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How to Share Roles Fairly in a Relationship

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

female couple cooking together

The world we live in is ever-changing. Even though things are changing all the time, our ideas tend to change slowly. We develop unspoken expectations from life and our loved ones. Many couples are adopting heteronormative roles, without even realizing it. This is leaving things that we assume are gender roles, unfilled.Couples need to learn how to be more explicit about how we expect to share the load of living together.

As women enter the workforce and become breadwinners, there is a gap in heteronormative relationships to fill. Suddenly all the tasks and skills we have been assigning to men and women over the centuries (yes centuries) need to be adjusted. Women working is nothing new, and yet terms like "stay-at-home dad" will generate surprised reactions. Women are still getting asked, "But who will watch the kids?" When neighbors find out that a mom works. We hear partners saying they are "helping" with dishes and bills as if they didn't participate in eating meals or purchasing things. Or we hear parents saying they are "babysitting" when their spouse has a night out as if they don't usually play a role in raising their own children.

It isn't that heteronormative or "traditional roles" are bad in any way. In fact, if you and your partner have explicitly discussed and decided that Mom is going to stay at home, do all the cooking, cleaning and shopping, child rearing, and be exempt from paying bills; while Dad is going to bring home the bacon, do the yard work, and take care of all the house repairs.... that's great! at least you have a clear understanding of who does what, and why you have decided so. Where couples often run into trouble with this is when one or the other becomes burdened by the deal, and the other cannot or will not temporarily support the other in their role.

So, how do you share roles fairly in a relationship? First, you need to assess all of the task that you both benefit from. I call these "under the roof" issues. There are tasks, responsibilities, and needs that all fall under the same roof and someone has to do them. If it can be called "ours" then at the end of the day, it has to be done by one of us. We all go through rough days where we can't run at 100%. If I get the flu and can't get out of bed, the kids still need to be fed. If my partner loses their job, the bills still need to be paid. We can't just throw our hands up in the air and say, "Well, it's your job, so I don't need to do it." If it falls under our roof, it is ours. We agree to certain roles to maintain a high level of function, but when unexpected things happen, we jump in and support each other. This level of support is one of the advantages of being in a long-term relationship. It shouldn't be easier to be alone.

Here is an activity you can do with your partner to become more explicit about how roles are being designated in your home. Get out a sheet of paper, you can draw a little roof at the top if you want (I always do, though it adds no actual value to the exercise). Now list every task that is related to the life you share: cleaning, cooking, shopping, dropping kids off, paying bills, earning income, yard work, home repair, car maintenance, vacation planning, etc. Now write next to each task who does what - you, your partner, or both. Do the tasks seem even? Is one person feeling burdened while the other is able to relax? This is a clue that something is off. Your roles have been over assigned to one person and they need to be adjusted. In some cases both partners are overburdened. This means we need to reduce the task load, either by hiring things out, or seeing which tasks we can get rid of. If you are overburdened look at the tasks that are the most stressful to you, are any of these tasks things your partner would gladly take over? Sometimes there are responsibilities that we get tired of doing not because they are particularly challenging, we're just sick of them. Your partner might not be sick of them and the change might be welcome for both of you to swap some things. Also, being a woman doesn't mean you're going to be good at cooking, and being a man doesn't mean you're going to be good at home repair. Do not assume that any role is better filled by one over the other because of gender.

Having designated roles does not mean that we stick to the plan, it means that we talk about the plan, which needs updating often. Be mindful of the fact that many tasks, though designated, each of you should be proficient enough to do them alone. If Mom goes away for the weekend, Dad should be able to feed, bathe, clothe and entertain the kiddos without Mom's help. If the toilet clogs, we can't wait for Dad to come home to take care of it. So often, men and women will say to me that they don't help out with something because the other person is better at it, or that they "don't know" how to do it. Man or woman, if you live alone, you will have to figure out how to do all of it. Your long-term relationship will be healthier and happier if you can confidently support your partner in any task.

If you are interested in couples therapy, schedule an appointment today.

DD Love, MFTC - (970) 852-0687 -

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