Renegotiating the Domestic Contract: Dialogue is Paramount

When changes occur to the status quo, it's important that couples open up a dialogue with each other, and re-visit it from time to time, says Rebecca Ford Johnson.

When working situations change, so do those at home. Whether someone is laid off or someone goes back to work, the roles that you have fallen into in the past go out the window, and both parties need to renegotiate the domestic contract.

How can this discussion be approached to get the most out of it for everyone?

What needs to be considered in this renegotiation, and who needs to be involved?

Whose job is it anyway?

If you are going to be starting maternity leave, preparing to return to work after a period of leave, or otherwise starting to spend more or less time at home, you might think that you are the only one that needs to think about corresponding changes at home. That was certainly my approach going through two lots of maternity leave, and more recently a career change with a flexible working pattern.

Rather surprisingly it is only now, looking back, that I realise it would have been more helpful if my partner and I had talked through, in advance, what changes might happen at home - rather than simply going with the flow. We could have avoided a growing resentment that the other wasn't doing enough around the house, as well as the pointless discussions about what was fair and who was doing more than the other.

Talk talk talk

I recognise now that we had different assumptions and expectations - but we didn't sit down and talk them through with each other before the situation changed.

We now have a great balance and understanding, but we could have saved time and energy by doing a little bit of pre-planning. It makes sense to talk... before you reach the point when you are shouting at each other for the sixth week running, over whose turn it is to take the rubbish out.

Think before you speak

Start by taking ten minutes to think through what you think will change at home - both emotionally and practically.

Emotionally, you might expect to be stressed out (and correspondingly a little less patient with those at home), but your partner may not be expecting this. You might know that if your partner doesn't say thank you for what you do around the house once in a while you will feel undervalued. But, have you told him or her? Are there things he or she does that you could thank him or her for, but realise you don't?

On the practical side, what jobs do you do around the house at the moment that you might not have time for when your work situation changes? What support, both emotionally and practically, will you need from your partner, and what support do you think they will need from you?

How to start talking

Set aside 30 minutes one evening to talk through your expectations, assumptions and fears with your partner.

  • What does he or she want?
  • What doesn't she or he know already about how you are feeling?
  • What assumptions are either of you making about the other, or about the situation?

For example, women returning to work after maternity leave may consider flexible working. Might their partner as well? It may be the case that one of you works longer hours and it's therefore just assumed that they are less involved around the house; can you have a conversation about how he or she might want to be more involved, and how you can help support them with that?

Can you work out what you each enjoy doing (relatively speaking), and what you are each best suited to? Personally I like playing with spreadsheets, so I am the one who organises our finances; he loves cooking - and frankly is better at it than me - so he cooks our evening meal. These things work for us - but may not be what works for you.

Don't stop talking

Experiment: try something out, and keep talking about what is working and what isn't. If one of you isn't happy, don't build resentment; sit down and discuss how things might change to make it better for everyone.

Finally, the most important things to remember are:

  • Put yourself in your partner's shoes every now and again
  • Just because someone does something differently to the way you do it, it doesn't mean their approach is wrong
  • Don't say one thing but mean or think another
  • Accept that it's not a bad thing to compromise
  • Don't expect "fair" to mean 50:50 - it is whatever feels right to both of you.

Rebecca Ford Johnson, Executive Coach, Mother