Housework is a top cause of marital tension, according to Toronto couples counsellor Karen Hirscheimer.

"They often feel silly bringing it up, but it is a big deal," Ms. Hirscheimer says. Dirty dishes or towels on the bathroom floor may spark a fight, she says, but the real issues are what those dishes and towels represent: fairness, respect and the balance of power in a relationship.

"Nobody wants to be taken advantage of or be made to feel their time is less important," Ms. Hirscheimer says.

Of course, she notes, "fair" and "equal" division of housework are not the same thing. A husband who skimps on the housework, she says, "may feel he's contributing in other ways: He's coaching the kids' sports team or putting in extra time at the office.

"I'm not siding with him," she adds hastily. "It's just a possible explanation."
Another explanation, she speculates, is that live-in boyfriends are on their best behaviour. After marriage, the housecleaning honeymoon is over.

Ms. Hirscheimer says women can't ignore their own role in the division of household labour.
"Perhaps women are doing a much better job requiring it with their boyfriends than with their husbands," she says. "There's a saying: People do what they can get away with."

Cleaning house

Dividing up housework duties is a common source of marital tension, according to couples counsellor Karen Hirscheimer. She offers some tactics for bridging the chore gap:

Schedule a time to talk. Don't negotiate who should scrub the toilet as you're running out the door or in the midst of a fight; sit down and talk calmly.

Acknowledge your own part in the current setup. Whether you like it or not, you participated.

Try to understand your partner's perspective. Maybe he grew up in a household where his mother expressed her love by picking up everyone's dirty socks. You don't have to do the same, but it helps to understand.

Make a plan, the more explicit the better. Draw up a schedule and a contract - make it clear.
Try to stick to your agreement, but cut your partner some slack if he's having a bad week.

"There is a difference between being equal and being fair." Aim for fair.

Rebecca Dube