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Who Does What in Your Marriage? The Benefits of Specialization

Keith made a comment to me last night that I thought was interesting. He said:

One of the things I love about really busy days at work is that I can get all kinds of things done, and rush around and be occupied all day, but I know what I'm doing. It feels great. I feel so competent. I hardly ever feel that way at home because I don't know how to do much!

Now my husband is a doctor, so he's a very bright person. But he's at a loss when it comes to looking after a lot of the stuff that goes into the house and the kids.

It's not like he can't do housework or cook. On the contrary! When we were first married, we pretty much split everything. I was no better at cooking than he was, because we both had about as much experience. We often cooked together, or took a few hours on the weekend to clean up our apartment. Either of us could do anything. And when we weren't looking after the apartment, we were both studying, because we were both in school.

Gradually, though, things changed. I became more interested in recipe books. He became busier at his studies and his job. When the kids came along, I organized the apartment for all their stuff. I had to figure out a schedule for laundry, because I was now home full-time, and Keith was working more than full-time. I figured out how to keep the kids busy all day.

It's not that Keith couldn't do laundry or couldn't cook; it was just that because I was the one who primarily did it, I set up the systems in our home as to how it was going to get done.

And it was the same with food. I started researching nutrition, and decided to cook a certain way for our kids. I decided to branch out with the fruits and vegetables we were eating. I experimented with new grains. And suddenly, the spaghetti and shepherd's pie that we used to make together in that small apartment weren't staples anymore. They're always enjoyed when we make them again, but I tend to add more vegetables now. I add different spices. I make it more elaborate, and he sometimes feels inadequate.

Keith still does cook occasionally, although when he's responsible for dinner, he often goes the frozen entree route. He often mops and cleans up when I'm away, to get the house nice for me to come home to. He can do laundry, I suppose, but I don't know when the last time was that he threw on a load. I use homemade laundry detergent now, and he doesn't know how much to put in. But if he ever had to, he could. And if we ever need something installed, he does it! He's the one who put together this closet organizer for our oldest daughter:

But on the whole, he brings home the bacon, and I cook it.

What happened, I believe, is that we both specialized. When we were first married, we both pretty much did the same things. But as time went on, he got better at work and making money, and I got better at organizing the household and the kids. It's only natural. When you spend most of your time in one sphere of life, you become better at it.

That's not a bad thing. That's one of the main benefits of marriage. When you specialize, you get more efficient at things than when both of you try to do 50% of everything. You can't really enjoy this level of specialization, though, if you're afraid that your marriage won't last. If your marriage is in jeopardy, then you're worried about doing everything should you have to. It's a much less productive relationship. And indeed, in the book The Case for Marriage, the authors show study after study which demonstrate that couples who specialize tend to make more money, have nicer homes, and better behaved kids, because everyone concentrates on what they're good at and works hard in their primary sphere of influence.

Of course, both parties have to be able to step into another's sphere in an emergency. You never want to be in a position where you have to work, but you have no skills, or you have to look after the finances, but you have no idea what accounts you own. Or what if your husband had to cook a meal? But I don't think we should resent the fact that we're good at certain things, and he's good at others. It's not sexist. It's just natural.

Nevertheless, if your area of specialization takes up absolutely all of your time, while he has plenty of free time, that's an imbalance in your relationship that needs to be fixed. If you're both working, but in different areas, that's fine. If one of you is taking advantage of the other, it's not. Are any of you in that position?

You also don't want to get in a situation where the husband feels that he's not WANTED in your sphere of influence. Whatever you do, ladies, never, ever, push your husband away from your children because "he doesn't do it right". The children deserve a relationship with their dad which will be different from their relationship with you. Encourage that relationship, even if dad does things in ways that you wouldn't. I know many women who end up pushing their husbands away because when they come home from work, they wreck the routine the moms have going, or they make more work for everyone, so it's easier if they're away.

Don't do that. If you find yourself resenting your husband when he's home, change YOUR routine. Include him. Plan more family things, and fewer solely kid-centered routines. It's as much your problem as it is his if he doesn't feel welcome.

But beyond this, don't sweat too much if you find yourself cooking most of the meals and him working more, even if you swore you'd always have an equal marriage. I swore that, too. But my definition of equal has changed. We both work hard in the areas we're called to. That's what's important, and that's what makes us tick so well!

What about you? How does specialization work in your home? Do you need help stepping back a bit and letting your husband in? Do you need help getting your husband engaged with the kids? Let me know, and let's see if we can help each other in the comments!

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At 8:45 AM , Blogger Sheri said…

We are pretty equal in all things: I do the laundry but Mike nearly always hangs it (it's difficult for me to reach the top rod!). I love to mow but am not as picky about it as he is so he tends to have our oldest do it (HA!). I vacuum and mop. He reloads the dishwasher because he is nitpicky about it.

The only thing I WISH he would do is clean the bathtub. He uses so much soap (more than usual I think) that the tub is constantly gross and it takes a tremendous amount of work to scrub. But that ain't gonna happen anytime soon. I suppose I'd rather him be clean than stinky so I put up with it!


At 9:22 AM , Blogger Melissa said…

Wow. This puts things in a completely different perspective for me. I get annoyed sometimes because my husband is just not a neat person. He leaves his empty glasses everywhere, doesn't put his shoes away, doesn't lift a finger to clean anything...but he's constantly working on school or trying to get more practice building websites so he can eventually work for himself.

Saying that it's natural, not sexist, and some people have an inclination towards more domestic tasks, really makes me see it differently.



At 9:51 AM , Blogger Terry @ Breathing Grace said…

I like this, Sheila.

Specialization...what a great way of looking at what people tend to view as "traditional" or "gender roles."

You did a great job, here!


At 9:53 AM , Blogger Terry @ Breathing Grace said…

Oh, I should add that I know you weren't trying to disguise those things (gender roles and what have you), and that sometimes if a husband is in school or out of work, specialization needs might change.


At 10:57 AM , Blogger Sheila said…

Thanks, Ladies! Glad to see you here.

Melissa, I hear you. I think we can all get a little fed up if we feel like we're being put upon, because he's not doing the little things for himself that we think he should.

I guess it's all in that attitude change: notice what he does do. And in the end, a few pairs of socks aren't going to make much of a difference!

And Sheri, I think I did a post a while back on what to do if your stinky husband wants to get "close", so to speak! :) So perhaps you shouldn't mind that soap so much, given what other women have to put up with! But I find soap scum really gross, too!

NIce to see you here, Terry! I think so much we react to things defensively, thinking that people are trying to cast us as either "feminist" or "throwback" or something judgmental. And I usually find that the way that marriage works best is just that--the way marriage works best. I wish we could get rid of the labels that are often so emotionally-laden, and just get back to making relationships tick better!

By the way, I'm not accusing you of labeling, either. I just think often women reject certain forms of relationships because they put a label to them, instead of thinking through how things actually work best.


At 12:40 PM , Blogger sarahe said…

Great post! And I think my marriage is finally evening out into our specialized areas :) (remember me f/m all the drama with a husband that would not do any housework even with my health problems?) Well, I've finally been able to quit my job, which was just making my health conditions work, and now that I am able to "specialize" in these areas rather than try to balance a full work week outside the home AND being solely responsible for all things domestic, we are both so happy! Yes, we have to be tighter with the finances, but it is so worth it.


At 3:41 PM , Blogger Ellen said…

What a great attitude and way of thinking about things! I am with Melissa, I get tired of doing a lot of the little things (that I think he could do, like cleaning up after himself) but at the same time, my husband has a very mentally/physically demanding job. So when he comes home there is an unspoken agreement that he gets his wind-down time (otherwise it usually ends up with a cranky household!) Sometimes I think it's not fair, but at the same time I guess I don't deal with the same stresses and loads that he does at work (plus the long work day, usually from 6am until 8pm!). He works hard to provide for us, and so I can stay home with the kids, so I need to be careful not to ignore that :) Thank you for acknowledging that even though I do most/all of the housework does not mean that I am being a pushover of a wife (by letting my husband 'get away' with not doing a lot at home).


At 4:01 PM , Blogger Sheila said…

So glad to see you back and hear you're doing so well! That's a big encouragement after all those posts earlier this year.

Often just finding more time helps us with our marriage. When we're overcommitted and stretched beyond our limits, everything he does bothers us. When we have time, it's just easier.

And Ellen, i like your attitude! It's not about being a pushover or not being a pushover. It's just about figuring out what everybody is best at and what works best for the family. And when we can show each other grace, rather than demanding that everyone do 50%, things really are a lot easier.


At 11:09 PM , Blogger Drea said…

I really enjoyed this post. As a momma of 3 chidren under 4 years old, life can get pretty messy. This perspective is such a sweet way to picture every day life. Very encouraging!! Thanks for sharing!

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About Me

Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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