My clinical experience providing marital psychotherapy for more than 30 years has taught me that conflicts about housework rank right behind fights over sex and money for couples of all ages. But housework dustups often escalate in retirement, with the potential to ruin marital harmony.
Couples who are better prepared to deal with these disputes can minimize pitfalls and even avoid them altogether.
Wives, Husbands and Chores
Wives typically do the lion’s share of housework chores regardless of their age and employment status; on an average day, 20 percent of men do some housework, such as cleaning or laundry, compared with 48 percent of women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But husbands generally don’t increase their housework participation once they retire and have more time on their hands.
In fact, women in retirement continue to spend more time than men on housework: 20 hours per week vs. men’s eight hours. (The men continue to do mostly seasonal chores, such as yard work and home repairs.) Some women actually report an increased amount of time devoted to domestic work because their husbands are now home for lunch and expect their wives to prepare the meal and clean up afterwards.
3 Hidden Meanings of Housework Disputes
Caring Cooking your spouse’s favorite meal or buying your partner’s favorite flowers, for example, sends the message: “I know you and what you love and I’m willing to give it to you.”
Control Do you fold the towels as your spouse prefers or do you do it your way? The former is a subconscious way of saying: “I’m willing to do this the way you prefer because you are important to me and I want to please you.”
Fairness Doing chores means that you contribute your share to the overall functioning of your home rather than expecting that your spouse will take care of all of them.
Given this “baggage,” it’s evident why battles royal about housework are commonplace. When couples fight about household chores, it’s usually not about the specific task but the symbolic meaning attached to it. Conflicts over minor chores can easily turn into power struggles that spill into other domains.
I often tell couples “foreplay starts in the morning when you empty the dishwasher and not at night when you start caressing each other.” If your partner is angry that you’re not pulling your weight around the house, he or she may be less likely to feel like making love at night, due to a heart full of resentment.
Why Housework Battles Heighten for Retirees
In retirement, housework can become a greater source of frustration than in the earlier years of a marriage because the partners are now spending more time with each other at home. Each spouse's small, irritating characteristics can become less tolerable and appear more noticeable due to the increased time together.
What’s more, marriages in retirement often suffer from the cumulative tension over disagreements relating to managing hearth and home.
Take the example of one couple I know. Throughout their marriage, the husband — a quality control engineer — was annoyed with his wife’s “lack of organization and being a space cadet.” When he retired, the husband wanted “to help her become better organized.” So when his wife went out to play tennis, he re-organized the pantry in an alphabetical order. Of course, she was quite displeased and angry about this, viewing his “help” as criticism.
Another reason housework often becomes a source of quarrels in retirement: differing expectations. Most couples over time have established a division of housework that both partners (hopefully) consider equitable and fair. But retirement often upsets this balance. When she expects him to participate more in daily chores in retirement because he can and he resists, there will be tension.
The Role of Sex Stereotypes
Retired husbands with more traditional sex-role stereotypes often feel emasculated and even humiliated when required by their wives to participate in so-called “feminine tasks.” This is especially true if the men were forced to leave their jobs or haven’t yet developed a new area of interest or purpose in retirement and feel somewhat lost.
This scenario is usually more explosive when the husband has retired, the wife hasn’t and she comes home from work to see him watching TV, expecting her to make dinner, wash the dishes and retrieve the clothes left in the washer.
Sometimes, though, the situation is reversed for retired couples and it’s the wife who feels ill at ease.
For instance, the husband may want to start cooking since he’s now at home before dinnertime — making meals, he believes, will not only make him productive, but provide a new avenue to express himself. His wife, however, may resent this change, feeling that he is invading her turf. Or she may micromanage him in the kitchen so he prepares food “her way.”
How Retired Couples Can Defuse Tension
In order for retired couples to avoid the havoc housework can wreak on their marriages, they may need to renegotiate their division of housework according to their values, preferences, skills — putting aside their previous patterns and gender-role expectations. And they must take into account the symbolic and emotional meaning of the tasks they’re quarreling about.
A good starting point is for each spouse to make a list of all the housework tasks he or she is doing on a regular basis and how much time it takes to complete them. Then, compare notes and discuss how fair this seems.
In this discussion, tell your partner about the chores you mostly like or dislike and any you’d be willing to trade.
Another useful strategy is for each spouse to list the other's five household habits that are most annoying. The goal is to reach a point where you say: “I’ll stop doing X and in return you will stop doing Y.” Avoid talking in generalities (“You are so messy!”) and instead get specific, with examples such as, “When you leave half-empty soda cans all over the house it drives me crazy, because I can’t relax with all that clutter.”
When both retired spouses are willing to understand each other’s feelings, to contribute fairly and to remember that each deserves to feel their home is a safe haven to relax and have their needs met, the payoff is often lower levels of tension and conflict and higher marital satisfaction and intimacy.
Sara Yogev, Ph. D., is a psychologist, author of A Couple’s Guide to Happy Retirement: For Better or For Worse…But Not For Lunch and a writer for Next Avenue.