Sharing Responsibilities: Is There an Equitable Solution for Couples?

Sharing Responsibilities: Is There an Equitable Solution for Couples?

When we begin a new romantic relationship, the electricity, magic, and euphoria can lead us to make decisions quickly – meet the parents, move in together, get a pet, have children, buy a house, and so on. We rarely take an objective look at our partner’s personality patterns, how they manage stress, how they handle daily responsibilities, and their ability to share and negotiate. If we do, we sometimes gloss over their questionable traits thanks to the “halo effect”– a favorable overall impression causing us to believe that some things don’t really matter or that they’ll somehow get better.

Getting real

As a couple therapist, I’ve noticed that things get real when lives merge and joint responsibilities become apparent at a very mundane level. Who will:

  • Arrange for meals (whether restaurant reservations, take-out, or cooking)
  • Make social arrangements with friends and family
  • Plan weekend activities and vacations
  • Walk the dog, clean the house, pay bills, etc.

These responsibilities can break down according to traditional gender roles, although this is becoming increasingly rare. Often partners will choose tasks they’re accustomed to and like doing, while some important things fall by the wayside or are done inadequately, much to the chagrin of one or both partners. It’s rare when joint responsibilities are thoughtfully and amiably discussed, and each person upholds his or her part of the agreement. Why does such a common, simple aspect of coupled life become complicated and so often result in visits to a therapist’s office? Is it a core problem or a symptom of something more basic? Let’s look at what happens when sharing is inequitable and problems develop.

The pitfalls of inequitable sharing

Kate and Ahmed are a couple in their mid-30s who grew up in families that followed traditional gender roles: dad worked full-time as the major breadwinner, while mom was a homemaker and occasionally worked part-time. When the couple met eight years ago, they both worked at high-pressure jobs. After moving in together, they ate out, ordered take-out, and outsourced everything from housecleaning to pet walking.

After five years of marriage and two children, Kate continues to work full-time while Ahmed is a stay-at-home dad. Now there are also school meetings, play dates, aftercare, and school vacation activities to plan. Neither has much time for their own pursuits, and Ahmed is getting tired of their usual Sunday dinners with Kate’s family. He also feels resentful that Kate offers to “help,” but rarely anticipates their family’s needs or steps forward to plan with him. They’ve become distant and resentful of each other for not prioritizing their connection as a couple. Sex is infrequent and monthly date nights are mostly spent planning for the kids and often end up in an argument.

Finding a more equitable solution

Kate and Ahmed’s situation is not unusual. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons couples seek therapy. Some may view it as part of a normal stage couples go through – the “seven-year itch.” They’ve fallen into a pattern of just assuming that the other will do what’s needed without negotiating who is better to take on certain responsibilities and what help is required.

Through a series of guided communication exercises, Ahmed and Kate worked in therapy by listening to each other and understanding the impact that their current arrangement was having on them. As a homework assignment, they made a list of all the tasks that were necessary to accomplish for their family to function and what each was currently doing. The therapist then helped them negotiate what each preferred to do and was able to do. Without their lists being entirely equal, they each felt comfortable with what they had agreed to in light of their roles in the workplace and at home.

Family-of-origin cultural patterns came to light during this negotiation. Kate came from a large, tight-knit Irish-Catholic family that gathered every Sunday for dinner. During therapy, Kate was able to see that her staunch adherence to her family’s expectations was detrimental to her marriage. Kate and Ahmed reached a compromise, deciding to have dinner with her family once a month.

Sharing doesn’t have to mean everything is always shared evenly

Equitable sharing usually doesn’t mean everything is always shared evenly. A partner who works at a high-pressure job may be able to devote less time to family matters, but the other partner needs to agree that he or she is both capable and willing to carry the extra burden. In the case of a full-time graduate student, for example, a partner may shoulder much more than the student, who might be fully occupied with teaching duties and dissertation writing. But the agreement needs to be that it’s short-term, and that the balance will be more equitable in the future.

Also, culture – in its many aspects – can play a major role in couples’ decisions about what works best for them. For example, many African American, Latino/a, Native American, and Asian cultures may be either more patriarchal or matriarchal. While the actual amount of time spent on tasks may be uneven, it’s understood that either the father or mother or extended family members exert a major role in family functioning and a 75–25 percent pattern of sharing may be acceptable. On the other hand, research by the psychologist Charlotte Patterson on lesbian couples indicates that role-sharing is much closer to 50-50 than for heterosexual couples (Patterson 1995).

Making it work

From the start, sharing in coupled relationships depends on clear communication and negotiation. While these are the vehicles through which good relationships grow and develop, basic issues such as trust, acceptance of each other, and a commitment to working things out are the foundations for preventing resentment and alienation, and to establishing and maintaining the satisfying connections that couples experienced in the first days of romance.

Arcidiacono, F., & Pontecorvo, C. (2008). An exploratory study of the everyday lives of Italian families: household activities and children’s responsibilities. Cahiers de Psychologie, 43.

Klein, W. Izquierdo, C., & Bradbury, T.N. (2013) The Difference Between a Happy Marriage and Miserable One: The Atlantic, March 1, 2013.

Klein, W., Izquierdo, C., & Bradbury, T. N. (2007). Working relationships: Communicative patterns and strategies among couples in everyday life. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 4(1-2), 29-47.

Moore, MR. Gendered power relations among women: A study of household decision making in Black, lesbian stepfamilies. American Sociological Review. 2008; 73:335–356.

Parker, K, & Wang, W. (2013). Roles of Moms and Dads Converge as They Balance Work and Family. The Atlantic, March 13, 2013.

Patterson, Charlotte, 1995.  Families of the lesbian Baby Boom: Parents’ Division of Labor and Children’s Adjustment.” Developmental Psychology 31(1):115–23.


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DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. 

Dr. Terry Patterson is a licensed psychologist in San Francisco with decades of experience as a therapist, professor, and clinical trainer and supervisor. He is board-certified as a Couple & Family Psychologist and also treats depression, anxiety, and transitional issues in adults and adolescents.

By Terrence Patterson, EdD, ABPP
27 of July 2018 - 6 min read
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