How to Avoid Housework Arguments
Eve Rodsky, a Harvard-trained lawyer with two young children, never imagined she would end up becoming the default parent and home-runner, especially since she and her husband Seth had managed a fairly equitable division of labor before having kids. Then one fateful day, she got a text from her husband that opened her eyes to just how dysfunctional and unfair their home life had become in the 10 years since.
From that realization, Rodsky created a game (and a book) called Fair Play, which aims to help couples minimize resentment, define expectations and ultimately achieve a more organized, better-managed household. The game appears fairly simple on the surface: couples deal out playing cards that each represent a household responsibility — things like handling school drop-offs, filing taxes, doing dishes and mailing thank-you cards — with the implication that the card holder will perform that task in its entirety until the next time you play the game and redeal. While the game may be straightforward, it is not easy, and that is by design. The discussions around household management this game generates may be dicey at first, but they will ultimately lead to a better marriage.
To make Fair Play, Rodsky spent seven years conducting more than 500 interviews with couples, using their insights to create a system that works for any couple. Rodsky spoke about some of the core concepts of the game and what men stand to gain from playing.
You have said that a text from your husband was what made you want to write this book and come up with the Fair Play game. What was the text?
I had done the grocery shopping. I was running all these errands on the way to pick up one of my sons, doing contract work at stoplights, and he sent me a text that said, “I’m surprised you didn’t get the blueberries.” I pulled the car over and cried. It was such a punch in the gut. I used to be able to manage employee teams, and now I can’t even manage a grocery list. More importantly: How had I become the default for every childcare and household task for my family? It wasn’t supposed to be that way; I’d vowed from an early age that it wouldn’t be that way. I’m a Harvard-trained attorney, I’m literally trained to use my voice. I kept thinking that if this was happening to me, it was happening to every woman I know.
Explicitly defined expectations. When you don’t have that because you have a default parent or spouse, expectations are not aligned. I had a man tell me that he was locked out of his house because he forgot to bring home a glue stick. He described how it felt, saying, “Okay, is my wife going to calm down? Am I going to be let back into my house? Do I just go into New York City and get a hotel room?” It’s unfair to men, too. We are not communicating our expectations, but we are communicating our resentment. I heard from a woman who, when her husband would forget to put clothes in the dryer, would dump the wet laundry on his pillow. And another woman who started an Instagram account about the “shit my husband doesn’t pick up.” We’re not having good conversations.
But even if your partner isn’t doing passive aggressive things like that, if your partner is boiling over with resentment, you shouldn’t want that either.
Exactly! You may be withholding sex, you may be rolling your eyes, you may be seething inside. Who wants to live with somebody like that?
So are men responding well to this?
My favorite piece of feedback was from a man who used to play professional basketball. He said, “I understand the importance of systems and knowing your role. I was a point guard and I would never be my team’s center or we’d lose.”
A lot of the cards focus on childcare — can couples who don’t have kids use this book?
Yes! Establish your systems and habits now. When emotion is high, cognition is low. Once you have kids, emotion is much higher. Who’s holding the garbage card? Or dishes? Even if you only play with 60 cards instead of 100 if you don’t have kids, just understanding the idea of ownership and checking in with each other each week about how things are going in your home is valuable.
What inspired you to devise Fair Play as a game rather than a book of guidelines?
I’m a mediator, and I work with highly complex families — think Succession — and what I realized about a decade ago is how important it is to start by talking about values. A great way to do it is card games. Conversations about values or expectations can be difficult, so gamifying that makes them easier to have. Some couples are doing it in bed together or over tacos and tequila.
The book at times seems very gendered; there are obviously couples who aren’t heterosexual, and I also imagine that there are plenty of couples for whom the dynamic goes the other way. Have you found that?
The data shows that women are doing two-thirds of what it takes to run a home and family, regardless of whether we work out of the home. So I’m very intentional in keeping it gendered, because it is a gendered problem. However, the solution works for everyone. Including roommates! I have a huge data set of same-sex couples in my data set as well, and they’re facing a lot of the same issues.
One of the biggest concepts in the book, and the one that I think resonated the most with me — even outside of household management — is C.P.E. (conception, planning and execution). Can you explain that?
Everything that you need to know about C.P.E. — which comes from organizational management — can be explained with mustard. What I mean by that is: somebody has to know that your second son Johnny likes French’s yellow mustard on protein, otherwise he won’t eat dinner. Someone has to know that. That, in organizational management, is called “conception.” Somebody has to notice that the French’s yellow mustard is running low, and they have to put it on the grocery list for the coming week. That is “planning.” And then someone has to get to the store and buy French’s yellow mustard. That’s “execution.” The execution stage is where men are stepping in.
And that is good, right?
No, that’s a giant problem. They bring home a spicy Dijon — the gross mustard with the seeds — when I asked for French’s yellow. Men all over the country were saying to me, “I went to the store to get the mustard! Why should I do things at home and step up to the plate when I’m getting criticized for doing everything wrong?” And then women are saying to me, “You want me to trust my husband with estate planning or a living will when he can’t bring home the fucking right type of mustard?” The presenting problem isn’t really the problem. This isn’t really about blueberries or mustard; it’s about trust.
In the book, your solution to this communication breakdown is to keep C.,P. and E. together.
It doesn’t serve men to be criticized for bringing home spicy dijon when they don’t have the context for why you need French’s. Keep C.P.E. together. When you’re holding a specific Fair Play card, what I’m asking you to do is own it. Own your shit. When you go to the grocery store, you conceive of, plan and execute your list. When you’re in charge of extracurricular sports for your kids, you don’t just show up on the Little League field; you are in charge of registering them, purchasing equipment, bringing a snack. You own the full task.
Why does that work well?
It’s happening in businesses all over the country. Treat your home as your most important organization. Treat it with the respect and rigor you treat the workplace. At Netflix, this is called the “Rare Responsible Person”; Apple coined the term “Directly Responsible Individual.” You own your tasks at work. Imagine walking into your boss’ office and asking, “What should I do today?” That would be so inappropriate and inefficient, but that’s what’s happening in domestic life: “I’ll just wait here until you tell me what to do.”
When you keep C.P.E. together, it does two things: it alleviates the mental load for women, which was the number one complaint women had about home life, and it eliminates nagging for men, which was the number one complaint men had about home life.
Ultimately though, as you say in the book, it is all about values. And you have a term for how to negotiate differences in value called Minimum Standard of Care.
I’m asking you to have conversations about garbage. I’m asking people to talk about how they value garbage or dishes or kids’ birthday parties. Explain why it matters to you. So what do you do when you both have different ideas about how well something should be done, or how often? What do you do when you’re so misaligned, when you have such different values about a task? That’s where the Minimum Standard of Care comes in. You have to ask each other, “What is reasonable? What would a reasonable person do?” And then you agree on that, so that you don’t have to spend any mental energy on renegotiating that. Your partner needs to understand why you care, if you do.
So, after you play the game the first time, that is not it. You encourage — in fact, require — people to replay and reshuffle the deck or redeal cards weekly, or even daily, if need be.
The system doesn’t work unless you’re willing to give feedback every week. Not in the moment, which is what women tend to do, according to my data set. Give feedback every week when emotion is low and cognition is high; when your partner is ready to hear it. The system is predicated on a weekly check-in. The beauty is that you have built-in communication when you redeal. If there is a card that your partner cannot handle, you can simply redeal.