The romantic version of abdication is that of Edward VIII giving up his throne to be with Wallis Simpson. I mean, gosh! What a woman! What an affair! They even got to keep the fame, the fortune, and the servants! But they were Nazi sympathizers, so phooey on them. Let’s talk about garden variety abdication, the kind that ordinary people do every day.
Abdicating responsibility is refusing to fulfill an obligation or uphold a duty. These duties and obligations generally fall under the category of ‘adulting.’ People who live alone can ditch on many of these obligations without too much trouble, because nobody else will be bothered by their squalid living conditions, save for the rare occasions when a visitor drops by. When we live with other people, abdicating domestic tasks becomes a burden and infringes on their rights.
An example of abdication comes from a woman I met who was married, with a grade school-aged son and a new baby. She complained that she had to change all the diapers, “because if either of them do it they’ll puke.” I shared this story with my husband, who raised his daughter and stepson and has changed many diapers. He said, “Do it on the bathroom floor then and lean over and puke into the toilet! Get over it!” I’ve changed hundreds of diapers and I agree. You learn to fight your gag reflex until eventually it stops kicking in. Maybe a sibling doesn’t need to be expected to help with infant care, but a parent does. Children are 90% exhausting, messy, thankless, and expensive, with the occasional adorable moment thrown in. It’s not fair to expect the other parent to take on more than a fair share of the work.
Abdicating takes many forms. I’ve met people who admit to utterly refusing to drive, cook, do laundry, get a job, get a better job, go to bed at the same time as their spouse, stop doing a behavior that they know full well drives their spouse up the wall, stop letching after other people, be honest, follow a budget, pick up after themselves, and all sorts of other things. I’ve even heard multiple examples of couples in their 30s in a power struggle over one partner’s personal hygiene. It goes beyond failing to be kind or loving or considerate. There’s a strong element of prolonged adolescence (or toddlerhood). The fight for absolute autonomy and personal sovereignty continues to the point of satire. “You’re not the boss of me!” Right. Nobody is. That’s the problem.
What we fail to understand when we abdicate our responsibilities is that this behavior is self-limiting. If we do it on the job, it leads inevitably to being first on the layoff list. If we do it in our romantic relationships, we don’t always realize that this behavior only works in the context of the current relationship. Most people won’t put up with this sort of BS. If our current partner ever snaps and develops some backbone, we may very well find ourselves alone and undateable. If our roommates throw us out, we may find that we can’t keep a roof over our heads either.
Maturity and competence are their own rewards. Maintaining a power struggle gets tiresome. Why die on this particular hill? Why not assert personal autonomy by creating art or rising on the career ladder? “I don’t have to” doesn’t lead to nearly as many interesting places as “I can do this and watch what else.” Or “I can love you better than anyone else can.”
Sometimes the pendulum of give and take swings temporarily much farther in one direction. One of us gets the flu and the other doesn’t. One of us has a sports injury. One of us is laid off and depressed. One of us is working statutorily absurd amounts of overtime. One of us is in a bad place emotionally and turning inward instead of outward. It’s a natural human reaction to become increasingly selfish when under any kind of stress, pressure, or drama. We start listening to the cartoon shoulder-devil that justifies our behavior when we’re lazy, rude, mean, or trying to build a rational case for an irrational double standard. We also have the option to choose patience and to wait out our partner’s neglect or snits or tantrums from time to time. We can troubleshoot and try to figure out how to defuse the power struggles that inevitably come up. We can step up and say, “HEY! This is not cool. It’s time to snap out of it.” We can listen hard and try to be a good friend, even when they least seem to deserve one. One way or the other, we can turn toward each other and find a way through it together. Everyone has a rough patch from time to time. Maybe we just need a nap and a snack and a hug.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.