I wrote yesterday about the division of household chores in my marriage and the fact that I am satisfied with the arrangement that my husband and I have. I am fortunate to be married to a man who does not have a sense of entitlement and who would be happy to renegotiate our division of labor at any time if I asked him. The problem is that it is virtually impossible to insist on an equal division of labor if your partner is unwilling. I know because I was in that situation with the boyfriend I dated for three years during college.
An incident that happened about nine months after I began dating my boyfriend should have been a huge red flag. I had the day off from my summer work as a temp secretary and had specific plans as to how I was going to spend the day, when my boyfriend called and said, "Listen, I have a bunch of shirts that need to be ironed and I have a class tonight after work so I need you to go over to my place and iron the shirts so I'll have something to wear tomorrow." He didn't say "please." He didn't say "I really hate to ask you this but I'm in a real bind. Is there any way you could do this for me?" Instead, he just flat out told me to do it. And then he got angry when I said I had other plans! He took it as his due that I would travel 45 minutes across town to his apartment and spend my day ironing his shirts! I get furious just thinking about it 15 years later.
Fights over who was going to perform basic tasks became a regular factor in our relationship. My ex-boyfriend really seemed to think that it was my job to tidy up his apartment when I stayed there (and I mean above and beyond just picking up after myself) and he always expected me to run out and get breakfast and a paper in the morning, or run out and pick up the food if we were getting take-out at night.
Now I had strong feminist convictions then (as well as now, of course), so I called him on it. But even when I pointed out on numerous occasions (initially in a reasoned sort of way and then in an increasingly agitated manner) that a girlfriend is not a #*(!!)! servant, his attitude was that I shouldn't be so hostile and that you'd think a woman would be happy to do things for her boyfriend.
And that's exactly what made the situation so hard. This was a man I otherwise found attractive, with whom I had a great time and for whom I had strong feelings. His oafishness didn't occur in a vacuum - it was one aspect of a relationship that included a lot of other things. And it's exhausting to constantly have to fight over who is going to get the take-out -- sometimes it's easier to just cave. I wanted to be a good significant other and do nice things for my boyfriend -- but I felt robbed of even being able to make sweet romantic gestures like making dinner because it had become such a sore point. And lastly, I really wondered whether, even in my bubble of liberal urban college-educated people, there were any men out there who would ever agree to do their share of the housework. My father certainly had never lifted a finger around the house. For a long time I thought my choices would be: (a) remain single, (b) engage in the constant miserable tug-of-war over household chores which would sour me and all my relationships, or (c) simply give in and take on the woman's "second shift."
Ultimately, I dumped this guy (he was deeply sexist and controlling in many other ways), and things turned out okay for me. But there are a lot of women out there who, because of cultural expectations that are not so easy to change, are stuck doing the exhausting and debilitating hours upon hours of housework on top of full time jobs outside the home. It's easy to say to these women, "Well, don't put up with it any more," but it is impossible to create equality in a relationship unless both parties are committed to it.