I recently picked up a book by one of my favorite couples’ therapists, Gary Chapman, author of the 5 Love Languages, called “Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married.” It has provided several great insights that I think are appropriate for couples at all stages, whether dating, engaged or already married. I found it so helpful that I have decided to give a copy to all of my clients as a supportive reference for their relationship journey.
One of my favorite sections is titled “I Wish I Had Known….That Toilets are not Self-Cleaning.” The chapter discusses something that couples often run into when they move in together: who does what when it comes to household responsibilities? Most couples are so excited about the prospect of living together and moving forward in their relationship that they fail to consider this seemingly small, but very important, question.
What happens if you move in and find your partner is a total slob? He leaves his laundry all over the floor, refuses to clean the bathroom, and doesn’t put his dishes in the dishwasher. She leaves her makeup cluttered all over the bathroom vanity, doesn’t know how to start a lawn mower, and has never made the bed before. These may seem like unimportant things when you are in the throws of romantic love, when your partner can do no wrong. But once you share space, the “oh that’s so cute, he leaves his socks on the floor” sentiment may turn into “I am going to scream if he leaves one more pair of socks on the floor.” What are your expectations of roles and responsibilities once you live together? Have you shared those expectations with each other? How did your parents share those responsibilities? What do you like to do around the house and what are you good at? These are conversations that are useful to have with your partner before you decide to take the cohabitation plunge.
In “Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married,” Gary Chapman shares a great exercise that I strongly recommend to anyone considering living together. It helps set expectations, gives you a road map for how to address roles and responsibilities and, if followed, will set you up for relationship success. I will share it here.
- Make a list of all the things that come to mind that need to be done in order to maintain a household, such as who will purchase and prepare food, vacuum the floors, clean the bathroom, feed the animals, etc.
- Ask your partner to do the same thing.
- Sit down together with both of your lists and create a master list that includes everything you both listed.
- Make two copies of the list and, individually, go through the list and put your initials next to the items that you enjoy, are good at, or you want to be responsible for.
- If you think it will be a shared responsibility, put both of your initials but underline the one you think will have the primary responsibility.
- Set aside a time for you both to meet, uninterrupted and without phones or other distractions, to discuss your lists, what you have agreed or disagreed on, and who will have the primary responsibility for each item.
- Where you have disagreements, negotiate. Share with each other the reasons for the choices you made, and see if you can come to some sort of compromise and make an agreement on who will accept that responsibility (as the author says “if you can’t agree before marriage, what makes you think you will agree after marriage?”).
Keep in mind, you are not locked into these role and responsibilities for the rest of your life. You may find, as you go along, that you actually enjoy cleaning the toilet when you initially thought you would hate it. Be flexible and fluid, and revisit the responsibilities whenever needed. Create a game out of it. Hang your lists on the refrigerator and whoever completes their tasks first gets some sort of prize. Have fun with it because, let’s face it, “adulting” is not always fun, but if you can enter your engagement or marriage with a better understanding of your expectations, it may save you from needless conflicts later and create a much more harmonious relationship.