I’m not sure whether to tell this as a story, laying out the events in the order of their occurrence and the ideas in the order in which I discovered them, or whether to give more of an executive overview of the issue as I now understand it. But Saturday night, Joscelin and I had a difficult conversation (tears or tear-equivalents on both sides) over the issue of housework.
It started when, after saying that I needed to bring up a difficult issue, I said something like, “When I ask you to do housework, it causes you so much stress and is so hard for you that it makes it almost impossible for me to give you any tasks.”
Let’s back up a little. When Jos first moved in, I was a bit stymied about how to handle housework between us, and eventually we settled on just having me treat him as a slave there the way I do in other areas, so that basically it is up to me how the housework is apportioned. In theory, if I want him to do something, I tell him (hopefully with some reasonable amount of forewarning so he can plan his life), and he does it. And if I want to do something, I do it.
This is perilously close to the “standard model” where the woman is in charge of the house and she makes the man “help out.” In theory it can be completely different, but you can’t play this close to stereotypes without feeling it. Culture is fucking everywhere, man.
But my statement – that housework causes him too much stress, so that I can’t make him do it – made Jos feel terrible, and terribly threatened. For the past few weeks, I’ve had him clean the kitchen every single day while I’m at work, and mop once a week. And his feeling is that this has gone extremely well. So for me to say what I did…well. It was bad.
So in the aftermath of that statement, as I lay next to him somewhat curled up with fear, wishing for all the world that I could extricate myself from the situation somehow, rewind the scene and say something different, I also tried to think my way through what my real complaint was. Had the kitchen task indeed gone well? Did I have complaints about his handling of it? Had he expressed a lot of stress and discomfort? What was it I actually felt when considering giving him a task? (Because something does hold me back.)
(Are you wondering how the housework actually goes between us? Neither of us does much. Jos does most of it. My contribution these days typically consists of washing the towels every week and cleaning the bathroom every two or three weeks. Sometimes someone vaccums. He helped me clean my bedroom a couple of months ago, but typically we take care of our own rooms and laundry. I haven’t touched the kitchen in weeks.)
I had nothing defensible to say to him, and I was quiet for a long time, pondering the following. I resent that he [temporarily; new job pending] isn’t working, while I am working and going to school, and yet he doesn’t keep the house clean. But our arrangement is for me to command him to do things, so if I don’t, it is theoretically all right for him not to do them. Resenting your male partner for not “helping out” – typical powerless woman stuff. What the hell.
He hasn’t expressed much discomfort or stress over the kitchen, though he does tend to do it late in the day and one day he had several errands and it slipped to a later hour in a way that didn’t affect me since I was at school anyway. Having the kitchen clean when I come home every single day has been blissful, wonderful, convenient.
I think, leaving the irrational, culturally-determined resentment aside, it comes down to this. When I give him a task, I fret about whether he’ll do it until he does it. When he talks about how to arrange his time I have a buzz in my head worrying about whether he’ll get to the task I’ve assigned him in the time frame I’ve given him. I wonder if he’ll procrastinate too far and then be angry or stressed about it.
And it is easier to do the thing myself, or just let it remain undone, than it is to do all that fretting. Being a control freak is exhausting. Besides the internal worry, I have to monitor myself not to nag him about it.
Jos doesn’t complete assigned tasks 100% of the time, but he doesn’t leave them undone in a way that has bad effects (e.g., guests arriving in 15 minutes with a 1-hour task undone), and his track record is pretty good – definitely good enough not to justify pointless worry over something that isn’t even going to matter much.
So it really is the control freak thing.
And, of course, realizing this while lying silently next to my devastated partner, with him occasionally giving me new arguments and thoughts and fears (“…if that’s what you’re saying, I’m 14 again and living with my parents…”) was just awful. I would have given anything for him to have touched me in a comforting way, but I couldn’t ask, and he’s not comforted by touch, so it wouldn’t have helped to initiate. (I had plenty of time to think my way through all of this.)
I finally said, “I need your mercy right now.” And he did hold me.
I’ve written the above more clearly than I was able to think through it at the time. I had a sense of betrayal of myself the whole time because I knew I would say (and believe, if necessary) anything to make things all right between us. But I think what I’ve written here is the truth of the situation, and I was eventually able to communicate it to a reasonable degree.
In theory, if I give him a task, it’s just up to him to do it. Either he does it, or I punish him. (And I do punish him. Tune in later for photo evidence.) I don’t need to worry about it or try to manage him time with jedi mind-control. (Sometimes what I do in my head around how Jos manages his time is kind of like what you do after you release a bowling ball and try to nudge it sideways by twitching your head. The ball doesn’t know you’re trying to control it, and you don’t succeed, but somehow you hope to influence it merely by straining.)
Can I learn this trick?