The Science Of Chores And How They’re Affecting Your Relationship

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Something happens to a plate on its trip from the dining table to the sink that transforms it into an unbearably unwelcome and disgusting pest that no one wants to remove. A dish in the sink is one of the most infuriating sights, and when the dish isn’t even yours, it’s that much more maddening.

A sink full of dishes is offensive to almost every sense. It looks gross, it smells bad, and it feels terrible. Doing the dishes forces you to interact with things like curdled milk, soggy vegetables, and dried-on ranch dressing. It’s the worst, and deciding who has to be the one responsible for that mess can quickly become a point of contention for romantic partners.

And science agrees.

According to a new report from the Council of Contemporary Families, dishes are the most inconvenient and avoided chore in most households. The study investigated how doing dishes compared to other chores, such as laundry and shopping, in terms of causing conflict and relationship dissatisfaction. Researchers found that women in heterosexual relationships hated doing the dishes the most of any group. Along with leading to more conflict, these women reported being less satisfied with their relationships and their intimate lives.

Amanda Miller, PhD, one of the authors of the study, says doing the dishes may be the most hated because the cycle never ends. When you make your bed or tidy up the house, it can stay that way for relatively long periods of time. But after you do the breakfast dishes, you know you’ll have another thankless pile of work to complete in a mere matter of hours.

“It’s something that doesn’t get assigned much value in society,” she says. “It’s a never-ending, dirty, messy chore that doesn’t have a lot of reward attached to it.”

Another author of the study, Daniel Carlson, PhD, told The Atlantic that the most unpopular chores also tend to be the ones associated with women. Washing dishes, cleaning the toilet, and doing laundry are all tasks that require you to clean up after someone else in a very direct way. Chores more associated with men are typically outdoors and don’t require interaction with daily mess, for example, mowing the lawn. Being in contact with the grossest aspects of living with another person every day can understandably fuel resentment.

It’s partially about communicating.

Marriage counselor Ivana Ross says doing the dishes is the number one conflict she sees in couples therapy, with the second being general tidiness. But, she says, rarely are her clients’ problems actually about the housework.

“In very few cases is it about those chores and those errands,” she says. “In other words, they are underlining the tension or miscommunication around those chores.”

Couples who fight about seemingly petty things like dishes are actually trying to communicate their unhappiness but have trouble coming right out and saying why they are upset.

“It’s almost like a baby crying, not because they are hungry at that very moment, but because they want to be heard and they want their parents to pay attention to them.”

So, she says, the problem is rarely about dividing the housework totally evenly but instead about listening to what the other person needs and wants.

“I just had a couple in therapy last night where one of the partners liked washing the dishes, while the other liked cleaning and tidying up the space,” she says. By helping them identify what chores they each wanted to undertake, Ross opened up a tunnel of clear communication that did not result in each partner doing an equal amount of the same chores, but doing all the chores they enjoyed most. “I often encourage taking notes and putting that in writing so it’s clear and visible to both people.”

What makes romantic relationships so unique?

According to, lack of communication is one of the top reasons for divorce, along with infidelity and money. Unhealthy communication affects every aspect of a relationship, including dissatisfaction with intimacy or not sharing financial goals. Bad communication isn’t a tipping point as much as it is a motif which runs through every part of the relationship.

Romantic partnerships are also some of the most demanding relationships a person voluntarily enters. It’s different from any other relationship, such as those in the workplace or between family members where a person may feel obligated to shoulder more responsibilities or dismiss fairness.

“Perhaps why this is so impactful at home is [that] we feel we can express ourselves to our partners, which we may not be able to do with our coworkers or grandmothers,” Ross says.

And for many people, familial relations are hard, if not impossible, to exit. Your family sees you at your worst, so accepting them when they are being less than ideal is easier. Additionally, there’s not as much fear that your family won’t like you or will leave you.

In the workplace, inequity is a little easier to bear since you’re getting a paycheck at the end of the day. It’s one of the few relationships where the base value is the literal amount of money you will receive for maintaining positive relations. There is also the idea of a shared transient space. If a co-worker fills up the sink at your office, that space is not yours. You both are allowed to leave at the end of the day.

But in a romantic partnership, there is a certain amount of control that is assumed, and that applies to household chores. You pick a partner who makes you happy, and when they are actively denying your requests for help around the house, the question “What am I doing here?” arises more quickly than it would in other situations. You’re not getting paid for this, and you’re not blood-related, so why should you endure such disrespect?

Home is where the (cleaned) hearth is.

Tiara Naputi, 34, has been with her husband for over 10 years. When it comes to the division of housework, she says a sink full of dishes could annoy her, but more so, it would be indicative of a larger issue.

“The effect would probably be on my ability to rely on them and to consider our relationship relatively equitable in terms of division of house labor, which could possibly carry over into, say, other, bigger things like respect,” she says.

Christina Lacerenza, 34, says she does more dishes than her male partner, and while she gets frustrated by instances when he doesn’t follow through on his promise to do them, the problem is more about communication than dishes.

For women, doing the dishes, and housework in general, seems like a relic of a different time. As women conquer more roles in the workforce, the debate about chores seems like one that belongs in a suburban 1950s house, not a 21st-century apartment.

“What’s happened is women are entering the workforce in greater numbers, and while men are doing more than they have in the past, it’s still not enough to equal how much [paid and free] labor women are doing,” Miller says. “So it feels even worse than before.”

Man doing dishes at sink
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

According to a study by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, women today do significantly less housework than women did in the 1950s and 1960s. Between 1965 and 2010, women’s housework declined, with the most sizable shifts happening between 1965 and 1985. Predictably, men’s housework has increased, reaching an all-time high of 11 hours per week in 1998 (women’s was at 20) and then dropping to 10 in 2009.

There’s also more diversity in family structures, even among friend groups. In the past, doing dishes was still unsavory, but all women were expected to do it. If a ’50s housewife called her friend down the street, they would both have a similar to-do list. It wasn’t great, but it was the norm. Now, women can feel a sense of unfairness when it comes to chores because if they call their friend down the street and her boyfriend does the dishes all the time, they feel undervalued.

Women now have less societal pressure to conform to gender stereotypes and expect more out of their partners. And according to Rob Rutledge, PhD, author of a 2014 University College of London study on happiness, “happiness depends not on how well things are going but whether things are going better or worse than expected.” So, as women expect more, but find their expectations are not met, their dissatisfaction increases.

At its core, the problem is rarely the chores but rather communication and cooperation.

According to The Atlantic’s interview with David Caruso, founder of the Emotional Intelligence Skills Group, having emotional intelligence can require a very focused and manual observation of yourself. To effectively communicate your emotions, you first must identify them. If you’re feeling tension in your jaw or mild anxiety creeping up over you, ask yourself where that is coming from. When you or your partner fail to communicate your emotions, it leads to misunderstanding and more drawn-out conflict.

The Final Dish

It’s the feeling of cooperative effort that can spill over to other aspects of the relationship, especially, as the study from the Council of Contemporary Families indicates, the physical ones. When doing housework together, there is a sense of teamwork and good communication.

“There are movie montages where a couple is moving, helping each other in the kitchen—‘You wash and I dry,’” Miller says. “There is a sense of completing labor that could translate into the bedroom.” So if you’re not communicating or working together to do something as simple as dishes, you may not be communicating or working together to create fulfilling intimacy.

And, of course, it makes it that much worse when the thing your partner isn’t communicating about is really gross and you’re left to deal with it all by yourself. Addressing some of the the less-than-pleasant aspects of daily life together can take the edge off.

“Washing dishes, you’re still communicating in a lot of ways,” Miller says. “When you communicate in the kitchen, it could have lasting results elsewhere, as well.” Because whether it’s dishes or intimacy, it’s always better to work together.

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