3 ways quarantined couples can fight less and better balance work and life

Eve Rodsky
Eve Rodsky is the author of "Fair Play."
Illustration by Neha Dharkar. Image courtesy Eve Rodsky.

Everyone's routines have changed over the last several weeks. While we are living through a disruptive moment, it's also an opportunity to redefine and reframe what teamwork looks like in your home and what it means for your household's bottom line

I'm trained as a lawyer and mediator, and my whole job is to find win-win solutions to thorny issues. For the last eight years, my mission has been to help couples find new approaches to how they divide and conquer work at home, and I wrote a New York Times bestselling book about what I learned called "Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live)."

The first thing to remember is that how successfully your household runs isn't dependent on the efforts of one person. It requires buy-in from everyone. You can shore up your relationship portfolio by investing in three key elements: Communication, long-term thinking, and time. These efforts can end up paying dividends at home and in your work life, too.

Invest in communication

POP QUIZ: During quarantine, what would your partner say is your communication vulnerability?

  1. Long-winded. You're talking and no one's listening.
  2. Sharp commands, sir. Your drill sergeant delivery isn't popular with the troops.
  3. Bad timing. You drop your grievances and requests for help into the conversation at inopportune moments.
  4. Toxic word choice. "I wasn't going to say anything but it really pisses me off when you … "
  5. All or nothing. "You never wipe off the counter" or "you always leave food out."
  6. Dredging up the past. "This is just like the last time you forgot to …"
  7. Boiling over. "I wasn't going to say anything. I avoided saying anything. And now, I'm really pissed."

Particularly in times of uncertainty when emotion is high and cognition is low, how we communicate can become stressed. If we're not mindful of how and when we speak, our communication "vulnerabilities" can further disrupt our relationships and households.

And feedback in the moment can turn toxic, because stress is contagious, and your ability to hear another person is compromised.  

It is better to walk away from an unproductive conversation and table your feedback until you feel calm and can easily communicate with words and in a tone the other person can hear and absorb. This is especially important when it comes to talking about both your division of labor and where your money is going, especially if you are already feeling the pressure from new work-from-home expectations, or the loss of a job or income. 

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By the way, if you've had an impulse to dump wet clothes on your partner's pillow when they forget to put them in the dryer, let the garbage pile up until someone other than you notices, or scream "forget it, I'll just do it" at no one in particular, I promise you are not alone. 

But intentional communication will make a significant difference in how your words are received by your partner, and how you effectively manage your home organization in these demanding and challenging times.

What you can do today: Sit down when you don't feel like you have a million things to do. Use this time to talk about what went well that day and what needs improvement tomorrow. Bring a beverage and some snacks and set a timer for 15 minutes or less, so the conversation is effective, fun, and brief. 

Make an intentional plan for how you will fairly divide and conquer all essential household tasks the next day. Remember, only you and your partner can determine what's valuable and essential to you. If you can't agree, drill down to your "why" before you make any decisions. 

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Invest in long-term thinking

Many women in particular tell me they don't involve their partners in domestic life because, "in the time it takes me to tell him or her what to do, I might as well do it myself." For example, you might say, "I'll just change the kitty litter right now because I know where to find the scooper and the fresh bag."

Sure, that works in the short term. But down the line, if you want to be free of the kitty litter job, invest the time today to share what it takes to get the job done start to finish. Only then, each of you can "own" a task.

When you focus on ownership, you are thinking beyond, "How can I help?" Having to remind your partner to do something doesn't take that something off your list. It adds to it. It's not a partnership if only one of you is running the show, which means making the important distinction between delegating tasks and handing off ownership of a task.

Ownership belongs to the person who first remembers to plan, then plans, and then follows through on every aspect of executing the plan and completing the task without reminders. We must trust the other person to "own" a task and to remedy any mistakes.

We must trust the other person to 'own' a task and to remedy any mistakes.
Eve Rodsky
Author of 'Fair Play'

Learning to own and to delegate successfully can help you at work, as well. And it can help you be a successful working parent during the pandemic.

While we're both working remotely, my husband and I are trading off watching the kids every few hours. I take the morning to work uninterrupted and then assume full ownership of all-things-kid-related just after lunch. Which means he makes grilled-cheese sandwiches for five and I clean up. For us, that feels fair.  

In a recent online survey I conducted of 100 households, I found that since March, there are 12 household tasks that have been causing the most daily tension. I've dubbed them the Dirty Dozen: laundry, dishes, groceries, buying home supplies, meals, cleaning, garbage, tidying up. 

And if you're a parent, you can add things like home school to the mix, on top of your regular interactions with your kids. If these tasks were stressful before, now they are really tough, especially if only one person in your household is taking responsibility for most if not all of them, and especially if you're both also trying to be good employees. 

Here is what you can do today: The Dirty Dozen are in heavy rotation, and no one person should be tasked to handle them all. At your nightly check-in, play Dirty Dozen Bingo. Cross off a square once you have discussed how to share the workload in a way that feels equitable and fair.

Invest in time

Time is our most important asset, especially when you're trying to work from home and parent. It can feel like "the space-time continuum is collapsing on us all," as my friend Kim said to me recently. You and your partner each only have 24 hours in a day and no one person should be tasked with an entire household and child-care load, especially if you're also trying to do your job.  

As we continue to socially isolate, work remotely, and spend the majority of our time within close proximity of our roommates, family members, partners, and children, conflict can easily escalate if all members of your household aren't following the same rule book for how you spend your precious time.

This is why establishing and revisiting your values over how you spend that time is as important as ever.

If you haven't already, begin to think about what is really important to you in this new world we're all trying to navigate. Equally important for you to consider: What isn't important? What can you let go?

Equally important for you to consider: What isn't important? What can you let go?
Eve Rodsky
Author of 'Fair Play'

One couple I spoke to said that planning and preparing home-cooked meals has become a meaningful connection point for their family of four. Another couple said the direct opposite, that the time it was taking to create a home-cooked breakfast and lunch was becoming a stress point. So they instituted a new family rule everyone cooks for themselves for breakfast and lunch and then they sit down as a family for dinner, alternating who is responsible for planning and getting that meal to the table.

There is no one right answer. Figuring out what's right for you and your family though is worth the effort.

What you can do today: Save yourself from burnout and yielding to external pressure by making intentional choices that best serve your household about how to use your valuable time, money, and resources.

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Eve Rodsky is the New York Times bestselling author of "Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live)." In her work with hundreds of families over a decade, in foundation management at J.P. Morgan and the consulting firm she founded, Philanthropy Advisory Group, she realized that her expertise in family mediation, strategy, and organizational management could be applied to a problem closer to home, and developed a system for couples seeking balance, efficiency, and peace in their home. Rodsky was born and raised by a single mom in New York City and now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their three children.  

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