As a Marriage Therapist, I listen to a lot of podcasts about relationships. I’m fascinated by what makes marriages tick, and even more so by what makes marriages fail. I’ve discovered a common theme in many disgruntled married (and often divorced) folk: “It’s Your Job, Not Mine” mentality.
After being married 15 years, Marv & Karen came into my office disheartened. Karen complained that Marv was always short tempered. Marv complained that he didn’t feel like Karen was putting in enough effort into the relationship.
Like many couples, when Marv & Karen first got married, their roles and responsibilities were loosely defined, if at all — who has time for that when going to school, working a job, and having fun?
After the baby came, they decided that Karen would be a stay-at-home mom and homemaker until the children grew up, and Marv would take over full financial responsibility for the family. Roles were more rigidly defined, and responsibilities were made clearer. Even though Marv worked full time, he took on many traditional jobs around the house such as taking out the garbage, cleaning up after dinner, and mowing the lawn, etc.
Over time, though, Marv became disillusioned with this setup, primarily because he often times found himself not only doing his job, but having to do Karen’s as well. And not because Karen was too busy — it was, well, just because. No matter how many conversations were had, nothing really changed. No matter how much extra domestic work he took on to lessen her load, the issue remained the same — even the shrunken roles in Karen’s bucket were not getting done. This frustration eventually turned into anger (internalized) which expressed itself in a short-temper. It was hard for Marv to come out and say how he really felt, so he couched his complaint as a “relationship issue”.
Listening to men & women online discuss what failed in their relationships, I sense this situation is common. When we feel that our partner is not pulling their weight, or fulfilling their role, we can get angry and upset. After all, is it fair that we do our job, and then theirs too? Obviously, if for some reason they cannot — an accident, sickness, emergency — then there is no issue. But what if it is none of the above?
Some say that both men and women need to do a better job of ‘vetting’ their potential spouses before you tie the knot. I say — not true. Because people change and their priorities change, you may one day wake up and realize that your spouse is not willing to do (or put as much effort into) the same things they used to do. Some homemakers decide that they have washed a lifetime of dishes and clothes already, and cut back on housework, substantially. Some 60-hour/week providers wake up to realize that they are sick of the rat-race and want to start a new career as a poet, while working part-time at the local grocery store, slashing the family budget in half. For many, these changes remain in the realm of fantasy. But for some, they are very real, leaving both husbands and wives in a lurch.
That’s what happened to Marv — Karen’s priorities shifted, and now he not only found himself 100% responsible for the financial needs of the family, but also found himself doing a lot of domestic chores he never had to do in the past. While Karen had a bunch more freetime on her hands, Marv was frustrated and angry, trapped in the “It’s Your Job” prison, powerless to make things change.
Freedom from the “It’s Your Job, Not Mine” Prison.
In an effort to empower Marv, we went through an exercise where we dissected his thoughts leading up to his emotional pain. The reality of his circumstance was that most of his frustration was due to his choice to focus on the unfairness of his circumstance, and not the actual circumstance itself. In Marv’s case, when we wrote down all the actual responsibilities that Karen had left him with (i.e. abandoned), it really wasn’t much. As an industrial project manager at work, he was able to devise a system where he could get much of the housework done in under 35 minutes per week. Further, for some of the day to day areas that he was frustrated with, by letting go of his anger that she wasn’t taking care of things the way she used to, he realized that it wasn’t such a big deal.
A key element here is that nobody was making excuses for Karen, or justifying her actions, or trying to convince Marv that “it’s all going to be OK” or anything of the sort. It was merely separating his bitterness from the way things were being handled from the reality of the easy solution he came up with.
Escaping the “It’s Your Job” mentality is founded on the following principle:
Anything you can do for yourself, you should feel comfortable doing for yourself.
Empowerment Trumps Enslavement
Viewed any other way, the “It’s Your Job” mantra is essentially enslaving your emotional wellbeing into the hands of another person — you become a powerless victim. Marv became an expert at doing things he needed to for himself, and actually enjoyed it. He ditched the fights, anger, disappointments, and frustration of relying on Karen, and took charge of as much as he could, sans negativity. Marv turned cooking and baking into a hobby, and became a mini-gourmet chef. He actually enjoyed doing his weekly laundry — his clothes were always clean, and never, ever lost a sock again. He changed his life, and his relationship.
Surely there are times when we need help and just cannot handle everything alone. These are times when we lean on our partner, and have a right to expect cooperation and support. In addition, we need to make sure that both ourselves and our partner are living up to our core marriage values. However, in a general sense, experiment with the attitude that I want nothing from my partner except for when I absolutely cannot do it myself. That’s not to say you have no established division of labor and responsibilities in the home. However, if something is not to your liking, just quickly and easily do it yourself if you are able to.
Adopting such an approach immediately eliminates many domestic squabbles, and substantially decreases bitterness and resentment. It helps you stay true to your marriage vision, and best of all, it frees you to focus on all the wonderful reasons you actually love and appreciate your partner, instead of focusing on the negative.