When FN reader Joanna* first moved in with her boyfriend Mark*, they ended up fighting a few times every week. “He never did the dishes, even when I cooked,” she says when asked to describe some of the things that kept her ticked off. “He would play on the computer while I swept and mopped the floors of our condo. He wouldn’t even pick up the phone to call our laundry service and have our dirty clothes picked up and dropped off. And when I did the things he was supposed to do, he didn’t even notice until I told him.”

What about you? Ever had a fight with your roommate, boyfriend, or husband about uncompleted chores? Ever complained about the fact that it seems like you do more at home than your roomie or hubby does? Research suggests it could be that you have different threshold levels of tolerance for tasks left undone, and this could be hurting your relationship.


“If we have different threshold levels, we’re more likely to have lower perceived relational satisfaction," says study author Sarah Riforgiate, an assistant professor of communication studies at Kansas State University. "And we're much more likely to have conflict."

According to an article released on K-State.edu, Riforgiate’s study shows that the difference in threshold also has negative effects on how tasks are divided and the sense or gratitude when one person does more work in the household. What typically happens is the roommate or spouse who has a lower threshold for unfinished tasks will find a pileup disturbing and work to complete more tasks faster, which is what happened in Joanna’s case. The problem, says Riforgiate, is that if one person does these tasks often enough, these may be seen as her responsibility or job. As a result, a roommate or partner may stop being grateful or try to make up for it because he may then see it as part of her job.

But just because you end up doing more than your roomie or guy does, it doesn’t mean he’s lazy or trying to dump his share of the chores on you. Riforgiate says, "If they don't notice it's a problem, it's not always simply because they're lazy. We make really negative attributes about people who we live with—roommates, romantic partners—that are not helpful in our relationship and may actually have nothing to do with what's really going on."

Traditionally, women do more at home than men do. But there are biological factors too, and they’re related to how men and women sense things differently—for example, while men are better at seeing movement, women have a better sense of smell and a heightened sensitivity to color and texture. “These small biological differences can contribute to differences in threshold levels,” Riforgiate says.


But just because you have a higher threshold of tolerance for leaving tasks uncompleted, like Mark seems to, doesn’t mean you can just leave things be and let someone else pick up the slack without affecting your relationship with those you live with. And having a lower threshold, like Joanna might, doesn’t mean that you need to overcompensate. Riforgiate recommends working on communication. And we strongly suggest trying to reach a compromise and work out a fair distribution of household tasks.

For example, Joanna reports having had a brainstorm a few months back. After a particularly vicious fight that threatened to end in a breakup, she and Mark sat down and worked out a chore management system for them to follow.

But that’s not all—they placed two jars on the kitchen counter, one labeled with Mark's name and the other with Joanna's. If one person wasn’t able to complete an assigned chore on time, he or she had to pay a predetermined amount into the other person’s jar. If the other person ended up doing the task after the deadline had passed, the person who slacked off would have to pay a second amount into his or her partner’s jar. “It funded my shoe shopping in the first couple of months,” Joanna says, laughing. Now, she says, Mark has started to wise up, and ther e have been a couple of times when she’s had to pay cash into his jar.

Will Joanna and Mark’s solution work for you? Maybe, maybe not. The important thing is to find a solution that does work for you and your guy or roommate. After all, you shouldn’t let your relationship or friendship be hurt by something as trivial as dishes in the sink or a pile of dirty laundry.

*Names changed by request.

[Click here for FN's tips on getting your guy to help around the house]

(Photo by Maureen_Sill via Flickr Creative Commons)

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