Q&A: My husband and I are poles apart when it comes to housework

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By psychologist Angie Willcocks

Q: My husband is away a lot and expects the house as tidy as what his Mum does. She’s extreme. She does it all, and my husband expects the same. In my family, my father does most of the cooking, my mother is a bit of a hoarder and that’s all my husband sees in me – that I’m not good like his Mum and have "stuff" like my Mother. He never cooks, cleans, BBQs, mows, cleans the car, or anything except what he wants to. He’s now saying he can’t cope anymore because of me. I’ve not nagged him to help because he’s been depressed. He even said he was considering suicide because I go to TAFE and can’t keep up with housework. We have two kids and they know we are having problems but I’m feeling like giving up on our marriage. I need to know how other families divide household chores. Help!

A: Hi and thanks for your email. What you’re facing is one of those issues that many couples face in their relationship, and one that can be made worse with the FIFO lifestyle. I think there are three main issues in your email: one is about differences in how tidy you each like the house; the second is about how time is spent (and by whom); and the final one is about your husband’s depressed mood.

Many couples have disagreements about how tidy they would like the house to be. It’s not often the case that both people in a relationship have exactly the same levels of tidiness. This is one of those issues that isn’t talked about in the dating stage and yet can go on to create a lot of tension and arguments in marriage. Who does what, how tidy the house is and what sort of stuff is kept or chucked all become bigger issues once children come along, because there is so much more to do and so much more stuff.

It’s very hard for me to say how other families divide up household chores, because I think there are as many different ways as there are couples. These days there are no ‘set roles’ and couples need to negotiate with each other to find ways to make this work. This is relatively easy if you’re not too far apart in your expectations, but it’s harder to negotiate and find a compromise if you’re worlds apart. Some FIFO couples agree to outsource jobs such as cleaning and gardening, so that the time they have together can be spent in other ways. Perhaps this is something worth considering.

It does, however, sound like you and your husband have very different expectations and preferences around tidiness and household tasks. I agree with you that this probably comes from your different experiences growing up. Does your husband also see that your current difficulties arise from your differences growing up? This is an important point, because if he can understand this, he’s going to be less likely to see him as ‘right’ about this issue and you as ‘wrong’.

Coming to a shared understanding of why you two are so different in this area can help you two keep talking until you reach a compromise. I’m not saying that this is a magic answer, because there isn’t one. Finding a way to live with someone who is very different from us in this area is a major challenge of committed relationships and takes work from both people. If you’re not able to get anywhere talking about this together, then consider going along and having some relationship counselling about this issue.

Secondly, the difference in how you two like to spend time is a big one for FIFO families. Couples often find themselves disagreeing about how R&R time is spent. Have a look at my previous column on this and consider doing the exercise with your husband. Perhaps if he can see all of the areas that are important to you as a person, he will realise that having a spotless house is not such a big priority.

Finally, I’m very concerned that you say your husband is depressed and potentially suicidal. It’s really, really important that he gets some treatment for this. Considering suicide is not a normal reaction to one’s wife not keeping up with the housework or differences in tidiness.

It’s possible that your husband feels so low that the house and household tasks feel quite overwhelming to him, and that his criticism of you is a symptom of depression. Sometimes people who are depressed think excessively about one aspect of their life that is not going well, and even think that this one area is the cause of all of their distress.

Please book your husband in for an appointment with his GP and urge him to get some treatment for his depression as the first step. Visit www.beyondblue.org for more information on depression and where to get help.

I wish you all the best.

Angie

To talk with a trained volunteer telephone counsellor at any time of the day or night, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. To contact the info line at beyondblue: national depression initiative, phone 1300 22 4636.


To read other columns written by Angie Willcocks during her six years with Mining Family Matters, please click here. And remember that we offer a free email Q&A service with our psychologists, so just click here to ask a question about relationships, parenting or your career. All advice on Mining Family Matters is for general information only and should never be regarded as a substitute for professional health services or crisis services. To talk with a trained volunteer telephone counsellor at any time of the day or night, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. To contact the info line at beyondblue: national depression initiative, phone 1300 22 4636.


Angie Willcocks is a registered psychologist with a private practice in Adelaide – for details about Skype consultations please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. She’s an expert in tackling issues such as depression, anxiety, postnatal depression, child sleep routines and relationship difficulties. She has a Bachelor of Health Sciences in Psychology and a Masters of Counselling Psychology. She is also the co-author of The Sensible Sleep Solution: a guide to sleep in your baby’s first year, which can be ordered from her website www.angiewillcocks.com.