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Q: I’m a stay-at-home parent for three kids, and my partner works a full-time job. I love him, but I feel undervalued. When he comes home, he expects dinner to be made and laundry to be done since that’s my “job” and his work is his. When I forget one thing at the store, for example, he gets angry rather than appreciating everything I did manage to do. How do I make sure I’m not taken for granted, and make him understand how hard it truly is to stay at home as a parent? How can we better balance responsibilities?
A: Unfortunately, many couples share this struggle. Because we live in a market economy where the currency is cash, being the stay-at-home partner can make you feel undervalued and underappreciated, as you do. When you feel like you and your partner are speaking different languages, it’s difficult to understand the other’s reality.
It sounds like there are three issues that need to be addressed here: responsibilities, expectations as a couple, and appreciation for one another.
First, given the fact that you are the stay-at-home parent for three children, your partner’s expectations may be unrealistic. Raising three kids can be demanding, tiring, and extremely energy-consuming. It shouldn’t be a surprise that dinner is not always made or the laundry isn’t always done on time.
If you are hoping to better balance responsibilities and are aiming for a more equal distribution, research suggests it’s important to consider the perception of fairness, and your emotional responsiveness to one another. If these two qualities are met, you’ll likely feel that there’s less of an imbalance in power.
It sounds to me like in your relationship, you do not perceive the division of responsibilities (or at least the expectations of them) to be fair. In his research, John Gottman found that a perception of fairness is necessary to build trust in a relationship. When there is a perception of unfairness, trust is eroded, and couples fall into win-lose games, where one must lose for the other to win. Ultimately, this cycle leads to one of the partners feeling defeated and undervalued. What you want to set up here is a win-win, where you work together, and neither loses.
It’s important for the two of you to have an open conversation about your responsibilities and expectations of each other. You might want to enlist the help of a therapist.
When you’re having that honest conversation, take turns as speaker and listener. Neither of you should engage in persuasion until you hear out your partner to understand their perspective. As the speaker, try to avoid blaming or “you” statements. Talk about your feelings. Use only “I” statements about this specific situation. Also, focus on stating a positive need instead of relying on complaints.
As the listener, postpone your own agenda. Hear and repeat the content of your partner’s thoughts and concerns. The listener can ask questions, but try to avoid rhetorical or “gotcha” questions. The spirit of the questions should be: “Help me to understand this better…” Most importantly, validate the speaker by completing a sentence like, “It makes sense to me that you would feel this way and have these needs, because…” You don’t have to agree with your partner’s perspective, but it’s important to show them that they’re being heard.
The second issue here is appreciation. It sounds like you do not feel appreciated in your role as a stay-at-home parent. To fix this, it’s important to prioritize fondness and appreciation in the relationship. Together, work at being intentional about telling each other ways that you appreciate one another. Do that daily. Building appreciation might also involve your partner becoming more aware of everything that is involved in being a stay-at-home parent. The more you make that clear, the more easy it is for him to understand the volume of things on your plate.
Creating more balance and appreciation in a relationship doesn’t always happen right away, but it’s important to work at it, and to do so with trust and patience. In the end, you will both will be happier for it.
More from Asking for a Friend here.