Where Logic Meets Love

Balancing Companionship and Autonomy (or Why I Don't Tell My Husband How to Do the Dishes)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

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Balancing Companionship and Autonomy (or Why I Don't Tell My Husband How to Do the Dishes) | Faith Permeating Life
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?


  1. While I agree with what you've said, there is also the possibility that one partner does not pull his/her weight in the family, such that it's not a matter of whether things are being done YOUR WAY but whether they are being done AT ALL. In that case, the succinct statement for the other partner is, "You can either wait an unpredictable amount of time to have things done for you, or you can do everything yourself." It isn't fair, but it does happen, sometimes in relationships that are fabulous in many other ways. :-(

    As you may already have guessed, I'm the diligent one in my house, and it's wearing on me at the moment! The things he DOES do as promised, like taking out the trash, I rarely criticize the WAY he does them. For the most part, it's "our way"; we agree on what is supposed to be done and how often and which one of us is supposed to do it. The hitch is when he skips a task for months, or he starts it by spreading things all over the floor and then goes on to something else, leaving piles in my way, and takes days or weeks to finish it.

    We're having another conference on this subject tonight. Wish me luck!

  2. @'Becca
    Believe me, I hear you! That's why my intention for Lent is to stop nagging but also to give Mike clear deadlines for things so we're on the same page. We were laughing about this with one of his friends the other weekend, that both of them (Mike and his friend) said they know they need to do things that their partners ask them to, but when they're not given a deadline they just kind of figure, well, it'll get done...eventually...in the future... and that not doing it doesn't mean they don't intend to do it, just not now. Or anytime in the immediate future.

    So that's definitely still a struggle in our household. This post was mostly meant to remind me that the things that Mike does do for me, on a regular basis, I should just accept as they are and be grateful I don't have to do them :)

    Thanks as always for helping me clarify my thoughts, and good luck with getting things back on track in your household!

  3. This is very interesting and thought provoking, as just yesterday I was having a grumble at my husband for helping me cook! Generally our agreement is I cook and he washes up, and he actually asked to come help me cook. So instead of being grateful I got annoyed when he didn't do things the way I thought they should be done. Thanks for a good reminder that I should just let some things go if I don't want to do everything myself! Those books you mentioned sound interesting too - may have to check them out :)

  4. @Lozzz123
    I'm glad it resonated with you! It's something I still struggle to keep in mind. And I definitely recommend both of those books--they're great!


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