Everything abhors a vacuum: Nature. Cats, obviously. Any system or group that lacks structure or leadership. Power struggles can cause a lot of friction in relationships, and conversely, lack of power struggles can do it too. That’s what happens when nobody in a household is willing to step up and make decisions. A household leadership vacuum can lead to a long list of predictable problems.
In a household with no leadership, everyone is unhappy for different reasons. Typically, there are debt, mess, and health problems. Everyone eats meals and goes to bed at different times from everyone else. The pets are acting crazy. No vacations are to be had. Paradoxically, everyone does what they want in the small ways, yet never gets to do what they want on the large scale. No leadership means no major projects, no matter how cool they would have been.
Leadership doesn’t have to be combative, strict, cruel, or obnoxious. The image that comes to mind is of a large capybara leading other capybaras into a hot spring. A mother duck leading a string of a dozen fluffy yellow ducklings to a pond. A mama dog teaching a puppy to climb stairs. Nature is full of adorable examples of cute animals living in harmony, all because they have a culture that they teach by example.
Argue just what exactly I mean by “culture” in that statement, and then agree with me that building a nest or hive takes a great deal more coordination and communication than many humans exhibit in their homes. If you can’t agree with that, come with me on a home visit and take a good look at the phenomenon that I call ‘laundry carpet.’
Housework is one of the top reasons that couples fight and get divorced. Having tried to draw up chore calendars and chore wheels, I can say with certainty that it is also one of the main reasons why roommates move out and stop being friends with one another. Housework is only one symptom among many of what triggers communication breakdowns and destroys relationships.
Money: Who’s earning what, who’s spending, how much, and what are they buying?
Schedule: Who’s going to bed when, who’s abusing the snooze alarm, who’s waking someone else up
Food: Who’s planning it, who’s shopping for it, who’s cooking it, who’s eating it all, who’s convincing the kids to eat it, and, most importantly, who’s cleaning up after it
Sharing: Who gets to hold the remote? Who gets to drive the “good” car or eat the “good” leftovers or finish the last of the ice cream?
Procrastinating: (Everybody does it but) Who promised what and then failed to follow through?
Parenting: Who has to play “bad cop,” who’s being inconsistent, who’s susceptible to childish wiles, who’s abdicating responsibilities
Lifestyle: What do we want out of life? How do we want to spend our time? How do we want our home to look and feel? What’s the right kind of vacation? How much is enough for retirement?
Picture any argument you’ve ever heard between people who share a home or an office. The root cause is going to be an unresolved problem that could have been prevented if someone had set policy in advance. It could be solved with negotiation, which is a form of leadership, in that it requires someone to take the initiative and make an offer.
Negotiating and setting policies that work for everyone are gentle ways to assert leadership.
My dad had a policy that if he assigned chores, he just wanted them all to get done. He didn’t care if my brothers and I traded amongst ourselves; he didn’t even want to be in the loop. Work it out among yourselves and get it done. That policy taught us to negotiate, something that siblings are often pretty good at. Another similar policy was that the kid who sliced the cake got to choose last. Those were the most precise cake slices you’ve ever seen; you could probably weigh them and they’d come out balanced to the last nanoparticle. A good policy makes sense to everyone. If it’s an improvement over chaos, it’ll be adopted and embraced.
Show me a burned-out, exhausted, defensive parent and I’ll show you a parent who has not yet learned to negotiate and set policies.
Show me a couple who can’t talk about money, housework, sex, or the balance of power in their relationship, and I’ll show you a couple of referrals for divorce lawyers.
Living with other humans in a confined physical space is hard. It’s complicated. In a culture where nobody believes in sleep, everyone is tired. That means nobody wants to do anything more than they’re already doing, whether that’s cooking, putting away laundry, vacuuming goldfish crumbs out of the car, or opening a difficult conversation about debt. Ironically, it’s the skill of strategic discussion that has the power to defuse the tension around any topic.
The old school, traditional method was the authoritarian rule of the iron rod. There is one powerful figure in the home. That person lays down the law and backs it up with corporal punishment and verbal abuse. Everyone else, from wives to courtesans to children to serfs to livestock, cowers in fear and struggles to be obedient. This ancient structure persists to the present day. A lot of people avoid conflict for this very reason, the trauma of authoritarian family structure. It’s hard for us to imagine any other way of doing things.
The new way is cooperation, brainstorming, and creativity. Negotiation starts with deep listening, empathy, and mutual respect. How are things for you? What’s working? What’s not working? What is your outrageous dream? What’s your vision of the good life, and how can we facilitate that for you?
I facilitated a discussion like this with a blended family. Each member felt exhausted and unfairly burdened by chores and helping with the new baby. It turned out that they each had fourteen responsibilities. Looking at the list, everyone (parents and teenage kid) agreed that it was actually a remarkably fair division of labor. Why, then, were they so frustrated? They simply weren’t giving each other appreciation, they weren’t celebrating or having enough fun, and none of them had the “prize” they wanted most. For Mom it was the ability to occasionally soak in a hot bubble bath. Legit. Dad wanted family dinners at the table, at least sometimes. Fair enough. Teenager wanted permission to ride the city bus and go to the movies. At his age, why not?
An easy way to initiate a discussion about a leadership vacuum is to get your partner (child, roommate, talking pony) to share about something they find exciting or fascinating. A wish, a dream, a hobby. What do they like, what do they want more of? Offer ways that you could help make that happen, like trading responsibilities or rearranging furniture to create a new space. A less verbal way to do this would be to silently surprise everyone with a positive change, like clearing off the dining table or cooking a special meal. Then, make your pitch and ask specifically for what you want.
What works is to add as much positivity, fun, harmony, and good cheer as possible. The more opportunities there are to relax, hang out, laugh, tell interesting stories, read quietly together, share meals, invite friends over, snuggle with pets, watch the clouds, stargaze, and otherwise enjoy each other’s presence, the easier it is to do the boring stuff. The tension drains away, and the hard conversations can become... just regular conversations.
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.
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