I’m going to be clear that I am not a relationship expert; I’ve merely made this exact mistake too many times. Learning by Doing, that’s the life for me apparently.
So listen: I get it. I know the scenario: You’re sitting at the end of a long day. Or maybe you’re standing, just staring at a wall and wishing you were allowed to fall asleep where you stand. Your kids have been super needy all day, and you’ve been steadily breaking up fights. You haven’t had much time to think, and your brain is fuzzy as all hell. Maybe you’re just tired because you didn’t sleep well. Maybe you’re sick. You can’t remember the last time you’ve had more than a few minutes to yourself, and it’s beginning to wear on you.
Then your partner looks around at the house and says it: “You know, this place is pretty dirty. When was the last time it’s been dusted/dishes have been done/laundry has been folded?”
Rage. Seething, lava-hot, gotdamned anger. Your eyes bulge and you slowly turn to look at your partner the way a very hungry wolf looks at a particularly fat squirrel. You may even ask them to repeat themselves, and like a total dingbat, they do. Because they haven’t figured out that the hole they’re in the middle of digging is actually going to be their personal gravesite.
Then you go off. “Do you know all I have to do all day?!” You rage. “I have to remember schedules and birthdays and care for sick people when I’m sick, too. I’m being crawled all over all day long, I don’t get time to myself…when the hell am I supposed to do anything around here? When do I get time to myself? Why don’t YOU do some of the work around here if you care so much? I’m not sitting around doing nothing!”
To which your partner angrily replies: “I work! I come home at the end of a long day, I help with the kids when I can, I do housework when I need to, and I’m tired, too. You’re home all day, so I’m sure you can find some time to get a few things done!”
Oh no the hell they did not. You puff up. You scream. They scream. You get stuck in a never-ending cycle of invalidation and feeling invalidated. Everyone winds up mad at one another and dirty looks are given at one another for a while afterwards.
Sound familiar? I’m certain it does. With little adjustments here and there for particular situations, but it’s a pretty common argument. And here’s the good news: If you’re the stay-at-home mom in this scenario, you’re right.
Here’s the not-so-great-news: So are they.
The “Who Does More” argument is a really, really bad one to have, and yet we can’t stop having it. What’s worse, it’s an argument fueled mostly by anger and feelings of being taken for granted, which is never a mixture that leads to anything good. Where most arguments come from a need for resolution, this one comes from the same place that giving someone the finger does, so it’s often just a way to let your partner know that you want to push them down the stairs without actually doing it.
Well…it is and it isn’t. There actually is something that we’re wanting out of this whole thing, and chores or help with the kids or time to ourselves are really only part of it.
We want to feel appreciated.
Your partner is saying what they’re saying because they don’t feel like they’ve been given appreciation in a way that works for them, at least not lately. Maybe they feel like they’re being taken for granted because they’re expected to clean or cook or do something else after a day of working, which no one really wants to do. Let’s be honest: No one likes to look around at the end of a long day, only to see more shit they have to do. We know that more than most.
You’re saying what you’re saying, because when someone just asks you why the house isn’t cleaner, you’re hearing something akin to “I don’t really give a shit that you do all these other things; I really only find value in the things you’re not doing.” And how great does it feel, exactly, to give up things like free time and personal comfort if the other person isn’t going to even bother to acknowledge it?
So we go round and round over who does more, and who’s worthier of the appreciation that we feel we’re not getting. As things get more heated, we start pointing out more things we do, and less of what they do. I still remember snapping “you ever take a shit at work? Do people come in and stare at you while you do that? Then I’d say you get more personal time than I do.”
Which wasn’t wrong (and also kind of hilarious when you start imagining working somewhere where your coworkers stare into the stall at you while you poop), but it also sounded like I was telling my husband that his job was easier than mine, or that he wasn’t working as hard as I was to help our family succeed. As you’d imagine, this did not go over well.
It took me about three go-rounds of this conversation to stumble on what we should be doing instead. Maybe it’ll work for you, maybe it won’t. But I’m going to tell you anyway, because it’s what I do. It goes like this:
Calm the Eff Down
I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy, and I’m not going to tell you not to snap at your partner when they first say something like what I’ve mentioned above, because you might not be able to help it. The moment you realize you’re about to have “That” conversation, though, stop and try to excuse yourself. Tell them you’d like to talk more later, but that you need to gather your thoughts for a second. You could also just argue until you get tired of arguing and start talking normally out of pure exhaustion (guilty), but I wouldn’t suggest it.
Know Beforehand How You Feel Appreciated
If you need to hear that you’re appreciated, say that. If you want to work in some time where you get to be alone to breathe, say that. Just know where your feelings of underapprecation are coming from before you start talking again, because otherwise, there won’t really be much of a plan of action. If you haven’t already checked into the Five Love Languages, it’s helpful to know which you are, because that can help you figure out what you’d need.
Avoid Just Talking About What You’ve Been Doing Right
It’s horribly tempting to open up with “I clean up shit all day and dedicate all my energy and emotional labor to the family and almost never have any for myself and you get to talk to adults who know not to stick their hands in your pockets or scream at you, and the fact that you want to add more shit to my to-do list makes me feel really unappreciated. So I’d love it if you’d just shove it up your ass next time. Please.”
Don’t do that. Keep in mind that this conversation is happening because the other party is also feeling misunderstood and under-appreciated. You’re both feeling like you’re doing a lot to help your family thrive, and you’re both wanting to feel like the other person not only recognizes that, but also wants to help take some of the pressure off. They may not have put it in the best way, but that’s really all it is. I mean, 99.9% of the time. I’m sure some of you have partners who could use a swift kick in the face. Sorry.
To the rest of you, try to start out by making sure you mention the other person first. Acknowledge that they’re working hard, too. THEN move into what you want. A la: “Listen, you work really hard for this family, and we wouldn’t have what we have without you as part of this team. But I feel like I work really hard, too, at raising the kids and keeping this household running smoothly. It would make me feel a lot better if you mentioned that you valued that sometimes, instead of just mentioning the things I don’t get to.”
From there, you listen. I’m a horrible listener, and I didn’t ace this part right off the bat, but it’s important. Be ready to admit that, yes, maybe you could help them out a bit more. Be ready to compromise. Be ready to agree to add a few more things to your to-do list that you feel comfortable doing, and be ready to add a few things to theirs that you feel is important. And then, be ready to need reminding, or to need to remind them.
Point being, you both do a lot. Raising kids and keeping a home and not going stark raving mad takes teamwork. You are going to feel frustrated and tired. You are going to look at the other person and feel like they couldn’t constantly understand your struggles.
Stop that. Of course they can’t. Because they have their own. And you most likely don’t fully understand theirs either.
So instead, focus on the struggles you share, and communicate to find out how you can make those easier for each other. Make sure you do so with empathy and an actual willingness to make things better for one another, and you can both then focus on the real issue at hand: That your children are most likely trying to kill you.
In all seriousness, you need each other. Have each other’s backs, and don’t be afraid to talk.
That’s going to be the strongest weapon you have.