Anyone who knows me knows I like thinking and talking about relationships. Lately I’ve noticed an eye-brow raising piece of relationship advice cropping up again and again, either in pinterest listicles (“9 Ways Your Cat is Sabotaging Your Relationship”) mainstream journalism sources like the New York Times, or as informal relationship counsel via facebook or in person.
The advice usually goes something like this: “Don’t ‘keep score’ about who’s doing what in your relationship. Don’t worry about the distribution of labor being 50/50. Sometimes you’ll be doing more, and sometimes your partner will be doing more, but keeping track of that kind of thing is damaging to your relationship, so you should just let it go.”
First of all, this advice is *almost always* directed at women in some way, either because women are the primary audience for this type of journalism, or because it’s being marketed specifically to women, or because people are giving women this advice.
And here’s the thing. Sure, maybe it’s not beneficial to your relationship to tack a giant scorecard to your living room wall and mark down every time one of you takes out the trash or empties the dishwasher or puts the kids to bed. But because this advice is always disproportionately directed at women, it reinforces the same messages that we’ve received from our families, our schools, the media, and our culture for our entire lives: that it’s our responsibility to keep all the balls in the air: gracefully, constantly, uncomplainingly, and without breaking a sweat, and on top of that, we’re expected to pretend like we don’t notice or at least don’t mind that we’re doing a disproportionate amount of the relationship work, whether that’s doing the dishes or planning a party or picking out a wedding gift or remembering to pick up toilet paper at the store.
This advice ignores the reality of the second shift: the fact that (while we might be moving slightly closer to parity,) women still perform an inordinate amount of the dull, unskilled, unpaid, thankless tasks that it takes to run a household and raise a family, and that we’re also expected to perform the majority of the emotional labor that our relationship requires. (Some like to argue that the disparity is a result of the fact that men work more hours than women on average, but a recent study demonstrated that women still do more housework than their partners even if their partners don’t have jobs.) This incredible thread is full of stories from hundreds of women, talking about the ways they perform labor, emotional and otherwise, unequally in their relationships, and the ways that their male partners are blind to that inequality.
Want some evidence? In his book “The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work”, relationship researcher John Gottman talks about how it’s been proven that men overestimate the amount of housework that they do. He explains that his wife is satisfied when he begins to complain that he’s doing all the work, because then she knows that he’s actually doing half. Gottman goes on to argue that men need to work hard to bring the division of household labor closer to parity.
The solution to the problem of resentment over who does more in heterosexual relationships is not to “stop keeping score,” because a refusal to examine the problem inevitably preserves the status quo, and the status quo places the majority of the labor on women. Instead, men need to take responsibility for taking on more of the physical and emotional labor required by their relationships, and for educating themselves about the ways in which women perform so much relationship labor that goes unnoticed or unappreciated.