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Trash Talk

November 16, 2006 By:
Frank Rosci, JE Feature
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Illustration courtesy of L.A. Times Syndicate

Most men and household chores mix like oil and water. That is, they don't mix at all. With disinterest and disdain -- spawned largely, experts attest, by bad role models early in life -- men prefer to simply slide past household chores like dusting, vacuuming, laundry, the dishes and -- horror of horrors -- cleaning the bathroom.

Ring around the collar and a bathtub ring may be part and parcel of the territory that accompanies a wedding ring, but most men want no part of the first two. And the majority of live-in boyfriends aren't any different.

But can men helping around the house strengthen the "holding-hands" part of a relationship? Does not helping weaken it? And are there practical, prudent things women can do to get males more involved, if not committed, to helping out?

Cooperation -- not coercion -- is the best step that any couple can take, according to Rod Napier, a management consultant at the Napier Group in Pottstown and professor of organizational dynamics at the University of Pennsylvania.

He said that "couples should talk about roles and expectations in the very beginning. For newly married couples who are still in the 'love-glow' and who want to please each other, this is the very best time to define those roles, even if they've had bad role models growing up.

"Actually, all couples should talk about their roles well before marrying or living together and, as the relationship progresses, they should talk often since roles and rules can change."

Indeed, a woman has to guard against a man perceiving that she wants to change him. "Reinforcement comes only through negotiated rules," said Napier. "Otherwise, it is patronizing, and the man will resent that."

To be sure, couples have to establish their house rules by negotiating and by asking questions such as: "Is this working? What's not working? How can we make this the best it can be?"

Doing It the First Time

Most couples, when they're first married, explained Napier, don't have the tools and skills to deal with conflict: "Most people come into a marriage or other relationship with untested assumptions, ill-defined roles and ill-defined power, so they don't know how to resolve conflict.

"They learn from their parents, which can be a weak foundation for learning love and intimacy if, for example, the man's father was domineering and the mother was passive."

So given the attitudes many couples bring to a marriage, it's not surprising to Napier that 50 percent of marriages end up in divorce, and "25 percent of all other couples are miserable," he said. "Only a small percentage get it right from the outset."

If couples can't do it for themselves, Napier recommended seeking help from a third party.

David Baron, D.O., professor and chair of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Temple University's School of Medicine, talked about the serious nature of men helping out around the house. "On the surface," he said, "what it means may seem trivial, but the issue is really one of those fundamentals at the core of a relationship, and it also taps into a number of other important relationship questions, most notably mutual respect and appreciation."

"What matters most," he continued, "is the symbolism that doing chores represents. Doing things for one another can make the other person feel good about themselves and the relationship. It's 'Psychology 101' that behavior can be affected much more positively, generally through compliments."

Not only does positive reinforcement work, Baron asserted, but it can have a good snowball effect, just as being too negative can have a bad snowball effect.

Little things either agreed to over time or learned, he said -- a wife saying thanks and not it's about time, and a husband noticing that the house is clean, even when a wife may not work -- can lead to a stronger partnership, if all is based upon an implicit message of love and affection.

"This is not to be seen as a calculating way by which women manipulate men, but as women reaching out for understanding and support. When sight of that is lost, it's only a matter of time until other aspects of life together are affected and weakened," remarked Baron.

Like a Business

At Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Dimitri Markov, M.D. -- a board-certified psychiatrist and instructor of psychiatry and human behavior at Thomas Jefferson Medical College -- compared marriage to a business.

"A marriage partnership," he went on to explain, "can be viewed as similar to a business partnership. If one or both partners in a business don't pull their weight, chances are the business isn't going to be profitable.

"Yes, there are relationships in which men don't do anything, but these situations have to be approached realistically through the only tool that works -- men and women negotiating terms in a respectful fashion, talking earnestly with each other and deciding who is going to do what around the house.

"In addition, positive reinforcement does work, even for the smallest things like men taking out the garbage."

Another option, said Markov, particularly when both people work, is to hire someone to do tasks, whether it be shoveling the snow or cutting the lawn.

"Household issues can be worked out," he maintained, "but they have to be addressed by a couple together."

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