Balancing Companionship and Autonomy (or Why I Don't Tell My Husband How to Do the Dishes)
Sunday, March 27, 2011Tweet
Mike left on Thursday to go out of town for a few days, which always means some changes to my routine. (I am proud to say that, thanks to Mike's lunch map, I managed to pack myself a complete lunch twice this week!) While I was contemplating these slight adjustments to things, I hit upon a simple truth -- not a new truth by any means, something I've heard explained many times before, just not in such a succinct way:
In marriage, you can either have things done for you, or you can have them done your way.
That, right there, is the balance of companionship and autonomy.
For example, Thursday and Friday when I got home from work, I hung up my coat and purses, sorted the mail, then put away the dry dishes and washed out my lunch containers. After eating dinner, I washed my dinner dishes and put them in the drying rack next to my lunch dishes. I loved seeing a clean kitchen counter when I went in there later to refill my water bottle. Mike will usually leave the dishes until after I go to bed, and sometimes until the next morning (which I hate because I like to get my breakfast ready on a clear counter). But as much as part of my brain wanted to say, "See how much better you do things," the other part of my brain was quick to remind me: "You never have to do dishes when Mike is here. At all."
It's probably no coincidence that I was thinking about all of this, as not only did I recently read Spousonomics, I just finished Elizabeth Gilbert's book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, in which she ponders (along with many other aspects of marriage) the notion that being married essentially means giving up some of your freedom and autonomy to live with someone who is irreversibly flawed in their own unique way, for the sake of enjoying love and companionship. She talks about how many women will inevitably try (and fail) to control every aspect of their husband's lives, even though it's impossible because there will always be a part of him that is unchangeable and separate from you. One of my favorite lines is her father's thoughts on being married to her controlling mother: "The wonder of it, he mused, is that she's much more upset about the 5 percent of his life that he won't relinquish than he is about the 95 percent that she utterly dominates."
The whole notion of "control" and "domination" may sound extreme, but it comes up again and again in the things I read about marriage, particularly in relation to household chores. One spouse -- often the wife -- wants things done a certain way. She laments that she has to do everything herself, but if the husband tries to help, he's chastised for doing it wrong. A particular "Home Improvement" episode comes to mind, in which Jill has to leave Tim in charge of the house and tries to explain her complex color-coded "sponge system" in the kitchen, then gets upset when he doesn't understand. She eventually comes to terms with the fact that as long as things get done, how they get done isn't important.
It's kind of a twist on the saying, "If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself." I would suggest that a more accurate saying would be, "If you want it done your way, you have to do it yourself." If you're going to hand it off to your spouse, then you lose the right to say how it's done. (Within reason, of course. It's still reasonable to expect that things will get done in a way that doesn't endanger anybody's health or safety -- so leaving the dishes until they grow mold is not a viable option.) If you want to enjoy the benefit of having something done for you, freeing up your own time and energy, then you sacrifice the ability to have complete control over how it's done.
I'm applying this specifically to marriage because I don't think it works the same way in other areas. For example, if you hire someone to work for you, you can maintain some control over how that work is done because that's part of the agreement of paying them to do it. But that's because you can fire an employee if they're failing to meet expectations, or re-delegate job responsibilities to another employee. In marriage, it's just the two of you, and you're not (at least I hope not) going to dump your spouse in hopes of finding one who can do the dishes more exactly to your specifications. If you don't want to do it and you want control over how it's done, then hire someone to do it for you. If instead you leave it up to your spouse, then you're getting free labor and clean dishes!
There's one caveat to this hands-off approach, in my opinion, and that's concerning the way things in your home are organized. I think you have to strike a balance between adhering too strictly to a plan for organization ("No, my toothbrush goes exactly 1.5 cm from the edge of the sink!") and actually being able to find things ("Where the heck did you put my socks this time?"). Due to our personal division of labor, Mike usually does the laundry and puts it away, so in order for me to get dressed in the morning I have to maintain some control over how the clothes -- my clothes, at least -- are put away. Mike has been a good sport about learning some things ("These are my work jeans, so they get hung up with the rest of my work pants, not shoved with my weekend jeans"), and he leaves the things for me to put away that he can't get his head around (like the mystery of my underwear drawer).
In general, though, I try to let him clean, cook, and run errands in his own way and on his own schedule, and he leaves me to file, budget, and keep track of those things that actually do have deadlines.
What do you think? How does this work in your household?