One of the perks of my job is that I get to ask couples nosy questions. Perhaps how people manage finances, plan meals, and generally run their household are not the most scintillating of topics. Nevertheless, I am continually delighted to learn about systems and practices that would never have crossed my mind.
Case in point: I once took it for granted that all married couples pooled their money—that’s what my parents did. But through my interviews I’ve learned there are many other possibilities. Some couples separate their money into distinct joint and personal pots. Some couples choose not to combine their finances at all and instead do monthly reconciliations where they settle up with each other to make sure both contributed equally to joint expenses.
Exposure to these distinct possibilities has repeatedly proved helpful in my own relationship. When the question of combining finances came up recently, I was able to share a menu of options for doing so with Eric, and we discussed together which felt right for us.
Of course, not everyone gets to ask nosy questions in the name of research. So, as a form of service journalism (heh), I’ve decided to start a new series in which I introduce you to couples wrestling with common household challenges and coming up with very different solutions. While the circumstances of any one couple’s life may differ from yours, my hope is that learning about how they do things might spark some ideas for you to try.
When I began brainstorming couples to profile, Kylie and Paul were at the top of my list. As you’ll see, their division of household labor is very much NOT 50/50. And yet, they’ve worked together over the years to craft an arrangement that seems well-suited to their personalities, preferences, and career needs. Their way is very different from my way, but I took some ideas away from our conversation nevertheless. Hopefully you’ll do the same!
Kylie and Paul1 met on the Jersey Shore back in 2016, when she was studying for the bar exam and he was working as a firefighter. Five years later, Kylie is a burgeoning Corporate Lawyer Boss Lady, and Paul has been working his way up the ranks at the firehouse while casually saving lives and homes. They recently bought a house, which they hope will be the first property in an eventual real estate portfolio.
As you might imagine, Kylie’s and Paul’s work lives look very different. Kylie works the long and somewhat unpredictable hours of a lawyer in a big firm. She’s almost always on call: if her boss emails on a Saturday morning, she may have to skip brunch and spend the weekend working.
Paul’s work is intense in a different way. He works two or three 24-hour shifts each week and has the other four or five days off. (I’m simplifying here – it turns out firefighters’ schedules are quite complex.) When he’s on, he’s on; when he’s off, he’s off. He’s given a calendar each fall that tells him which days he’s working for the entire next year.
How they divide up household labor:
When I asked them to give me a snapshot of who does what for the household, Kylie spoke first. “Actions, anything that requires actually moving a body, Paul does 100%. That’s not an exaggeration. It’s not 98, it’s not 99, it’s 100%.” Okay, there is one exception: on the days Paul’s at work, Kylie feeds their bernedoodle his dinner. But Paul feeds him breakfast before he leaves and after he returns the next morning. “Paul will often literally leave me lunch in the fridge when he goes to work,” Kylie reports, “so I just come down, heat it up, and keep working.” Laundry, cooking, dishes, pet care, trash, home maintenance – all Paul.
“Anything that requires actually moving a body, Paul does 100%.”
Predictably, I also asked about their division of cognitive labor: who does the planning and scheduling and figuring out what needs to be done when? “If it’s a matter of thinking about grocery shopping; oh shit, we’re running out of laundry detergent; our dog needs treats that have run out – all of those things, also Paul,” laughs Kylie. In short, Paul handles both planning and execution for anything that happens regularly.
But Kylie specializes in managing the big-picture and non-routine events: “If it’s setting up our schedule, us seeing friends and family, we need to send a thank-you card, have you called so-and-so, you need your skin cancer check, have you gotten your teeth cleaned – all that kind of stuff, that’s me,” she explains. Though Paul would be the one to call to make an appointment, it would be Kylie who remembered it was time and reminded Paul until he actually picked up the phone. “Anything that’s not completely normal,” says Paul, “Kylie remembers.”
Finally, responsibility for finances is shared. Paul monitors the accounts from day to day (“I have my finger on the pulse,” he says), but every six weeks or so, the couple sits down together to assess the big picture and reallocate as needed. When the money comes in, Paul executes on this joint plan, paying bills and moving money between accounts as needed.
Why this works for them:
This particular arrangement was the result of trial and error – at least at first, there was no grand plan. Kylie recalls that when they were first dating, Paul would visit her in NYC and find a hamper overflowing with laundry and a pile of clothing that needed to be dry-cleaned. Since he wasn’t working on the days he visited, and since Kylie routinely worked past 10pm, Paul offered to take care of the laundry for her.
“That wasn’t, like, ‘Let’s set up a system,’” says Paul. Kylie agreed, “It was that he could see these things needed to be done, and I was in the office and didn’t have time to do them, and he did. And so he started to.” “Kylie seemed to like that,” Paul quipped. From there, he took on more chores, and they settled into a routine.
But while they didn’t start out with a plan, they have since talked about their arrangement explicitly and agree that it makes sense for this phase of their lives. Kylie doesn’t intend to work in corporate law forever, but while she’s there, their priority is for her to maximize her income and devote the majority of her time to paid work. “Paul does what needs to be done in our house, so I can go to work, in the hopes that this effort will put us in a better place down the line.”
Their biggest challenges:
Kylie says her biggest concern is fairness. She worries that Paul feels burdened by doing everything, she says, but Paul shakes his head. “I don’t think that bothers me.” Instead, his concerns are more about appreciation and recognition. As their lives have merged and grown more complicated – a shared dog, house, car, etc. – Paul’s responsibilities have also grown. His to-do list is always long, and inevitably a few things slip through the cracks. “And unfortunately for Paul,” admits Kylie, “I tend to only vocalize what has not been done, instead of starting it with a thank you for the 31 things he did before number 32 that he forgot.”
“I tend to only vocalize what has not been done, instead of starting with a thank you for the 31 things he did.”
Occasionally, Paul will keep a list on his phone of all the things he’s done on a day off (Literally, the list is called “What have I done today?”, and most days it runs into the 30s or 40s.) “It sounds stupid, but walking the dog is one, tidying up is one. It doesn’t sound like much, but then at the end of the day, I get the question, ‘Why didn’t you do X?’” Paul can pull out the list as his answer.
“There are tasks that are never seen,” says Paul, “and so Kylie doesn’t realize they’ve been done.” “I fully know that Paul does an immense number of things,” says Kylie. “But for whatever reason, if I come downstairs at 10:30 and the one thing I have on my mind isn’t one of the 30 things he’s done, inevitably I’ll be like, ‘What the heck?’”
[Editor’s note: This is a great excuse to bring up one of my favorite concepts from one of my favorite sociologists. Arlie Hochschild has written about the importance of the “economy of gratitude” in a marriage. Basically, she’s pointing out that appreciation is an important currency in any relationship, and should be factored in alongside concerns about equality and fairness.]
Words of wisdom:
Paul’s advice is to make sure you’re in agreement on who’s responsible for what. Whether you’re aiming for a 50/50 division or not, it’s important that both partners are on board. “It doesn’t bother me that I do all the tasks,” says Paul. “That agreement of what’s going on is really important, because it means less friction.”
“That agreement of what’s going on is really important, because it means less friction.”
He also recommends collaborating on some sort of running to-do list and agreeing on how you will prioritize this list. Preferably this will be written down somewhere you can both access. Constantly pinging your partner with verbal reminders at inconvenient times is…less effective. “We’ve tried a notebook, a whiteboard, text messages – we don’t have a perfect system, but we do have a practice of putting things in writing somehow.”
Kylie’s suggestion is a bit more abstract: agree on a long-term vision and keep it top of mind. “I feel like sometimes people think about everything that has to get done in the house as the goal. I think Paul and I frame everything around our goals as a couple, for the future. And how we are dividing the work until that point serves those bigger goals. The goal is not for Paul to finish all the tasks. The goal is for me to work X number of years and make X number of dollars, so that we can retire and spend time with our kids.” With that as their North Star, daily decision-making is a lot less fraught.
While you may or may not choose to emulate Kylie and Paul, I hope learning about their practices inspires you to reflect on your own.
I’d love to feature more couples like this in future Dispatches. If that’s of interest to you, please reach out! For the next profile, I’d especially like to talk to a queer couple or a couple who has recently made the transition to parenthood.
Names have been changed for privacy.