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Q: My husband and I don't see eye-to-eye on household chores. I have a bit of help from my children, but while I would love for him to help me with the yard work and laundry and dishes, he feels his role as a husband is to provide while mine as a wife is to maintain the house. I don't think that's the way it's supposed to work, but how do I talk to him about it in a way he will understand?
A: Thank you so much for writing in about this. I’ll be blunt: your husband doesn’t have a leg to stand on if he’s trying to enforce this system without your consent.
Now, I’m not saying that a system where the man exclusively provides for the family and the woman exclusively runs the home can’t work. What I am saying is that it should be a system you decide on together. Also, if your husband thinks the gospel supports his position, he’s got another thing coming.
First things first. The Family: A Proclamation to the World reveals that “by divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” Please note that “nurturing” means “training or upbringing.”
Notice that neither role description says anything about housework. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. I’m reminded of a brilliant scene from the film Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration, in which Brother Joseph counsels a man with an attitude similar to that of your husband. Please take 90 seconds to watch and enjoy.
But, some might ask, isn’t housework an implied duty of the mother? Isn’t that part of nurturing the children? Perhaps, though not definitively. Even in that case, the family proclamation makes it all very plain in the next line. “In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners” (emphasis added).
I’ve heard it explained this way: “The man’s primary role is the woman’s secondary role. The woman’s primary role is the man’s secondary role.” Men are to preside, provide, and protect. Women are to help them. Women are to nurture their children. Men are to help them. Even assuming that housework is part of the woman’s primary role, there’s no justification for arbitrarily dropping it all in her lap.
When it comes to these principles from the family proclamation, I am reminded of a great teaching by President Boyd K. Packer: “A principle is an enduring truth, a law, a rule you can adopt to guide you in making decisions. Generally, principles are not spelled out in detail. That leaves you free to find your way with an enduring truth, a principle, as your anchor” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1996, 22; or Ensign, May 1996, 17).
Taking the family proclamation as a guide, couples can follow correct principles but are free to apply them in the way they best see fit. This includes finding the balance between providing and nurturing. How each partner supports the another and fills these roles will vary from home to home, family to family, and couple to couple.
The teaching certainly also applies to housework. Every couple is to find their own balance in household chores. Boyd K. Packer, in his book Things of the Soul, effectively puts the matter to bed: “There is no task, however menial, connected with the care of babies, the nurturing of children, or with the maintenance of the home that is not his [the husband’s] equal obligation.”
In my professional opinion, a system where the husband goes to work then comes home and doesn’t lift a finger is on the extreme side. Now, if that system is something to which both spouses agree and for whom it works, then that’s fine. That said, any system which is imposed by either spouse upon the other represents a relationship that is a dictatorship, not a partnership.
Couples are to counsel together to create systems that work best for their marriage and their family. If one spouse feels used, unequally yoked, or dictated to, then the marriage isn’t working and needs correction and guidance in order to function and thrive as Heavenly Father intended. Priesthood holders in particular are warned that their authority will be null and void if they attempt to “exercise control or dominion or compulsion” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:37). Of course, women who behave similarly to their husbands are also acting unrighteously, disrespectfully, and ineffectively.
Elder H. Burke Peterson taught that “sometimes a husband may believe that his role as head of the house gives him a right to be exacting and to arbitrarily prescribe what his wife should do. But in a home established on a righteous foundation, the relationship of a man and a woman should be one of partnership. A husband should not make decrees. Rather, he should work with his wife until a joint decision palatable to both is developed.”
Elder Peterson further warned that “a husband who is critical of his wife and communicates censure for what hasn’t been done rather than thanks for what has been done fosters discouragement. But if he will give a word of praise or offer a little help, he will see his wife try ever harder to do her part. Criticism has a negative influence on the feelings of love for and interest in one’s spouse. Women need love, affection, and emotional support from their husbands” (Unrighteous Dominion, July 1989 Ensign).
I should add, not to boast but to witness, Elder Peterson was my grandfather. He practiced what he preached. I got a very close look at his marriage for over 30 years of my life until he and my grandmother passed away. I’ve yet to see a happier relationship. My parents were right there with them in terms of happiness, and they lived by the same principles.
So how do you approach your husband with this? As noted by Elder Peterson, when spouses are critical of one another it has a negative influence on feelings of love and interest between them. It fosters discouragement. You’ve felt this whenever your husband is critical and censuring of you. It would do no good for you to follow his example and be critical and censuring of him in return. To do so would merely be to throw gas on the fire.
No, the real trick, as Brene Brown so often emphasizes, is vulnerability. Tell your husband that you appreciate how hard he works for the family. Note that you work hard for the family too, and while it’s possible that he appreciates you in his own mind, you don’t feel appreciated. You feel dictated to. You feel controlled. You don’t feel like you’re his equal partner. And you believe better of him. You believe that that’s not what he’s going for, that it’s not what he’s trying to do, and that he’s not that kind of man. Tell him you’d like to decide together on a system that works for everyone.
The key, I’ve found, is to avoid telling people that what they’re doing is wrong. People get defensive and argue when they’re told that they are wrong. This is because everyone’s behavior and perspective makes sense to them. It’s right in their own mind and their intentions are often good.
Instead, ask the question “Is it working?” More people are willing to acknowledge that something isn’t working than to agree that it was categorically wrong.
Ask your husband “Is this working?” Lay it out for him. Follow up with something like: “A system where you come home and your workday is over while my workday continues long after is leading to you resenting me for not being able to do it all and me resenting you for not helping me get it all done. Because of that, we’re drifting apart. I don’t want that. I miss feeling close to you. I need you to do more at home. I can’t do it all myself, not even with the children’s ‘help.’ If all the housework and yardwork needs to be done, then the only solution I see is for us to do it together. I’m moving from the time I get up until the time I go to sleep. I’m not eating bon-bons and watching soap operas here. If we all work until it’s done every day, we can have more time for each other. I miss that. I miss you. I miss feeling supported. I miss desiring you when I did feel supported. I miss feeling like we’re a team. I want to get that back. And I have to believe you miss all that, too. I know that together we can find a system that works.”
In many cases, conversations like this have incredible results. Be willing to listen to your husband’s perspective and what he needs from you as well. However, if you prayerfully have a similar conversation and it doesn’t yield the results you hoped for, it may be time to consider professional support from a therapist who specializes in couples’ work and conflict resolution.
God bless you. I hope this helps.
For more on this subject, I recommend:
“Equal Partnership in Marriage,” Valerie H. Hudson, April 2013 Ensign.
“Unrighteous Dominion,” Elder H. Burke Peterson, July 1989 Ensign.
“The Women in Our Lives,” President Gordon B. Hinckley, October 2004 general conference.