One of the couple has been out all day: they’ve been to three meetings, grappled with a failing supplier, cleared up (hopefully) a misconception about tax rebates and sought to bring the new CEO on side with a scheme for a client conference that could have great consequences in Q3 (or could be a bit of a mess). They stood in the aisles of a crowded commuter train for an hour each way and then fought the local traffic back from the station. They were thinking about how great it would be finally to get home, pour a glass of wine, read the children a chapter of The Famous Five, kiss them goodnight, and sit down for a civilised meal and conversation with their most sympathetic ally, their spouse. They are currently, at the end of their tether and inclined to feel (justifiably) sorry for themselves.
The other member of the couple has been at home all day: once the children had been delivered to school (there was a bad fight in the car), they put away breakfast, made the beds, cleaned two bathrooms, vacuumed the house and sorted out the summer clothes. They organised for a plumber to come and look at the taps in the bathroom; they picked up the dry cleaning. They took a chair to be reupholstered, arranged a dental check up, did some food shopping, collected the children, prepared and gave them a (healthy) snack, cajoled them into doing their homework, prepared supper for them, ran them a bath and tidied a set of ink stains off the living room floor. Now they are thinking about how great it would be finally for their partner to come home and take over, so they can pour a glass of wine, read the children a chapter of The Famous Five, kiss them goodnight, and sit down for a civilised meal and conversation with their most sympathetic ally, their spouse. They are currently, at the end of their tether and inclined to feel (justifiably) sorry for themselves.
The result will be, predictably, an argument, or at least frayed tempers.
Across the developed world, an outbreak of Resentment has broken out among couples.
It’s a dominant feature of working couples with children in the modern age. They resent one another and feel aggrieved in themselves. Both parties are flat out all day; both are working incredibly hard at various things. But, crucially, neither feels particularly grateful for what the other does. The dominant emotion is resentment. It goes like this:
One party feels:
I earn most of the money and yet it’s seen as if I’m out having fun in the big wide world, being creative and fulfilled all the time, pursuing what seems to my partner to be a rather selfish ambition. In fact, my job is deeply stressful and only intermittently satisfying, it makes me very anxious and leaves me exhausted. My mind is on it all the time. If I slip up, it would be a disaster. When I get home, I really need to wind down. I just can’t be expected to take out the rubbish, iron the children’s pyjamas and be endlessly patient with them (and remember the names of all their teachers). In any case, I do my bit. I take them swimming on Saturday morning; I load the dishwasher after dinner. I’m more than helping out. Why don’t they stop going on at me and start appreciating the fact that I’m already contributing as much as I can? I’m furious.
And the other party feels:
I am at home most of the day, and yet it’s seen as if I might be just relaxing, ‘not working’. Because I’m not bringing in the bulk of the money, it’s as if what I work at doesn’t count. When people ask what I do in my life, I often reply ‘nothing’. My work doesn’t seem to count at all. I feel my partner and the world at large just assume everything gets done by magic or even that I’m the ‘lucky’ one who gets to stay at home. But home is constant labour. Our family wouldn’t last five minutes unless I was at the wheel all day every day. And then when my partner does get home, finally (I feel they might often linger), I’m exhausted but they simply won’t recognise this; I’m desperate for a break, but they go on as if they are the only one in the world who could possibly be worn out – and they refuse to engage with the sort of domestic work that they should be doing 50% of, or at least some of! They just don’t appreciate me and what I do – and I’m furious.
Where has this outbreak of Resentment come from?
To every couple, the resentment feels intensely personal. It is as though their spouse in particular is unreasonable, selfish, obtuse, ungrateful and mean. It’s a special and lamentable failing on the part of the person they were foolish enough to fall for.
In fact, the conflict is a general one. It has nothing to do with this or that person in the couple, though this is where the pain is registered. It is the consequence of an idea.
The idea was a deeply well-meaning and progressive one, which took hold in the mid-20th century and is now an almost universal law: the idea of equality in marriage.
The law states that: in a good, progressive relationship, tasks must be shared 50/50. This means that you both have to earn money (because this is, aside from a practical necessity, the sole route to freedom and fulfilment) and both of you have to take care of the housework and kids (because that’s a chore that it would be deeply unfair if one person had the sole or dominant share of).
The law states that a good couple divides each task down the middle. Equal time on child care. Equal time preparing meals. Equal time on domestic administration. Equal time earning money. Equal time off.
Though the law is nowhere enshrined in statute, it exists out there in the ether, as powerful and as normative as any real law could ever be, defining what is a good and a bad relationship, where a person deserves to be happy and where it is right to be resentful.
The idea of equality was designed to attack an unpardonable problem: that women were for centuries legally and practically denied the opportunity that men had to fulfil themselves through work outside the home and earn money and were forced instead to devote their lives solely to housework and childcare, which may not have suited them at all. Women were told that housework was an ideal target for their talents and paid work was ‘not for them’.
Yet many women found housework neither suited them temperamentally nor engaged with their real strengths or abilities. And it was to correct this wasteful and deeply frustrating system that the ideal of equality took hold.
In the process of getting the ideal to function, two shifts had to occur:
1. A downgrading of domestic work: it had to be pointed out that looking after children and a home was not some blissful vocation. It could be a restriction on life’s real opportunities and wasn’t going to be able to offer a person a sufficient outlet for their talents.
2. An upgrading of paid work: it had to be pointed out that paid work wasn’t just a chore, it was a route to fulfilment and self-creation, and that everyone should have a chance to sample it. Making money, probably in an office, became the essential prestigious activity across the developed world. In the process, work became seen as something one did for oneself, almost as a kind of pleasure, not a particular sacrifice.
Though this was evidently not the intention, the ideal has opened up vast new areas for resentment. It is causing us real difficulties.
It is in practice very hard for everything to be split exactly 50/50. Someone is likely to be earning more money; someone is likely to be doing more of the housework – either by choice or by necessity.
And it is this unequal distribution (against an ideal of equality) that is causing couples across the developed world immense problems.
The person who is doing a bit or a lot more of the housework will feel unfulfilled because they are implicitly told by society that they are spending their time on something low-grade and demeaning. They know they will always be seen by society as second-class citizens, people who do not properly participate in, and contribute to, the adult world. They will not be encouraged to feel especially grateful to their partner for going out to work for money, because (so the story goes) paid work is a route to fulfilment and self-creation, something so wonderful it is close to a selfish activity, for which there is no need to say thank you. Therefore, far from gratitude, the person at home will have deep fears around any signs that their partner, when they return from having fun, is not doing ‘a fair share’ of the domestic chores – and they may resort to low-level criticism (and/or withholding sex) in an attempt to enforce the ideal of equality. Were it to come (which it usually won’t anyway), they probably won’t be interested in the partner’s praise because, according to the norms they have internalised, it’s demeaning to praise someone for doing a low status task. The person at home isn’t allowed, in themselves, to feel proud of having the curtains cleaned, baking bread or replacing the batteries for the smoke alarm. And they will feel awkward about expressing gratitude to their partner for going out into the world and making money. Because the aim is to be equal, the office-bound partner doesn’t deserve praise until they have emptied the rubbish bins and scoured the bath.
The person who is doing a bit or a lot more of the earning will feel similarly resentful. The money-earner is not, nowadays, encouraged to feel proud of what they do within the context of the couple; they sense that their partner does not especially respect their stressful and intense efforts to bring in money. Their work is just regarded as prestigious and deeply enjoyable for them. However, it often isn’t. They suffer too – and so will resent being treated as if they made no or just a negligible contribution to family life, when they feel they are making the whole thing possible in the first place and suffering rather a lot in the process. But at the same time, they will fear emphasising their gratitude to their partner for their focus on domestic tasks, for this may appear patronising and ‘old-fashioned’, as if they are telling a subordinate class that they are ‘doing great’ in order to keep them in their place, lyricising a task they have no intention of doing as a way of maintaining power relations.
At the core of the problem is that domestic work has been undervalued and paid work has been overvalued – or at least misinterpreted.
Making and maintaining a home and bringing up children are amongst the more serious, important and demanding of human achievements. They are certainly not for everyone but they answer to vital needs in human nature. Those who do it deserve honour and prestige.
At the same time, though paid work can be wonderful, it frequently isn’t; and those who do it deserve a lot of sympathy and care. Most of us do it simply because we have to in order to survive and it doesn’t especially fulfil our souls. It is ironic – to put it gently – that being paid to take a photograph of an attractive kitchen for an interiors magazine, is regarded as a prestigious occupation (a dream job), while running an attractive kitchen in your own home is regarded as insignificant (just a ‘stay at home’); or that being the in-house legal-counsel for a firm that makes domestic appliances is thought a great career; yet using the appliances to clean and cook is regarded as not having a career at all.
We need to equalise prestige and also equalise gratitude. One of the pair isn’t necessarily taking the easy option, the other the humiliating option. Paid-work can be awful and unliberating, housework freeing and ennobling – and vice-versa. So both deserve respect, both deserve sympathy.
Having equalised the prestige and sympathy owed to each, we then need to move away from insisting that ideally everyone should be doing exactly the same amount of exactly the same thing within a couple (50% housework [chore] & 50% money-work [glorious]). We should divide things far more creatively, in a way that is responsive to individual nature. One person might be doing 75% of the housework and only 25% of the money-work, the other 75% of the money-work and only 25% of the housework and yet both parties could happily honour each other’s contribution to the overall goal: the success of the couple and its offspring.
We should move away from an obsession with brute equality towards an idea of complementarity. People don’t have to do exactly the same things in order to make an equal contribution to a collective ambition. Part of this means recalibrating prestige: going from a concern with an equality of task to an equality of the prestige of tasks. Housework & paid-work both have pleasures, both have pains: both deserve respect and gratitude. The choice of who does what should not be determined by gender, neither for men nor for women, and it should never be automatic or imposed, rather agreed upon as a result of careful examination of aptitude, interest and opportunity.
The couple are a team.
Football provides a crucial analogy for role equality.
Analogies with teams can be helpful. All positions in a football team are equally important and therefore equally prestigious.
The goalkeeper is not less of a player than the centre-forward. The fact that a defender is unlikely to score goals doesn’t mean that they are free-loading. Everyone can be grateful to everyone else – and will understand their respective challenges and difficulties.
To continue the analogy with football, what’s happened in relationships is as though, for generations, being a goalie was thought the worst job of all. Certain people – defined by some arbitrary mark (like gender) – were over hundreds of years brutally required to be goalkeepers and it was seriously frowned upon for them to try to be – or even wish to be – anything else. This repressive tradition was rightly cast aside but it left a nasty hang-over: it looked as if being a goalkeeper was a terrible role in football that no one would ever try to do for too long and that one therefore had to share absolutely equally, among unwilling participants, 8.1 minutes per person, during every match. People who in their heart of hearts wanted to be goalies would always feel uncomfortable and fear they were being looked down on by others and resent the supposedly more glamorous careers of those in other positions – while those in other positions would resist praising the goalies too much, for fear of seeming patronising.
None of this happens in football because here we have a much clearer sense that we’re talking about a team. The complementarity of roles is well understood. The strength and success of the team depends on people specialising in different roles. It would be a disaster if everyone had to do everything. When people specialise, everyone can feel proud of what they do and grateful to the others for their help.
What needs to happen
Each person in a couple doesn’t have to do exactly half of every job in order to earn the right to think well of themselves. They need to contribute half of the overall effort; but that doesn’t necessarily mean doing half of the same task.
Modern life has undermined our capacity to feel grateful and stoked resentment. We don’t feel grateful towards those who do money-work (because it’s meant to be fun), and we can’t properly feel grateful to those who do housework (because it’s secretly a bit pitiful and sad). Only 50/50 is fair and because it is so rare (and in practice almost impossible), almost everyone feels resentful some of the time.
We should upgrade our norms and ideals. Fifty-fifty equality of occupation was never the true goal. It was simply a very good way of moving on from past injustice towards the legitimate aim: dignity for all and freedom of choice around what position to adopt in the team. What we truly want is for people to be able to focus on the things that they’re good at and might want to specialise in. And then we want people to collaborate in ways that allow them to achieve much more in partnership than they could on their own.
The roles can never again automatically be defined by gender. Any one should be allowed to stay home and work – or go out to the office and work. And we should no longer be alarmed if a man or a woman freely chooses a role for themselves that was traditionally assigned to them without much discussion on the matter on the basis of gender alone.
The ambition in relationship life is not that we should live out some abstract theoretical ideal of equality, but that we should recognise that we are a team, which means focus on what makes most sense for us to do – and to say a huge thank you to the other person for their equally large, but very different and complementary efforts on another part of the pitch.