Feeling Resentful? 6 Hard Facts About Shared Work.

One obstacle to happiness is feeling resentful when another person won’t do his or her share of the work. In Happier at Home, in my description of the three kinds of “happiness leeches,” this kind of person is a “slacker.”

Resentment comes when you feel angry that you’ve been treated unfairly. But what is “fair” when deciding who should do what work? As I thought about my own (not infrequent) bouts of resentment, I identified these Six Facts About Shared Work.

Fact 1: Work done by other people sounds easy. How hard can it be to take care of a newborn who sleeps twenty hours a day? How hard can it be to keep track of your billable hours? To travel for one night for business?  To get a four-year-old ready for school? To return a few phone calls? To load the dishwasher? To fill out some forms?

Of course, something like “performing open-heart surgery” sounds difficult, but to a very great degree, daily work by other people sounds easy—certainly easier that what we have to do.

This fact leads us to under-estimate how onerous a particular task is, when someone else does it, and that makes it easy to assume that we don’t need to help or provide support. Or even be grateful. For that reason, we don’t feel very obligated to share the burden.

Fact 2: When you’re doing a job that benefits other people, it’s easy to assume that they feel conscious of the fact that you’re doing this work—that they should feel grateful, and that they should and do feel guilty about not helping you.

But no! Often, the more reliably you perform a task, the less likely it is for someone to notice that you’re doing it, and to feel grateful, and to feel any impulse to help or to take a turn.

You think, “I’ve been making the first pot of coffee for this office for three months! When is someone going to do it?” In fact, the longer you make that coffee, the less likely it is that someone will do it.

 If one person on a tandem bike is pedaling hard, the other person can take it easy. If you’re reliably doing a task, others will relax. They aren’t silently feeling more and more guilty for letting you shoulder the burden; they probably don’t even think about it. And after all, how hard is it to make a pot of coffee? (see Fact #1).

Being taken for granted is an unpleasant but sincere form of praise. Ironically, the more reliable you are, and the less you complain, the more likely you are to be taken for granted.

Fact 3: It’s hard to avoid “unconscious overclaiming.” In unconscious overclaiming, we unconsciously overestimate our contributions relative to others. This makes sense, because we’re far more aware of what we do than what other people do. Also, we tend to do the work that we value. I think holiday cards are important; my husband thinks that keeping the air-conditioning working is important.

Studies showed that when spouses estimated what percentage of housework each performed, the percentages added up to more than 120 percent. When business-school students estimated how much they’d contributed to a team effort, the total was 139 percent.

It’s easy to think “I’m the only one around here who bothers to…” or “Why do I always have to be the one who…?” but ignore all the tasks you don’t do. And maybe others don’t think that task  is as important as you do (See Fact #5).

Fact 4: Taking turns is easier than sharing. I read somewhere that young children have a lot of trouble “sharing” but find it easier to “take turns.” Sharing is pretty ambiguous; taking turns is clearer and serves the value of justice, which is very important to children.

I think this is just as true for adults. I have to admit, shared tasks often give me the urge to try to shirk. Maybe if I pretend not to notice that the dishwasher is ready to be emptied, my husband will do it! And often he does. Which bring us to…

Fact 5: The person who cares the most will often end up doing a task. If you care more about a task being done, you’re more likely to end up doing it–and don’t expect other people to care as much as you do, just because something is important to you. It’s easy to make this mistake in marriage. You think it’s important to get the basement organized, and you expect your spouse to share the work, but your spouse thinks, “We never use the basement anyway, so why bother?” Just because something’s important to you doesn’t make it important to someone else, and people are less likely to share work they deem unimportant. At least not without a lot of nagging.

 Fact 6. If you want someone else to do a task, don’t do it yourself. This sounds so obvious, but think about it. Really. Let it go. If you think you shouldn’t have to do it, don’t do it. Wait. Someone else is a lot more likely to do it if you don’t do it first. Note: this means that a task is most likely to be done by the person who cares most (see Fact #5).

Of course, this doesn’t always work. Someone must get the kids ready for school. But many tasks are optional.

I’ve just started thinking about this, and my ideas are still coming together. What did I get wrong–or overlook?

–Would you like a signed, personalized, free bookplate for a copy of Happier at Home or The Happiness Project, to make a gift more personal?  (Or would you like one for yourself?) Or, for e-books or audio-books, a signature card? Email me to request them: just be sure to include your mailing address and people’s names. I’ll mail anywhere, and ask for as many as you like. But PLEASE request them soon, if this is for a holiday gift; fact is, I can be pretty slow.

  • Annelie

    In the sentence “Sharing is pretty ambiguous; sharing is clearer and serves the value of justice, which is very important to children.”, replace the second ‘sharing’ with ‘taking turns’. Other than that, great post as always!

    • gretchenrubin

      Fixed! Thanks!

  • emd04

    Number 2 was a TOTAL bee in my bonnet in my last office. I would distribute the mail that came into the inbox during the day, because I wanted to be helpful. But it wasn’t part of my “job”, I was doing it out of the goodness of my heart. When I was out–on vacation, or whatever–no one took care of the mail. And this annoyed me, because I found out that the guys thought it was MY JOB to distribute the mail. I finally told them that, no, it wasn’t my job, and when I wasn’t there they were responsible for their own mail!
    I got transfered to another office, and today was back in my old one. Lo and behold–no one is distributing the mail. Sigh.

  • Becky

    I’ve read your “unconscious overclaiming” statement before and love it! I wish everyone knew of this so we could at least laugh at this tendency we all have. :)

    Some things to think about: For feeling taken advantage of, I really think you have to question your motives for why you are doing something. If it’s for that “gold star” (as many of us know so well:), I see no harm in tooting my own horn- “Enjoying that freshly made cup of coffee made by yours truly? Yeah, me too!” Most people are actually grateful (or are unconsciously over claiming that they make the coffee more), but either way, just stating the fact I did something does somehow make me feel better for it to be recognized/heard. I know that I don’t remember to thank everyone for everything! But if you let me know, I will thank you, and usually genuinely! :)

    Also, if I make sure to dig deep and know my reasons for doing something, then I often feel like my purpose is more than being recognized. Just clarifying that for myself will help me feel less resentful (ie. I enjoy baking and don’t do it a lot because I don’t want to eat it all myself. I am baking these muffins for the bake sale so that I can save a few for myself and also do a good deed. If no one thanks me, I’ll still have my muffins to eat and that will make me happy! :). Many things can be framed this way.

    • Tara

      Thank you SO much for your muffin take on even if you don’t get a thank you, you still have them and that makes you happy. That just made a complete “aha moment” for me!

  • Becky

    Also, with “whoever cares about the task most will do it” I agree with, but sometimes talking about priorities or *why* you find it important helps the other person to see it as important, too. If its just a weird habit, such as you like the magazines to be in alphabetical order an face out on the coffee table, then yes, you care about that more than me. But in the basement example- maybe discussing that the reason you want it organized is because you want a play area for the kids down there, then perhaps it puts you both in the camp of caring about it. Maybe not, but I think it’s worth the discussion. :)

    • gretchenrubin

      Very good point.

  • http://melodysage.indiemade.com/ Melody Sage

    Very perceptive points. My husband and I never fight about household tasks, because I realized it was unfair to expect him to subscribe to my ideal of what should be done how. If I care about something, I take care of it. And he does the same. Also when he does something odious to me, like the taxes, I do extra nice things to compensate.

    • Becky

      Good point too Melody! I think it’s one of the best things on earth that I don’t ever have to vacuum anymore. I hate that task like no other, and so my fiance gets extra points for doing that chore. All is not equal when it comes to chores (furthering the “unconscious overclaiming” :)

  • Melanie

    I agree with everything. It took me about 3 years of living with my partner to realise that he does not care as much as I do about keeping the house clean which is why I am the one who always does it.
    My problem with my job is that I work in the afternoon so I am the last one there. I feel as though everyone is always leaving everything to me. I am always cleaning up the mess from the jobs they didn’t finish because I care about leaving with everything done and ready to start again the next day. Instead of directly telling them it annoys me I just do it anyway all the while complaining about it. Except last night. Last night I left all of their unfinished jobs for them to finish. Though I doubt they will get the hint.

  • http://twitter.com/robertsitalia Michael Roberts

    I love the first point. We automatically assume that what other people have to do is easy, when if fact if we were doing the same thing, it would seem difficult. Really opens your eyes as to how people live their lives!

    • gretchenrubin

      I use the same strategy with stress. Other people’s stress seems so much less…stressful! So I imagine what other people would think of what I find stressful.

      • Veronique

        I do the opposite! I assume everyone else’s stress is far more pressing than my own.

    • Jane

      I ‘suffer’ from this. My husband is great at emptying the dishwasher which I appreciate and the laundry of which I am less appreciative…. (No harm in the laundry basket getting full in my opinion….).

      My attempt at an anti-dote to is to do “his” jobs regularly enough that I don’t underestimate what it takes and he has little pleasant surprise. The effect erodes, I find, if I do it too often plus I get annoyed ’cause now I now doing his and my jobs. So best not to overdue it!

  • Veronique

    An interesting observation I recently made in my own life is this; sometimes people do not realize that you are doing more than your fair share because you do things without complaining or with great efficiency even if it is difficult. An example of this is Christmas. I never realized how much work it was to prepare Christmas. My mother just ‘made it happen’ food, presents, decorations the whole shebang. We all just assumed it was no big deal until we had our own families and realized wow! this is work. Now fast forward a few years; my mother-in-law has come to our home for every one of our family Christmases since my son was born (18 years). We have to go pick her up 3 hours away and drive her back two or three days later. In addition she is a very high maintenance guest. I have felt for years now that since she has three other children who live very close to her it may be nice for her to alternate between families however I have never articulated this to my husband nor expressed how difficult I find having her at Christmas is. One day when he asked when would be a good time to pick her up I blew up and went on a tangent about how I just did not feel like having her yet again for Christmas, that it gave me no time with our son or him and how the whole day was all about her. He looked at me with complete surprise and said that I never seemed to mind and always went about preparing things for her like it was no big deal and he was so sorry! Lesson of this story? Speak up if you think you are doing more than your fair share (but do it before you are about to blow) the results may surprise you!

  • ruthdemitroff

    Think this would be very useful for premarital classes. I find that in our youth, there’s a certain status around how much gets down for you by your partner. – a badge that says I’m more loved than you because my husband/wife does …..which is followed by the opposite bragging day that centers around “I work so much nobler than you because you get to be a chocolate-eating princess while my guy doesn’t know even know how to ……”
    When the children arrive, both of you just wish somebody could do something about the endless amount of things to do. Where are those elves who fix things while you sleep?

    When you hit 60, you know the winner is the one who keeps their spouse healthy the longest. You can win the power war but if your spouse dies, you’ll wish all that time arguing over who did what could have been handled with more sensitivity, more love, more joy. In the blink of an eye, the work sharing house of cards can come crashing to the ground.

    • gwendolyn

      I like your point very much as the theme of keeping your spouse healthy spreads into so many areas including focusing on what matters, time together/down time rather than keeping up with the Joneses etc. I also love your comment that when the children come you “just wish somebody could do something about the endless amount of things to do”. That captures it nicely!!!

    • http://twitter.com/AmyPutkonen Amy Putkonen

      This is a great point. When you think about how short life is, it is important to be grateful for things like good health and being together. None of the little stuff matters then.

  • Sara B.

    I find this an interesting post, but I think I disagree with your fact #6. If you are consciously waiting for someone else to do a task, you are in fact conscious of the task, and waiting for it to be done. Waiting for someone else to do it seems to me very passive aggressive, and the longer you wait, the most hostile you may become. I think that this suggestion falls squarely under your “don’t keep score” admonishment — if you know a task needs to be done and you care about it being completed, just do it.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great point…but I fear that in many cases one person would end up doing EVERYTHING and one person would just wait them out. Not even consciously, but just because that person has a higher tolerance for the work staying undone slightly longer. Say a light bulb needs to be changed in the kitchen. Everyone sees the light is out. Who will replace it? If you replace that light right away, no one else is going to do it—and will that make you resentful? You have to give someone else a chance to do it.

      • Debbie M

        I find that just waiting doesn’t work. Sometimes you just really don’t want to find out how filthy your roommate is okay with the kitchen getting. And sometimes you really don’t want to wait that long. After 4 months, you go ahead and clean that pot. I get much better results (and don’t have to deal with the growing anger issue) if I just find some way to ask the person. Do you mind cleaning that pot from your stew? Could you take a turn at unloading the dishwasher? Do you mind helping me clean the bathroom–when would be a good time? Sometimes they’ll say they do mind, but you’ve started the negotiations and communication.

        But it occurs to me that Sara B and I might be talking about a different situation than you are, Gretchen. Probably the real issue here is what happens if you give the person a chance to do it, and they still don’t do it. Then you need a plan B besides just waiting indefinitely or grudgingly doing it anyway.

      • Gwendolyn

        I agree with the concept of “giving someone else a chance to do it”. My husband tends to go at double the speed I do and see that as the norm. I will have something on my list of “to do’s” and he will get to it before me then, at times, be resentful: “Why do I do everything!?!?”. It has been helpful for me to let him know I see a task needs to be done and indicate when I plan to do it. This helps me too because I can be forgetful so by writing it down, I am declaring I’ll do it which leads him to relax and I book a time and get it done.

  • parvati_radha

    One thing that works for me is: hire help. For instance, I hate ironing and I pay someone else (who loves it) for doing it. Yesterday I was really upset about the amount of things I needed to end up before today and I asked a babysitter to pick up the children from school. I came back right after dinner, so that I could still spend time with them.

    You might object that it costs too much, but I am an underbuyer and strongly prefer to spend money for experiences rather than for things. Thus, I can have ironed shirts (although I have only one pair of jeans).
    If my spouse complains because of X or Y, I just tell to my spouse that I will then hire some help for doing it. Then, either my spouse does it, or s/he cannot complain with me for the money I am spending on the help.

    This makes us save time for ourselves and avoid so many quarrels we used to have.

  • peninith1

    This is a great post! Since I live by myself, and am retired, there’s really no one BUT me (and any hired help) to get things done. I’ve lived this way since my kids flew the nest more than 15 years ago. For my 88-year old mother, widowed at 41, you can add a lot of years to how much managing alone and with hired help she has done. The first thing I’d say to anyone concerned about unequal sharing is, be grateful it is not ALL yours to do all the time. The days are long and the years short in this department also. I don’t mind or bemoan the fact that I’m living solo any more. And I am scientific proof that you do the things you really want to do, and scant the rest until you can’t stand it any more. It took me a couple of years of living alone to figure out what I really wanted in the way of order and peacefulness in my home. Now I can keep it, and I love it. I would say that the most powerful thing you could do, unilaterally, is to compliment your partner, your coworkers, or your children whenever they DO accomplish something, without implying that they did YOUR job for you. “The kitchen looks so bright” for example.

    • http://twitter.com/AmyPutkonen Amy Putkonen

      Beautiful words.

  • Lia

    I also find this insightful, and agree with all but #6.
    Perhaps in certain situations where there’s a semblance of ‘equity’ (like in the office amongst colleagues) this is a viable approach, but I think it’s less likely to hold true in family and friend relationships. If I leave my kids room messy, they won’t suddenly start cleaning it. If I leave the trash, even though I’ve told my husband more than once that it’s ‘his’ job, it just sits there. The only way to reliably get someone to do something new, presuming they know you want them to do it and are not interested or able, is to impose a new behavior pattern on them until it becomes routine. Ideally, find a way to get them invested – sticker charts for kids, ‘bargaining’ for spouses, and with friends it usually involves a candid discussion in accordance with the nature of the friendship and people involved.
    Otherwise, I really enjoyed having these concepts laid out so clearly – and #4 is SPOT ON! Now my only question is, if I email a link to my husband, is he going to take it the wrong way? :P

    • gretchenrubin

      Just to push back on trash…what happens if it just sits there? And sits there, and sits there?

    • Jane

      Why is the trash his job? People are in my experience more commited to stuff they see as important. If there is no agreement the shared seems best to me.

  • katp1

    I was with you right up until your statement “Someone must get the kids ready for school.” I actually think this is the perfect example of a task that you should NOT do. By the time your kids are 4 (and I know yours are older) they are perfectly capable of getting themselves ready for school. There is no reason why you need to do it. Just prepare them. Tell them the day before, “You are old enough to get yourself ready for school. Tomorrow, you are going to do this by yourself.” Then, walk them through the steps one last time. (If need be, make a chart or list of everything that needs to be done.)

    Then, the next day, DON’T DO IT YOURSELF. Be patient. Instead of telling them what to do, if they are not progressing, simply ask them the question, “what are you supposed to be doing right now?” and let them answer. Be prepared to be late the first time – and don’t get angry or impatient. Just let them do it.

    It is amazing what kids CAN do when we don’t do it for them.

    • gretchenrubin

      Ok, another example. Someone must get the two-year-old ready for school on a snowy day.

  • Amy Junod

    Great! I always get as much out of comments left by other readers. Love that your writing opens up such great conversations. So many great points. Was totally resentful about having to take care of the kitty litter box today (which, let’s face it can only be put off for so long) but now I think I can tackle it. While “panning for nuggets” I will appreciate that the cats USED the box.

  • http://twitter.com/LTanyaDurante L’Tanya Durante

    Fact 5 reminds me of a quote I read recently — “Ladies, if
    a man says he will fix it, he will. No need to keep reminding him every 6
    months about it.”

    As a member of the sandwich generation (caring for my
    elderly mother and my children), things can get pretty stressful. Whenever I
    ask for help, I expect my family to make a distinction that I now realize I’m
    not even making – what’s urgent and what’s important. Everything seems urgent
    to me.

    This post reminds me to start teasing out a better
    distinction between what is urgent and what is important, come to an agreement
    on time limits and expectations and express that to my family.

    • peninith1

      What you are doing is a great blessing to your family. I lost my Dad when I was only 19 and my mother remained healthy and capable of taking perfectly good care of herself for many years, while I watched my friends struggle. Now, at 88, she is becoming fragile and requires more attention and help. It’s not easy for me to provide, and my grown children are also in need of support and help right now. This was a role I feared I would not be able to fill–I can, but it sure isn’t easy.

    • http://twitter.com/AmyPutkonen Amy Putkonen

      That is hilarious, L’Tanya. I hope that you were kidding about the six months because that is dang funny.

  • VickieGL

    Great thinking!! Will definitely pass this around the office where everybody is feeling like they are the Only One working.
    Your site is always a joy,
    Vickie

    • gretchenrubin

      Aww, thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1676252970 Tracey Robinson

    This post was quite timely for me. I realized I really didn’t want to buy the Christmas presents for my husband’s niece and nephews. (I never receive acknowledgment of the gifts which we mail to them out of state, and when I ask for input as to what they want I get no feedback.) So this year I told my husband to buy for his own relatives. I suspect they may not get anything and I am okay with that.
    Lately I have become quite resentful of my husband who is doing less and less over time. A few weeks ago I realized it is my own fault for doing everything, and probably making it look way too easy. Now I am re-prioritizing and making more time for myself. And I am much happier!

    • Gwendolyn

      Good for you! I think the key is to do what you’re doing, accept that the task may or may not happen and that that’s fine. Enjoy your happier Christmas!

  • Laura Vanderkam

    There was a wonderful book that came out a few years ago (you may have written about it) called Equally Shared Parenting, by Marc & Amy Vachon. They point out that when many women hear about ESP, they want to sign up…their husbands. What they want is for their husbands to do half of the work that they deem worth doing. But why should anyone do half of work that they don’t think needs to be done? If one party thinks kids need to be bathed 2x a week, that party may be perfectly willing to do it 1-2 times per week. But if the other party thinks kids need to be bathed nightly, then that person will wind up doing it 5-6 times per week and resent that the other person is shirking. But the other person isn’t shirking. He/she is doing half (or more!) of what that person views as perfectly adequate. If it isn’t a matter of health or safety, one person’s standards are no more right than the others. I try to remind myself whenever I’m feeling overworked of the things I don’t do. I don’t think I’ve ever changed a light bulb in my house. I’ve never uploaded digital pictures from the camera. I’ve never mowed the lawn, put batteries in a toy, etc. I have to think about it, because these things don’t come easily to mind, as you say. The work we do is more readily available to the brain.

    • gretchenrubin

      Excellent point. I’m trying to think of a way to express this idea elegantly, as a Secret of Adulthood, but it’s still pretty clunky: Just because something is important to you doesn’t mean that others will also find it important.

  • http://twitter.com/MariRydings Mari Rydings

    Face #3 is one I often keep in mind. Whenever I find myself mentally tallying everything I do versus everything my husband does, I try to stop (before I open my mouth and let the ugly out) and run a mental check of everything he does do. Usually, that little act is enough to keep myself in check.

  • http://twitter.com/AmyPutkonen Amy Putkonen

    Our bathroom is Disgusting. Yes, capital D. It is getting to the point again where I have to clean it because I can’t stand to look at it any longer but my husband would let it grow big black piles of mold everywhere if I left it alone. How do I know? Because of the state of his bathroom at his apartment before he moved out of it. I don’t think that he will ever clean it. If I don’t do it, it will just get more and more disgusting. I like the discussion someone mentioned about the basement and helping them to see why it is important. Thinking about it, I don’t really know why it is important to me. I think it is a dignity thing. I just think it is gross. Maybe this weekend, I will pull both my husband and my daughter into the bathroom to give them a TOUR of the current Disgusting status of our tub. Point it out and gently explain that it is a big job to clean it and ask them who is going to do it this time to help keep it looking nicer?

  • http://www.facebook.com/OfficialGregoryBlake Gregory Blake

    Such an important topic and great advice! My wife and I have been married for almost 30 years now, and I thought I’d share a few of our negotiated guidelines.
    – Never, ever feel resentful for doing work you would have done for yourself if you were single and living on your own.
    – Just because they make it look easy doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard.
    – Just because you can’t touch the results, doesn’t mean it wasn’t work (e.g. online banking).
    – For a household to work effectively, you want both partners to be responsible for the work they are best at, not the same things. In the same way that no one individual does every job in a corporation, pure efficiency means you’ll often do different things. Again, embrace that efficiency and be grateful for the others different contribution.
    – Conversely, just because someone is good at something doesn’t mean they like to do it.
    – Do what needs to be done.
    – What you have been asked to do needs to be done.
    – Time-frames need to be explicit. (e.g. Do you mean today? Next pay check? etc.)
    And last but not least,
    – Your spouse is not telepathic. :)

    • gretchenrubin

      Great rules!