Most couples divvy up the labor of daily life in some way, whether it's through an explicit conversation about who will take care of which chores, or an implicit understanding that develops over time. We never sat down and discussed it, but my husband stopped remembering important dates years ago, because he knew that I had them memorized. And I assume anything mechanical will be taken care of by him. Even when we go away on a trip, I notice that we've unconsciously divvied up the packing duties.
Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D. is a post-doctoral scholar at the University of California, San Francisco. Her research is driven by two main questions: (1) How do prosocial thoughts, feelings and actions help people thrive in their romantic relationships, and (2) how do basic biological factors, such as lack of sleep, prevent people from being prosocial? She received her Ph.D. and M.A. in Social/Personality Psychology from UC Berkeley and her B.A. in Psychology from UCLA.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
This ability to divide up labor and have areas of specialization can be a big benefit of relationships, as long as it works out well for both partners. But the downside of dividing labor is that when you start to routinely take care of something, it quickly becomes your "job." And when something is your job, you are expected to take care of it, and so it fosters less gratitude. Which is too bad, because we all want to feel appreciated for the work we do, especially tedious household duties.
Being appreciated for your work doesn’t just feel good; appreciation may have the power to transform those mundane duties from something you have to do into something you want to do. In one set of studies, Berger & Janoff-Bulman (2006) asked romantic partners about their household duties, how appreciated they felt for completing them, and how satisfied they were in their relationships. The team found that the more people felt appreciated by their partners for the chores they did, the more they reported wanting to do them and even liking to do them. For most people, doing more chores meant they were less satisfied with their relationships, but this negative effect evaporated for people who felt appreciated for the chores they did.
In another study, people who felt appreciated for their efforts actually reported being more satisfied with their relationships if they did more chores and favors for their romantic partners than if they did less. Perhaps this is because more chores equals more appreciation, and more appreciation feels good. These results were correlational, so we can’t infer that expressing gratitude to your partner will make them suddenly want to do their chores (and possibly yours!), but it’s worth a shot.
Expectations, on the other hand, don’t just diminish gratitude; they can also foster resentment. Your partner doing their “job” quickly becomes the status quo, and you really only notice (and then only negatively) when that job doesn’t get done. It’s happened to all of us. You may not have even realized something had become your partner’s “job,” until you found yourself silently (or not-so-silently) fuming one day that it wasn’t done: “You didn’t put the trash cans on the street today? But you always put the trash out!”
Take a few minutes to think about the “jobs” that you and your partner each perform; some are big, and some are small. If your partner goes to work outside the home, when was the last time you said a genuine thank you to them for doing their job each day? If your partner stays home, when was the last time you genuinely thanked them for taking care of the household? Make sure the minor jobs of everyday life — taking out the trash, scheduling kids’ appointments, paying the bills, doing the laundry — don't get lost, too.
Take note that there are times when we do say thank you, but it doesn’t pack much punch — a quick “thanks,” such as we often give after someone cooks a meal, is such a part of our required "script" that it can lack the depth of a really good, genuine expression of appreciation.
For any of you thinking, “But they’re doing their job! I can’t say thank you every time they do what they are supposed to do," consider how you feel when someone thanks you for a job well done. And know that you don’t have to say thank you every time for it to be impactful—just often enough that it’s noticed—but you should do it with genuine feeling. In fact, it’s even possible that a quick “thank you” every time may turn that expression of gratitude into an expectation and lessen its impact. If you really want to make an impression, thank them not just for doing their job; thank them for who they are (Algoe, Kurtz, Kilaire, 2016).
The bottom line: If you can express some genuine gratitude the next time your partner does one of their “jobs,” you might just see them start doing it more willingly, and more often. And if you can show appreciation for your partner, you might find that it comes back around and that you start receiving more “thank you’s” too.