll give them directions—not because you expect a return, but because giving directions when asked is the sort of thing humans do.

Graeber doesn't spend much time specifically discussing marriage in this context—but the parallel is fairly clear. Husbands help wives (and wives husbands) not because they "owe" each other, but because that is what spouses do. In fact, if you are out the point where you are figuring out who owes what to whom in terms of hours or percentages, something has already gone wrong. Counting hours is a sign of a problem, not a potential solution.

Graeber says that maintaining egalitarian societies, and avoiding debt relationships, can be quite difficult. Societies like the Inuit put enormous social effort and pressure into making sure that excellent hunters don't end up putting everyone in their debt. Marriages, too, can slide towards hierarchy if you're not careful. There's a lot of years of inequity and a lot of learned gender roles telling men and women that women owe housework to their families—an obligation that (as the hunter suggests) can pretty easily end up feeling like, and even functioning as, slavery. That's why housework is a feminist issue—and why both men and women need to work to stop it from becoming the whip that makes one spouse the master and the other the dog.

But I don't think you keep this from happening by splitting housework equally. Rather, you keep it from happening by remembering that your spouse is not your debtor, but your spouse. The goal is not to clear your ledger, but to live with each other, and love each other, day in and day out for the rest of your lives. And if that's what you're aiming for, who has spent which hours doing what is often not exactly irrelevant, but not the main issue, either.

For example, my wife does pretty much all the clothes shopping for herself, for me, and for my son. But she likes doing that; it's not a burden (though I would hate it). On the other hand, I do pretty much all the scheduling for our son, including attending parent-teacher conferences and car-pooling and organizing playdates. My wife would hate all of that, and, because she has a nine-to-five schedule, would find it pretty much impossible to do anyway. As a freelancer, my hours are a lot more flexible...and, in truth, I rather enjoy maintaining the schedule. It satisfies my need for order.

There are some things we both dislike, of course. Sometimes we split them. Sometimes we just make a pact of mutual laziness and don't do them. I often tell people that our dishwasher saved our marriage, and the same could be said of our decision to hire a maid once a month. Neither of us much likes to cook, so we order out a fair bit. And day to day, we give each other seal meat, or the equivalent, not because we have to in order to make things even, but because that's what you do if you're human and married.

Bradner shows she understands this to some degree when she writes that husbands should help working moms "not because you're obligated to rectify an injustice, but because you can. Responding to the misery of the people you care about is what you do." But then she frames this as "small acts of heroism," as if husbands (or for that matter wives) are doing something special or valiant when they care for their loved ones—as if they're owed some special thanks or admiration.

Which is a problem, again, because often the best way to help your spouse out is not by heroically lifting some burden or other, but rather by buying an appliance, or lowering your standards, or convincing them to lower their standards, or just by figuring out which thing you like to do enough that you're willing to do it all the time for both of you and the kids as well. Housework isn't a debt wives owe to husbands, nor one husbands owe to wives. It's not a gift you give to make a slave. Rather, it's the quotidian stuff of which the relationship is made. We're married, so we help each other. And the helping isn't to protect the marriage, or to keep the people in the marriage happy. The helping is the marriage itself.