Splitting Chores 50-50 with Spouse is Recipe for Disaster

I used to have married neighbors who carefully listed all their chores and divided them as equally as possible, fifty/fifty split, even though one worked full time and the other was a stay-at-home parent. Each frequently felt they were doing more than their share, and they frequently revised those lists. Perhaps this contributed to their later divorce. There is a better way.

The authors of the book Spousonomics say “there are great rewards to be had from trading smartly and great wastes of time and energy from trying to do everything yourself, or even from splitting things in half.” Think of your marriage as a business comprising two trading partners who exchange services, for example the completion of chores, they suggest.

Co-authors Jenny Anderson and Paula Szuchman recommend using the theory of Comparative Advantage, which says it’s not efficient for you to take on every single task you’re good at, only those tasks you’re relatively better at compared with other tasks. If you think of a well-run corporation, each person within the business has a specialty. The organization works more efficiently when everyone does what they are best at, even if they are capable of doing other things.

Couples who force the fifty/fifty division of chores, without regard to what each person is best at and enjoys most, lack specialties. They also tend to argue more about who is doing what and whose turn it is to take on a certain job. Life becomes about deciding what is “fair”. Other couples miscalculate their comparative advantages, perhaps insisting that the husband always walks the dog and mows the lawn when the wife is better suited to these jobs and enjoys them more.

Modern marriage has changed roles so dramatically that every task is debatable—who will do the laundry, care for the children, pay the bills, and wash the dishes. A 2007 Pew Research Center study asked couples “What makes marriage work?” The answers were 1) faithfulness 2) sex and 3) sharing household chores.  Two years later, the Boston Consulting Group asked what couples argue most about. This time money was number one, followed by household chores. Clearly, these seemingly unimportant decisions about chores can become important issues in the marriage.

The authors provided a number of case studies to play out the problems and solutions. They used economic lessons about how countries make products they are most suited to produce and then trade then rather than each country attempting to produce all their own products. They do that based on what they are best and fastest at making, at the lowest cost.

For couples deciding how to divide the work load, determine who is best and fastest at various tasks, taking into consideration what they enjoy doing most. For example, if the woman is better and faster at tidying the house and doing the dishes, those should be her jobs. If he is better and faster at doing the laundry and mowing the yard, those should be his jobs. The couple together can save significant amounts of time by assigning the person who does the task most efficiently. This is time that would be forever lost if they focused instead on what was “most fair”. Instead, they can use this time for fun and leisure.

Long ago, I determined I was best at doing the laundry and keeping the house tidy. My husband is much better at mowing the lawn, maintaining the home and the cars. We both do the cooking. It seems we determined our comparative advantage without realizing we were doing it.

Do you and your spouse argue about doing the dishes, cooking, cleaning or laundry? Is it time to do a serious analysis of your comparative advantages? How do you divide household chores?

12 responses to “Splitting Chores 50-50 with Spouse is Recipe for Disaster

  1. …sometimes…we leave a house chore so long just to see who is going to tackle it first…other times we have paid one another to take on a chore!

    We clearly need some help!

    Interesting topics!

  2. Interesting strategies! But sounds like they aren’t working so well. 😉

  3. No…I am afraid not and clearly not much else is in the marraige!

    It was good to know that the topic of household chores was a real and sincere issue on the table for other couples. Is it not interesting how we always think it is just “us” or a “just me” thing!

    I will keep tuned for more soundly advice!

  4. I am blessed to have a husband who is a hard worker and shares chores fairly. No, we’ve never set up a list or made things 50-50; we each just do what needs to be done. Clearly, there are jobs that sort of naturally go to one or the other of us: he does the mowing and mulching, I do the flowers and landscaping; if I do the cooking, he helps clean up the dishes. It seems to work pretty well for us. But I do have to give him total props for almost always doing my ironing! (He sees how bad I am at it, and just takes over for me. God love him!)

  5. Awww. It’s a good guy who does your ironing.

  6. minnesotatransplant

    For the most part, my Beloved spouse and I play to our strengths. This week, we are staining the deck and the backyard fence. I agreed to help in this enormous task because, well, who CAN’T paint?; I cannot get out of this chore by simply relying on “well, you’re better at that.” However, I have purposely decided to be the crew on this project and let him tell what to do and how to do it because he has stained a deck before and I have not.

    Still, if there’s anything we argue about (and it isn’t much), it’s household chores. He has higher standards than I do, but I am the one who ends up cleaning the toilets and vacuuming. Sigh.

  7. Thank goodness someone has sense! My husband and I have our “talents”, as do our children, and I divide chores accordingly. I think it’s a shame that, especially men, feel less than adequate when they don’t do something around the house. I have, for the most part, been a SAHM, homeschooled and ran the house, shopping, errands, etc. Our family now has a small farm and animals, my husband and I both have FT jobs, but mine is run in the house. I still do the stuff inside, and he loves doing the stuff outside. I felt so badly for my DH on Mother’s Day, because he apologized for not doing the dishes while I was in town with the kids getting animals tagged. This wonderful man had just spent the day fencing so that our animals would have two new large pens, and moved all the feeders, housing, etc, to accommodate them! I told him he had made my whole weekend doing things that I was not very good at, I could certainly take the whole 5 minutes to wash the dishes!

  8. As long as both spouses are trying 100 %, then who needs 50/50? Of course, my Bob is great around the house…

  9. Pingback: How is Work Load Distributed between Husbands and Wives? | Marriage Gems

  10. Household chores is the reason for argument. My boyfriend does some of the chores, namely vacuum, cleaning the toilet and the shower and putting the laundry on. However, sometimes I felt like he’s a big kid. He makes his own breakfast (not for me, only for himself, he said I never like egg and bacon, he doesn’t know what I would like to eat. 😢), but he can’t cook lunch and dinner. He put clothes in the wash in machine to wash but cannot hand wash his delicate business shirts. When the time comes to lunch and dinner and shirt washing, I will hear my name being called. I feel frustrated about it as it seems like I am dating someone who used to be pamper by his mother. Sometimes when I finished work late in the evening, he will be at home waiting for me to cook dinner. I sometimes lost my temper because of this. Tired, hungry and sad but I stand in the kitchen chopping up ingredients for dinner, while he browsing through Internet and sipping his protein shakes. I am not sure what I am feeling is right. Ain’t we suppose to love our boyfriends and willing to do things for one another. I am quite confused of what I should do.

    • I can’t suggest a marriage counselor, because you aren’t even married yet you are doing all the daily work for your boyfriend. Have you tried being honest? If he is capable of cooking breakfast, he can learn to cook other meals as well.

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