- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2000

Several marriage and family counselors say the issue of household chores seldom brings couples to therapy by itself, but it does serve as a "red flag."

"It's not a huge problem in the family household, but if there are other, more serious issues, this also surfaces," says Jim Alexander, a family counselor at Cornerstone Family Counseling in Fairfax. "But when there aren't serious issues, this one is quiet."

Adds John Nealon, a family counselor in Bowie, "If household chores become a major issue, other components of the marital system are usually in major trouble. If chores have become a major problem, it's a big red flag. You have to look at the whole system and see what else needs attention."

Mr. Alexander says many couples go into marriage with one of several blueprints for handling household chores. Many, he says, follow the more traditional roles, the "men's chores" (i.e. taking out the trash, yardwork, car maintenance) and the "women's chores" (cooking, cleaning, shopping). A 1996 survey by the University of Illinois supported that, as most of the female respondents said they did "women's chores" either by themselves or more than their husbands.

Some couples, such as Heather and Scott Alexander of Beltsville, follow what their parents did.

"Some of my friends and I have decided that the husbands we have are still growing up," Mrs. Alexander says with a chuckle. "It was always, 'Mommy will do it,' and they have the same mentality now, except now it's the wife, so they can leave it alone."

That mind-set is fairly common even though couples may not even realize it, says Jim Alexander, who is not related to Heather or Scott Alexander.

"It's kind of a fun twist," he says. "We're attracted to a person because they're the opposite way from the way our father or mother was, and so we marry them and we're glad to marry them. But that quality our mother or father had be it neatness, orderliness, thoroughness, whatever, even though we didn't choose the person we wanted to marry based on that quality when we see it missing, we get mad. In a moment of stress, we start looking around for our mother or father, and they're not there."

To get over that, counselors suggest that couples re-evaluate whatever system they use over time, even when there doesn't seem to be any problem in the way chores are handled.

"Assuming is not a good thing," Mr. Nealon says. "We shouldn't assume everything is fine because nobody is complaining. That's why we need to have a monthly meeting. Sometimes over time, things change in such a way that if you're not checking in on a regular basis, these changes create symptoms in the chore area."

Jim Alexander says one solution that seems to work for couples he has counseled is to do a little bit each day.

"The person doing the laundry does a load a day, the person doing the cooking prepares a meal ahead of time whenever they can," he says.

"If everybody does a little bit of one chore every day, it can be a lot more manageable," Mr. Alexander says. "If your job is vacuuming, do the living room on Monday, the bedrooms on Tuesday, on Wednesday do another room. This system may frustrate the perfectionist folks because it's never all done at the same time, and there's never a magic moment when the house is completely clean, but face it, nobody's house looks that way anyway."

In 1996, Vicki Fitzsimmons, a professor of family economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, surveyed 450 married school employees to see how their attitudes toward household chores matched up with their actual handling of them, although she was particularly interested in the financial chores. The one area where she found attitudes and behavior didn't match well was balancing the checkbook.

"That's one of those tasks nobody's thrilled with doing," says Mrs. Fitzsimmons, now retired and living in Arizona. "If I were talking to newlyweds or people about to get married, I'd say this is an area people tend to have difficulty with and it's something you really need to talk about how to handle."

Conversely, the one financial area couples agreed on the most was who decides and makes the major purchases in the family. Overall, Mrs. Fitzsimmons echoed the other counselors, saying couples need to re-evaluate financial chores along with all the others and ask themselves, "Who's doing what, and are we comfortable with that?"

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