The delinquent helper syndrome needs to be viewed from a different perspective than what most people would usually expect. The problem is usually not so much that one partner does not give enough help. Instead, the problem is more that a partner has somehow allowed themselves to become designated as a mere “helper” in the first place! Helpers do not have a lot of authority and certainly not much ownership of task responsibility. If one person thinks of their partner as needing to routinely “help” them, then the situation is a set-up for the other partner to disappoint them. Another way of saying this is as follows: When one person assumes almost all of the authority and responsibility for a task, the other partner will usually lose interest because they feel less ownership. If a wife assumes authority over all of the household domain as being hers, and if the husband buys into that picture, then it is natural that the husband will be more interest in other matters (and more forgetful about household chores). This is human nature.
An alternative approach is to forget about trying to have either partner routinely “help” the other except in cases where the first partner is truly incapacitated. Instead, it is possible for both parties to have their negotiated areas of responsibility that they feel that they own. There may be areas of joint responsibility and ownership but no partner is a helper to the other. What does this look like in real life? It looks like two equal business partners who routinely negotiate who is going to do what. In this case, the business is marital living and all the responsibilities involved. There is no law cast in stone that says that the wife must have sole responsibility for washing laundry and the husband must have sole responsibility for oil changes. A more enlightened approach is to assume that everything is viable for negotiation.
The process of methodically negotiating and reviewing marital responsibilities is a powerful antidote to the delinquent helper syndrome. By negotiating ownership of different tasks, each partner usually winds up feeling less like a helper (and more like an adult) within each negotiated responsibility. Of course there needs to be accountability whereby both partners review how well their plan is working. However, it should not be one person reminding the other about their responsibilities. This again would promote a split to occur with one person feeling like a scolding parent and the other feeling like a resentful child. It is better to set up accountability by having a schedule for routine periodic reviews for correcting the plan.
INTERVENTION: Renegotiate a family management plan
The following intervention involves negotiating a family management plan from scratch so that neither your or your partner is set up as a subordinate helper to the other. If possible, use a word processor on a computer that will allow easy modification and editing.
1) Each of you separately makes a list of all chores and responsibilities that must be performed in service of the marriage. This should not include intimate or sexual sharing, leisure pursuits, or private interests. Each of you lists all the responsibilities no matter who may eventually wind up carrying them out. The list should be well thought out and very thorough. No item is too small. 2) Both of you then get together and merge the two lists into one. Drop any duplicate chore so there are no repeats. Discuss each item as to whether it is necessary for a joint household. The resulting list will be a thorough inventory of basic chores for maintaining life together. 3) Each of you separately takes a copy of the chore list and reviews each item. Each then marks their initials next to those items for which it make sense that he/she should “own”. Only mark items for yourself, not your partner. 4) Both of you get together and compare notes. Where there is overlap and both of you are volunteering for a task, negotiate out who may be more skillful as well as who may have more time when the task is needed. 5) Each of you separately takes a copy of the chore list and reviews all of the items that have no initials next to them (the unwanted chores). Volunteer yourself for those items you think make the most sense for you to have. Put your initials next to them like you did on the first pass. 6) Both of you get together and compare notes again. Where both of you have again volunteered for the same items, negotiate out who will keep which ones. For items still remaining that each of you apparently detests, you will need to do some “horse-trading.” Offer to do a particular chore if the other person takes another one you really detest. Do not attempt to prescribe any responsibility for the other person. Do not resort to “shoulds.” 7) When you have finished horse-trading and all of the chores have been taken, finalize the list and give a copy to each of you (with initials attached). 8) Negotiate a routine time and place where the two of you will come together for a periodic review of responsibilities. You may start with once a week during the first month and then once per month thereafter. Be extremely specific about when and where you’ll meet (e.g. “8:00 PM the first Sunday of each month, at the table in the den”). Write the meeting times down in your calendar. Do not schedule merely for the first meeting or the first month. Book out 6 months in advance. By being specific and booking far in advance, you will counter any unconscious avoidance. 9) Hang or post the list on a wall somewhere in your house. This will have an additional psychological effect. 10) Evaluate your own consistency/inconsistency when you get together for your review sessions. Go through each item on your list even if briefly. Your partner should do the same. Where either of you is not handling the responsibility up to their own criteria, the person should volunteer a plan of correction (not a platitude of trying harder). During the review sessions, horse-trading is still viable.
SOME IMPORTANT TIPS
1) You need to be able to let your partner fail at whatever they’ve taken on without reminding them. This is essential! If they forget to do their chore, do not remind them. Instead, wait to see if they will address their inconsistency when they evaluate their performance during the next review session. If they don’t, then confront them. If you lapse into reminding them, you start to unravel the new roles as equal partners that you are both trying to create. 2) When confronting your partner about any inconsistency, make sure you ask them for a specific plan for correction. If they don’t have one, accept that they may need some time to think it through. However, insist that they tell you a time and place when they will report back to you about what their plan of correction will be. If they don’t report back like they said they would, go ahead and give them your heat! 3) Do not make the mistake of assuming that your criteria for how a task needs to be done will be the same as your partner’s. If your partner believes that the grass does not need mowing until it is 8 inches high, you do not have the moral high ground to give them your prescription. In this case, you can argue reasons for your point of view. However, if you don’t get agreement then you should absolutely avoid browbeating your partner into submission. They will otherwise defeat you later on through their non-compliance. Instead, you are better off horse-trading again. Which detestable chore would they be willing to take from you in exchange for the one of theirs that is causing the conflict. 4) If you become terribly locked up in your horse-trading, expand the available trades to include other activities besides chores. For example, you may offer a willingness to fully participate in those detestable dance lessons if your partner takes on a particularly distasteful chore to the criteria you desire. Try to think creatively. However, absolutely do not attempt to trade sexual favors. Those feelings are too fragile to be cross-wired with heavy responsibility. 5) This intervention does not work with a partner who repeatedly lies or is dependent upon drugs or alcohol.