My latest article at The Federalist went up yesterday. It’s about division of housework in marriage and the way equality corrodes marital love by breeding entitlement. However, as happens sometimes, I went way over my word limit and the second half of the piece was cut for space. So read that first if you haven’t, and here’s the rest of the article, in which I discuss how to tell if one’s discontentment is being caused by entitlement and what to do about it.
Feelings of discontentment about housework in a marriage can easily become tyrants when they’re put in the driver’s seat. As I’ve discussed previously, our emotions are blind guides, and we can easily resent a person because of how we treat them rather than how they treat us.
At the same time, the feelings are what they are. When someone feels that kind of discontentment, she can’t just wish the feelings away. So in the face of persistent feelings like this, how can one discover whether she’s feeling unfairly treated due to a neglectful husband or due to her own entitlement? Well, you can’t tell from examining your feelings. You feel just as angry, overwhelmed, frantic, and desperate either way. And unless you are actually willing to go the spreadsheet route, you’re probably not going to figure it out by comparing workloads either. We all have confirmation bias, and when we’re upset, we’re all inclined to see the tasks they overlooked tasks while ignoring the ones fulfilled. As Honoré de Balzac wrote, “When women love, they forgive us everything, even our crimes; when they do not love us, they give us credit for nothing, not even for our virtues.”
Instead, you need to seriously consider whether entitlement is at the root of your feelings—whether it’s about housework or something else. So ask yourself:
Are you unable to experience gratitude?
Can you bring yourself thank your husband for what he contributes to the household? If not, do you immediately start finding excuses for why he doesn’t deserve your thanks for what he does? When you see something that you want him to do, do you ask him nicely? Do you ask him at all? Or do you instead begin conjuring reasons why you shouldn’t even have had to ask for something so simple because he already owes it to you? If gratitude is an alien concept for you, then your sense of entitlement is almost certainly an issue.
When you complain, are you being hypocritical?
Do you angrily point out something he didn’t put away that’s sitting right next to something you didn’t put away? When you pick up the empty cups from last night’s ice cream, are you upset that he didn’t throw his out even though you were only just getting around to throwing out yours yourself? Everyone finds themselves too tired to do housework some nights—yourself included. But do you get resentful when he feels that way or do you reserve that consideration only for yourself? All of us are hypocrites sometimes, but if this is happening frequently, then you can be sure that you’re not judging your husband fairly.
Do you dramatize the little things?
When he fails to put his dishes in the sink, is it like he’s telling you he hates you? Do you find yourself seething with resentment when dinner is 10 minutes late? When he does something minor wrong, do you consider it emblematic of all the times he’s done that thing or even of everything he’s done wrong? To be sure, we’re all sinners, and every husband fails from time to time. What’s more, everybody has a different list of things which bother them, and it can take time for spouses to get on the same page. But if you regularly have to inflate or aggregate his peccadilloes in order to justify the amount of offense you’re feeling, then you need to reconsider why that is.
Do you find yourself saying “I don’t care” when it comes to his feelings?
You want your husband to respect your feelings, and it’s not always natural for men to do so. Temporarily putting our feelings aside is sometimes a necessary part of our responsibilities, and so we tend to expect the same from others. But you don’t want to him to always railroad past your experience and get straight into the practical matters, and that’s all well and good.
So do you show him the same consideration? When you’re trying to communicate on an emotional level, do you find yourself dismissing his feelings while insisting that he respect yours? Do you always railroad past him on the way back to yourself? When he tells you how he feels, do you immediately tell him about the time you felt like that only it was so much worse? If so, you may be crossing the line into solipsism. And if you find yourself mocking his feelings even as you demand he respect yours, then you’ve already blithely careened over that line.
Do you reject your husband’s authority?
If you’re a Christian, when God tells you to submit to your husband as the Church submits to Christ, do you embrace that instruction or find excuses for why its different in your case? Do you accept his judgment calls or do you berate him because it’s wasn’t done exactly the way you would have done it? When you’ve said your piece and he makes a decision, do you get on board or do you passive-aggressively undermine that decision?
But even apart from Christian doctrine, if you believe you are entitled to something from your husband, then there must be a corresponding responsibility on his end. And if he has a genuine responsibility, then logically, he must also posess the authority to carry it out. If you can’t bring yourself to recognize any such authority and submit to it, then your entitlement has become unmoored from that which keeps it in check.
Have you failed to even try just being nice?
It’s an amazingly simple attitude that makes all the difference in the world. Suzanne Venker wrote an excellent article on this subject recently. She (correctly) observes that husbands feed off their wives kindness—it encourages us and energizes us to do the kind of things our wives want us to do. But even if you aren’t ready to embrace that reality, you need to at least understand that “the beatings will continue until morale improves” is a counterproductive strategy. If your approach to getting your husband to do what you believe to be his fair share consists mainly of nagging, browbeating, shaming, and general acidity, then you’re undermining your own interests. When every request for housework is either an angry demand or a passive-aggressive snipe, it’s a solid clue that your entitlement is at the root of the problem.
Do these questions describe your situation? To be sure, there are lazy people out there, which means that there are lazy husbands out there as well. If the honest answers to those questions tend towards “no”, then the husband really might need to simply pitch in more. But if you find yourself answering “yes” to these questions, the problem is likely an overgrown sense of entitlement.
That is a truly dangerous situation for husbands to be in. Our calling, our privilege, and our nature is to sacrifice ourselves for our families. But there is no slaking the thirst of unmoored entitlement, and unlike an uneven split in housework, that kind of entitlement becomes genuinely abusive. The husband who responds to it by simply giving more will not only use himself up, but do no good for his wife by doing so. Christ gave himself up for His Church, but He’s also willing to discipline her and warn her that she faces judgment when she abandons her husband. That itself is an act of sacrifice in an age when husbands & fathers are disregarded by society and constantly subject to the threat of divorce.
And if you’re a wife who sees herself in these questions, then you need to reject your own entitlement. You need to learn to be kind. You need to learn to be grateful. You need to learn to put things in perspective. And the hardest part will be that you need to do it even though you don’t feel like it. But you can fake being nice. You can make yourself say “thank you” even if you don’t feel grateful. The feelings will follow in time as you practice these skills. But for it to even be possible for you to make that kind of effort, you need to be clear in your own mind that you have sinned, and you quite simply need to repent. Stop worshiping equality and allowing it to devour your family.