Battle Zones


At one time, the adversaries were on friendly terms and perfectly willing to coexist. But one minor disagreement over borders here or a skirmish over failure to abide by a trade compact there, and suddenly a full-blown territorial conflict erupts. This latest incident, though, has brought the crisis to a flash point.

It looks as though somebody forgot to do the dishes again.

Better get Kissinger to straighten this one out.

There's nothing like household chores to get two normally peaceful allies to turn a home into a war zone. A lot of things can cause strife in a couple's relationship, from infidelity to in-laws, but it's more likely that the little things, like who is going to do the vacuuming, are of more immediate concern when it comes to achieving domestic bliss.

And in the younger generation of couples, weaned on Cosmo articles and Sally Jessy Raphael episodes, it apparently has become easier to talk about failure to reach orgasm than it is to discuss failure to pick up the groceries. Even discussion of household chores can be so sensitive that some people did not want their names used in this story because they didn't want their partners to know they were revealing their mundane domestic secrets.

Arguing over chores is "pretty common," says Fred Frankel, director of parent training and social skills at UCLA, who counsels couples and families in crisis. "It depends on how able couples are to solve problems and structure their lives as to how serious the disputes can become."

The easy part of dealing with chores is deciding what has to be done. The garbage can't just sit in the kitchen forever, so eventually, one partner or the other deals with it.

Trickier is deciding who does what across the broad spectrum. "All animal feeding and walking duties are usually mine," says Marco, a marketing executive who has lived for nearly two years with his fiancee, Marie. "She does dishes. Always. I deal with all authority figures, like landlords, and make all the emergency runs. I'm the 3 a.m. 'I need more medicine' guy."

"He'll do the dishes; I make the beds and do all the straightening up around the house after he goes to bed and leaves his stuff all over," explains Lauren, a record company executive, who has been married to Bill, a stockbroker, for a year and a half. "He handles the money now. And he goes on all the evening dessert runs."

How often and how well chores are done can become another issue.

"He'll walk up to the closet and drop his shirt next to the hanger, figuring as long as it's in the closet area, that's OK," Lauren says of Bill. "Or, I'll ask him to sweep the patio, but he'll decide to clean the windows first, and who knows when the original task will get done."

"The kids and I slide along until my wife explodes and we say, 'OK, we'll clean up,' " admits Bill Steinkellner, a television writer-producer who has teamed with wife Cheri on shows like "Cheers" and "Hope & Gloria."

"We have a system where whoever notices something that needs to be done just does it, but then, there are many situations where you get very good at pretending not to notice them," Cheri says.

"A lot of people have this fantasy that their partner will read their mind when they want something done," Frankel says. "That isn't true. You have to give feedback to get him or her involved. The bottom line is that everybody is happy. Can you move to a situation that is more equitable for both of you?"

The duties tend to be divided in one of several ways. Probably the least equitable method is the old-fashioned gender gap. Based on the notion that women are home during the day while the men go off to bring home the bacon, women are responsible for all the cooking, housework and child care.

"I never liked anything to do with the kitchen, but I did the cooking when he had a full-time job," says Inge Stern, who has been married for 50 years to Irving. "I resisted cooking and then decided I had to. I never even asked him, 'Why don't you do it?' I couldn't do that after he had just spent the whole day working."

This approach may seem a bit outdated, but there are still certain tasks that are almost always assumed to be woman's work and others that only a man will handle. It's not just things like heavy lifting versus sewing. For instance, all the icky chores seem to belong to men.

"Cleaning up dog poop--that's mostly the man's task," Frankel says. "He tends to handle anything that's gross and disgusting, while decorating and child care are thought of as woman-oriented."

How did this division get started?

"The man creates most of the garbage, he might as well take it out," Bill Steinkellner theorizes.

That's another way tasks get assigned. When one partner has a skill or interest in the job at hand, that's who gets to do it. For every husband who is incapable of making the bed, there's a man who will get up early on Saturday mornings to bring home bagels and cream cheese.

"I do all the laundry because I'm very finicky," Inge Stern says. "And he loves to cook, so since the day he retired, he has taken over the kitchen."

Most of the time, though, it seems household chores aren't so much assigned as they are assumed. There is no science behind who does what. It just happens.

"There are decisions that were made along the way that became rules, but we never deliberately had a meeting to sort it all out," Cheri Steinkellner says. "I just took on more of the day-to-day responsibilities and Billy took on more of the labor."

"I enjoy menial stuff and she loves making decisions, so we just fell into those roles," her husband says.

"You learn instinctually to do things for one another," says Irving Stern. "It takes a certain amount of introspection. There are certain things you gradually realize are unfair to the other person, like leaving papers and books scattered around, and you try to adjust your behavior."

"You have to learn to live with the behaviors you can't change," Lauren says. "I had to understand that when he doesn't do dishes, that doesn't mean he's not in love with me anymore. It means he just didn't do the dishes."

Then there is the more practical approach, the realization that pitching in on household chores is a way of keeping the pax domesticus.

"I try to pitch in around the edges, because you want to avoid having your partner feeling you don't appreciate what she does," explains Marco, who takes on unassigned tasks like making the coffee every morning. "By helping out, I bring down her frustration level."

In other words, an equitable distribution of labor can save any relationship. It's just up to each couple to determine what qualifies as equitable. And if the chores are taken care of to the satisfaction of both parties, that leaves all the more time and energy to debating the real issues that can blossom into severe relationship trauma. Matters like who gets which side of the bed if you're both left side of the bed people.

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