How to Ask Your Partner to Do More
Insight from experts on what works — and why it's so hard.
A few months ago, when work was totally bonkers, my son got sick. As kids do. I have a more flexible schedule than my partner does, so I’m usually the one who stays home on snow days and sick days. But this particular week, I wasn’t sure I could handle it. I realized that I probably needed to ask my husband to step up.
But how? That was one key question I had. And as soon as I reflected on my needs, I immediately began having doubts about those needs. I probably could handle everything on my own, I thought. It wouldn’t be impossible. I didn’t fully understand the culture of my partner’s workplace, so I wasn’t sure how much of a burden it would be for him to ask to work from home. I didn’t want to ask for too much if, maybe, probably, I could manage it all on my own.
All of my hemming and hawing made me realize that this was a topic I wanted to dig into here. Because although I suspect most of you recognize, on some level, that it’s okay and even important to ask for more support, I bet I’m not the only one who struggles to actually do it. (Making matters worse, once we’re desperate enough to finally ask, our requests often bristle with anger and resentment, which make things worse.)
Why is it so hard for women, especially, to ask men to do more? We’re all products of decades of (sexist) gender conditioning, which tells women that they should be givers, not takers. That we shouldn’t be a burden to others.
Often, this conditioning incites us to rationalize unfair situations. In a study conducted during the pandemic and published in 2021, a group of sociologists, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Jessica Calarco, interviewed parents who were in opposite-gender, dual-earner families. Many of the mothers they interviewed justified the gender imbalances in their household labor as being “practical” or “natural,” even though their arrangements took a toll on their relationships, mental health, and careers.
“Many mothers did not feel entitled to seek support with child care from fathers or non-parental caregivers and experienced guilt if they did so,” the authors explained.
The gender norms we all grew up with are powerful, they’re not going away naturally, and they very often subconsciously influence the decisions that we make. Being more equitable in the home means we have to intentionally push back on these norms — and that is going to be uncomfortable for everyone involved. And it can be just as hard for the person doing more to pull back, as it is for the person doing less to step up.
Some of you may bristle at the idea of asking at all. Why should it be our responsibility to ensure that our partners step up? Shouldn’t they be proactive and offer to do more on their own? I agree — this shouldn’t be yet another thing that’s put on us. But if our partners are not automatically offering, then what?
Then it can be helpful to recognize that we do have agency. That we can take steps to make things better.
But to get there, we also need to recognize that we deserve support and change, and that we are worthy of the discomfort it might take to get us there.
Entire books have been written on what couples can do to establish more household equality. This is not my aim with this newsletter. What I’m addressing today is much smaller and more specific: If you want support from your partner at a particular point in time, what’s the best way to get it? How should we talk to them so that they don’t get angry or defensive?
To get answers, I reached out to Brown University clinical psychologist Yael Schonbrun, the author of Work, Parent, Thrive (I ran a Q&A with her a while ago about her book), and psychotherapist Daphne de Marneffe, the author of The Rough Patch: Marriage and the Art of Living Together.
I realize I’m focusing mostly on hetero cis-gender couples here — that’s largely because divisions of labor tend to be more equal among same-gender couples and those with transgender or non-binary parents. But of course, there are exceptions, and I hope that the advice I provide here will be useful to all caregivers.
Here are three key strategies that will help you get support when you need it.