This article will use gendered language, as a reflection of a dynamic that seems most common in cis-gendered, heterosexual relationships.
There is a groundswell of women on social media declaring we don’t want help from our husbands. Though it may sound counter-intuitive, this phrase is meant to demonstrate the need for men to step up and be proactive when it comes to household chores, taking care of the children, and all the things that go into keeping a home and a family functional.
The argument is that men (husbands) aren’t helping. They aren’t helping when they fold the laundry or sweep the floor. They aren’t babysitting when they watch the kids so mom can run some errands alone for once. When husbands do these tasks, they are simply behaving the way a husband and a father should behave. This is why many women find themselves frustrated when husbands ask, “how can I help?” Or, “would you like me to babysit the kids so you can go out with your sister?” The offer, though well-intentioned, implies that the responsibilities of home-making and child-rearing are owned entirely by the wife. In today’s modern world, where many households require a dual income to survive, there are more women in the workplace than ever. And it appears that many men’s ideas about domestic partnership haven’t updated to reflect this new reality.
I wrote recently about equity in marriages when it comes to domestic labor, so I won’t get into that complex topic here (but I highly encourage you to pause here and give it a read before moving forward with this article). Whether a couple splits all household tasks 50/50, or has come up with an equitable division of labor that accounts for each other’s outside commitments at work, there will always need to be conversations about how to keep the household functional. And this morning, my husband and I stumbled upon a new and better way to have these conversations. Especially when it comes to offering to “help” each other.
We have agreed that the morning school routine with our kids is my job. I offered to handle this part of our day so that my husband could sleep in, since his demanding job often keeps him up late at night. However, when my husband can see that the chaos of the morning routine is starting to wear me out, he gives me a break. This morning, he got out of bed before our kids were up so that he could intercept them before they came to wake me up. I got to sleep until my body naturally awoke, which ended up being about twenty minutes before the kids had to be out the door.
I walked into the kitchen to find my husband managing it all, but also looking pretty overwhelmed (as I do most mornings, too). Instead of asking, how can I help? I asked what still needs to be done?
It was funny because my husband and I both stopped in our tracks when those words came out of my mouth. I’d never phrased this question like that before. Neither had my husband. After smiling at each other for a second, he said, “I haven’t made their snacks yet and Abby needs her hair brushed.”
And off I went to handle those tasks.
I think there is something fundamentally different about asking what needs to be done instead of how can I help. It connotes a shared responsibility, an opportunity for teamwork. It suggests that we are in this together, and that we can conquer together. In a perfect world, I would have known exactly what needed to be done and just gotten to it. But that’s not always realistic, is it? Since I was walking squarely into the middle of my husband’s efforts to get the kids ready for school, I had no way of knowing what tasks had been done and which ones still needed doing. I needed him to patch me in so that I knew exactly how to come alongside him.
But I’m not helping him. I’m working with him as his teammate, his partner. And something about asking what needs done seems to reinforce the idea of teamwork far better than how can I help.
I’m sure there are readers who think this sounds like an insignificant matter of semantics. And perhaps you are right. What I know, as a cognitive psychologist, is that words matter. They convey meaning—not just through the stated words, but through the intent that is suggested by them. Choosing our words carefully is important because our words show other people how we view the world. In this case:
How can I help connotes that you are offering to lend a hand to a task that you don’t see as being your responsibility, while
What needs done connotes that you see yourself and your partner as a team with shared goals and responsibilities.
Though the difference may be subtle, I believe it is profound. Couples—especially husbands—try making this small change in your language and see if it has an impact on your wife. I think if we all, both men and women, made an effort to be better about using teamwork language instead of individualistic language, we might find ourselves not only communicating better but also being more successful and productive as a team.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.