“We’re Constantly at War Over Chores”
He’s a neat freak; she’s, well, not. And for Sally Cumberland and Paul Schmidt, arguing over housework has become a chore in itself.
By Lambeth Hochwald
Although Sally Cumberland and Paul Schmidt aren’t exactly Oscar and Felix from The Odd Couple, they come close. Sally, 40, a stay-at-home mom and part-time college student, considers housework to be a necessary evil, while Paul, also 40, a budget analyst for the Air Force, is a self-proclaimed stickler when it comes to all domestic tasks.
Throughout the Dayton, OH, couple’s decade-long marriage, the art of Swiffering has been a subject of many discussions — and plenty of fights. And with two rowdy sons, Cameron, 8, and Griffin, 3, keeping the house tidy proves to be a challenge.
“I do all the heavier cleaning, including the dusting, the bathrooms, and floors, but Paul is forever in an agitated state about something I’m not doing correctly,” says Sally. “If my nightly water glass remains on the bedside table until 9 a.m. the next morning, he’ll think I’m taking him for granted and that I expect him to move it. To Paul, it’s an act of disrespect. To me, it’s just that I haven’t noticed it was there.” Paul agrees that he tends to take household disorder personally. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ll reach into a cookie box only to find an empty box with no more cookies left,” he says. “I interpret this as not being thoughtful to the other people in the house.”
“Sally and Paul are never going to change their fundamental philosophies about housekeeping, but they definitely need to rethink how they talk to each other about chores,” says Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., a REDBOOK Love Network expert and the author of Money, Sex, and Kids. “Every fight they have says, ‘We can’t work together’ and ‘I want to be right more than I want to love you.’ Learning to work together — and appreciate their differences — will give them the happy marriage and family life they want.”
Hot Button: “We have completely opposite approaches to housework.”
Sally: “I really dread cleaning. When Paul is away on business, the house gets messy pretty quickly. And when he isn’t out of town, I’m known for doing a quick pickup of the day’s mess at 4:45 p.m., right before he gets home. If I find a cleaning shortcut, such as using the Swiffer WetJet or that thing you hang in your shower that shoots out cleaner, Paul attacks it and compares me to his mother, who, at 80, still pulls the oven out from the wall as part of her cleaning routine.”
Paul: “I admit I like to do things in a complete way. For example, when I run the dishwasher, I’m inclined to wash the dishes with soap before loading them. Sally will put dirty plates in without rinsing them. We have an ongoing debate over whether the dishwasher actually cleans plates that aren’t rinsed.”
Sally: “Paul nags me for hanging coats on chairs, putting my purse on the kitchen counter, keeping wet socks lying on the floor by the front door — and we still can’t talk about a peach pit that was once left on the coffee table without arguing.”
Paul: “I try to be as efficient as possible with my time. I like things to be organized, and I put things, like keys, wallets, and cell phones, in the same place so I don’t have to spend time looking for them. I create staging areas where I can go to grab something quickly and be on my way.”
Expert Advice: Sally and Paul talk a lot about their housekeeping conflicts, but they’ve stopped listening to each other about their expectations when it comes to chores. To suss out what’s truly bothering each other, they have to get specific, Tessina says. “Sally and Paul should sort out what’s really upsetting them and what things aren’t so terrible.” For example, Paul needs to stop being explosive and dramatic and simply say, “Let’s put the kids’ toys in this part of the den but leave the living room looking really good so we know there’s one room that’s tidy.”
Approaching housework as co-executives running a company will also help end the bickering. “Sally and Paul have to sit down after the kids are put to bed and talk about what needs to get done,” Tessina explains. “For example, Paul should say, ‘Let’s create a solution about the pileup of newspapers in the front hall,’ and Sally needs to add, ‘I need you to appreciate all the things I did while you were at work instead of needling me for the things I didn’t do.’ This will ultimately take the criticism and accusations away and replace on-the-spot reactive fighting with a calm conversation.”
Hot Button: “Neither one of us feels appreciated.”
Sally: “When I do a chore, Paul is usually negative about how I do it. In the time Paul would take to select the proper cleanser and sponge assortment for one job — which would eventually be done perfectly, to his credit — I can make the entire house look great, so I often avoid asking for his help. When I wash the floors, I don’t usually wash the baseboards or even move the chairs to get under them. If Paul washed the floor, he’d get rags out and wash the baseboards every week. I don’t want a simple task to turn into a production. I want him to stay out of it and appreciate what I do, and that’s it.”
Paul: “I want to feel appreciated for all I do to keep the house orderly. All the things I do are pretty invisible unless they’re not being done. Case in point: I harp on Sally about hanging up coats and not hanging them on chairs. She doesn’t notice when I’m hanging them up, but then one day a coat and purse were left hanging on a chair, which made it tippy and easy for our 3-year-old to pull the chair over. Nothing happened, but it did get everyone’s attention, and the stuff was promptly put away.”
Sally: “Well, I hate that I get this constant sense of disappointment from Paul, like I’m a big failure. There’s a lot that I’m doing right!”
Paul: “It’s not that Sally’s doing everything wrong. Everyone knows that it’s not life or death if the toilet paper roll isn’t changed, but when she doesn’t do it, I feel like she doesn’t acknowledge my presence.”
Expert Advice: “Sally isn’t necessarily upset that Paul has definite views of how he wants the house to be kept,” Tessina says. “Rather, it’s the way he speaks to her about it. Sally thinks Paul is going to yell at her, and Paul thinks that if he doesn’t tell her what needs to be done, it won’t get done.” To fix this, they need to find the things that are great in what the other did. “Thanking each other for the things they do is the WD-40 of any relationship,” says Tessina. “It will make things run much more smoothly.”
For example, Paul can say, ‘The kitchen looks wonderful’; Sally can say a thank-you and mention that she plans to get to the bedroom the next day. Once they begin to acknowledge each other’s contributions, the couple can delve into the deeper message behind the mess. “A small thing like not changing the toilet paper is symbolic,” says Tessina. “For Paul, it feels drastic; it feels like Sally doesn’t care about him. For Sally, as long as there’s toilet paper, it doesn’t matter. They need to accept each other’s point of view, even in areas where they’ll never exactly agree.”
Hot Button: “The problem gets blown out of proportion.”
Sally: “When the house is messy, Paul will raise his voice or act defeated. He’ll suggest that we have a terrible marriage because we don’t connect on these matters. Then I respond to him by being sarcastic or snide, which makes things get worse.”
Paul: “Sometimes I just blurt out a criticism without thinking it through. I tend to overplay things and act disappointed or think we’re really not in sync. I worry that Sally and I are so far apart on how we run the house that we’re actually incompatible. I know saying things like that isn’t helpful when we’re in the heat of an argument.”
Sally: “It’s the blanket statements that come out when he’s upset that truly bother me. That’s when I can’t even hear what he’s talking about.”
Paul: “Sometimes it’s really hard balancing being friends, taking care of a home, and reconciling the two.”
Expert Advice: “Fighting about little things — and chores are ultimately ‘little things’ — is stealing the energy that Sally and Paul could be using for having fun times together,” Tessina says. “You can be good friends and have a good time and still get the work done.” Tessina points out that Paul’s explosiveness and exaggeration are what makes Sally feel that she’s being taken for granted; she might have made all the meals, cleaned the floors, and played with the kids, but none of it counts except for some household chore she didn’t do.
So the next time Paul comments that a household task didn’t get done as expected, Sally can get playful and say something like, “The laundry fairy wasn’t able to make it today.” “That small, light statement can do wonders to cut the tension — so long as she isn’t sarcastic when she says it,” says Tessina. Doing all this will decrease the conflict between them and put the emphasis back on acting loving toward each other. Sally and Paul will never quite see eye-to-eye about housework, but if they can learn to respect each other’s perspective, their marriage — and their house — will keep running smoothly for years to come.
The Couple’s Reaction:
Sally: “I feel relieved. We’ve always been too busy to talk to an expert, but it’s nice to hear a third party tell us that our issues aren’t so unusual. The one thing I want to start doing right away is to skip the sarcasm. I usually shut Paul out when it’s chore time, but I need to invite him to help without getting annoyed at how intense he is about housekeeping. I’m used to getting defensive, and I snap into that mode far too quickly.”
Paul: “I think I get down in the dumps too easily thinking that Sally and I aren’t a good team. But by talking through this and stepping back, I can see we really are a good team. It’s important for me to remember that she may not focus on housekeeping, but she’s such an involved, engaged mother, and that’s so much more important. I needed to be reminded that opposites do attract and that we’re a much better team than I gave us credit for.”
The Update: “Since we talked to Tina, we are proud to report that we’re trying to incorporate humor and respect into how we talk to each other about household duty differences. I can’t even recall a recent argument concerning chore wars. We’re working from Tina’s suggestion list, which is posted on our refrigerator. We have even held a couple of brief “meetings” to talk out some business of the marriage, as Tina suggested.
“We’re each making changes the other can see. For instance, I am trying to be aware of how words come out of my mouth. What I say always feels lighthearted, but I’m realizing that it might not be taken that way all the time by Paul. Cutting down on the sarcasm has only helped our communication. On the flip side, I noticed something Paul did the other day that would be a good example of turning Tina’s advice into practice. He saw an odd-shaped article I had put in the dishwasher and doubted that it could emerge clean from the cycle.
“Usually, Paul would yank the item and hand wash it while scolding me for putting it in there in the first place. This would create tension, guilt, and bad feelings on my part. This time he bit his tongue, and instead bet me $10 on whether it would come out clean. Instead of just shooting me down, he validated my decision to put it in there. He was even a little bit funny and I appreciated his efforts.
“While I don’t know if we’ll ever joke about cleaning ‘fairies’ as was Tina’s own personal example, we were able to take things from her suggestions and make them our own. We will keep working at it and keep trying to remember that if we embrace our differences instead of butting up against them, we can get so much more out of our marriage.”
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