How to clean up your marriage

Shared housework means fewer divorces, a study shows. So in this age of equality, why does the issue of who does what still cause so much angst?

Domestically speaking, I'm a dirty pig," admits Barney Webber, a 40-year-old film editor who lives with his partner, Katherine, in Yorkshire. "In my old flat, I once didn't Hoover for four years and I'd only change the sheets every few months. These things just don't matter to me," he says.

"But they do to Katherine, so I've tried to make an effort. I used to try to do the washing-up, but she pushes me out of the way. And if I've been what she considers to be untidy she won't say anything but follows me around picking up anything I put down, and sighing. It's her way of letting me know I've made a mess without actually saying so. Ironically, that just makes me more stubborn than if she'd been direct." The status quo, he says, makes him feel sad. "If I died tomorrow, there would be nothing in the house that showed I lived there."

On the other side of the fence, Sarah Bingham, 36, says her husband Jonathan is lazy. The couple, a policewoman and solicitor respectively, have been together six years and live in Hertfordshire. Despite Sarah's requests for more help, quite a bit of shouting and even, lately, something she'd never imagined – separate beds – Jonathan simply doesn't help enough around the house. "He does try sometimes, but doesn't bother to do it properly," she says. "Sometimes I'll let dirty dishes pile up in the hope he'll take responsibility. He doesn't."

Since Sarah's hours increased last year "it's gone from being irritating to really hurting," she says. "I come home shattered – to a pigsty. He has no respect for me." Earlier this year, she filed for divorce. Jonathan's lack of support at home, she says, was a significant contributing factor. Both scenarios are likely to ring a bell with many couples: the division of domestic labour can be a highly emotive issue, and the potential fallout – feeling undervalued, powerless, nagged, invisible – is a hotbed for some sticky relationship issues.

Although husbands across the board have reportedly almost doubled their domestic efforts since 1961, British women in couples, on average, still spend two-thirds more hours doing chores than men do. And it's taking its toll: a report published last week by the London School of Economics indicates that divorce rates are lower in families where husbands help out with the housework.

In response to similar evidence in the US, the quest for domestic equality has become something of a movement, with a spate of books, talk-show appearances and websites on the topic.

And the approach is far from man-bashing. There's Marc and Amy Vachon's Equally Shared Parenting, or ESP ("Most women naturally set the standards – the way laundry is done, which brand of ketchup to buy, and how to correctly vacuum all surfaces. This doesn't work with equal sharing: a woman's mantra must become 'I will let go.'") Or psychologist, Joshua Coleman's book The Lazy Husband: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework ("Men aren't going to be in any rush to change, because the current system works so well for them. To get your husband to do his fair share, you're going to have to lead the charge.") And, most recently, Getting to 50/50: How Working Couples Can Have It All by Sharing It All, by Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober.

All agree that male/female stereotyping is a large part of the problem – and provide strategies for getting past it. For example, ESP suggests both parties make sacrifices, whether it's stepping down the career ladder or relinquishing exclusive control over home-decor choices. Meanwhile, 50/50 advocates adaptability: "If you stop making gender-based assumptions about who will, say, do the washing," says Meers, a former Goldman Sachs executive and an evangelically happy wife and mother, "then you have to plan." She and her husband sit down once a week with the calendar to negotiate chore division. "It's about truly believing that my obligation to him and his to me is that we owe each other full lives."

It sounds assertively American, but the idea is gaining traction over here. Duncan Fisher is the British author of Baby's Here! Who Does What? (published next month). "Busy couples try to make things efficient," he says. But often that means we, as Fisher puts it, "sleepwalk" into default roles, usually determined by tradition.

"It's when things aren't discussed – where responsibility is just dumped – that resentment builds," he says. "Then the one with the most dumped on them will often try to dish out tasks." (A cartoon in his book shows a woman waiting with a long list of jobs for her husband). "If you feel like a helper, you won't take responsibility. To get things done, a person needs to own the tasks." Feeling nagged, he says, creates distance: "You would stay late at work, go on that business trip – and the dynamic builds."

A lot of us, Fisher believes, are unaware of these dynamics: "The key is to sit down and talk through who does what. Even if it's not feasible to change at that time, talking builds understanding, which makes people nicer to each other."

It worked for Heidi Scrimgeour, 33, a freelance writer from County Antrim, Northern Ireland, who's married to Matt.

"As the one working from home, I'd naturally do more chores," she says. "I'd call Matt 'half-arsed' – he'd empty the bin, but not put in a new bin-liner; mop a floor – if I asked him. And I'd hit default 'fishwife mode'. Having children, she says, was the catalyst for change as her workload multiplied. "We sat down and really talked. The big realisation? He wasn't lazy or deliberately messy: that stuff just wasn't as important to him.

Accepting that meant stepping back and seeing his perspective. Matt went into problem-solving, list-making mode; letting him take ownership worked. Now we tidy the kitchen – together – before bed, or he'll be on dinner duty if I have a deadline. It's not perfect, but we work as a team: he knows what needs doing, I try to care less about the dusting. You can choose to make life a misery by focusing on unimportant things but, really, it's only washing-up."



Some names have been changed.

Getting even

* Don't assume that your partner automatically understands what's wrong. Talking openly about what's stressing you out is the first important step.



* Accept that you may have different standards for domestic life. Both partners may need to change their expectations.



* Tackle the issue together: negotiating a new approach jointly, rather than trying to impose a set of rules, will get better results.



* Try not to take it personally: your partner isn't being messy in order to hurt you.



* Being accusatory won't not solve the problem. Calmness, kindness and trying to see each other's perspective work better.

Arts and Entertainment
books
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
people
Voices
Nigel Farage arrives for a hustings event at The Oddfellows Hall in Ramsgate on Tuesday
voicesA defection that shows who has the most to fear from the rise of Ukip
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Life and Style
Brave step: A live collection from Alexander McQueen whose internet show crashed because of high demand
fashionAs the collections start, Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Graduate C#.NET Developer (TDD, ASP.NET, SQL)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Graduate C#.NET Developer (TDD, ASP.NET, SQL) Su...

    Junior SQL DBA (SQL Server 2012, T-SQL, SSIS) London - Finance

    £30000 - £33000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior SQL DBA...

    C# Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, MVC-4, HTML5) London

    £35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Web Develop...

    Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

    £60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

    Day In a Page

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution