When we see what mechanisms rule our family and relationship, we can do something with it. Interview with Dorota Ziółkowska-Maciaszek, a couple psychotherapist at the Rozwód? Poczekaj! (Divorce? Wait!) Foundation.
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Natalia Waloch: Now we have to stay at home, both men and women. Could this be a turning point in how we arrange our home life and divide our duties?

Dorota Ziółkowska-Maciaszek: Of course, each crisis is a chance for a positive change, provided that we notice it and do not treat the challenging situation as an opportunity for even deeper frustration and divisions. The present isolation gives us a chance to take a look at our relationships. Do we find it easy or difficult to stay together all day? Do we have anything to talk about? What are the interactions in our family; for example who receives all requests and expectations? Do the children go to their mum with every problem, from “pull up my pants” through “make me a sandwich” to “help me with maths and history”? Maybe only part of the issues is addressed to me, but is this the part that is less pleasant? Maybe dad is always asked to play, give a hug or fool around, while I am asked to give food and clean socks? In our normal, everyday life this may go unnoticed.

We notice it and what’s next?

When we see what mechanisms rule our family and relationship, we can try to change them. But beware: we tend to react too quickly. There is something we don’t like, and there comes frustration which we want to release immediately.

“Because you’re doing nothing”?

Yes, it is a simple way to release tension and shift it to our partner. But it doesn’t promote a positive change, whether or not we are actually telling the truth.

What else doesn’t work?

Pretending to be a martyr. Continuously moaning about how overwhelming something is, blaming your family, reproaching them for not helping, not noticing or not appreciating. Our hope that if we embarrass or blame others, they will vigorously get to work and feel grateful for our engagement, is simply naive. Usually, the family quickly becomes resistant and the only thing we hear is: “Oh, mum (or dad) is complaining again”. Or our partner says: “Then don’t do it, nobody’s making you do it, why do you clean so much?”. In this way, we sink into our disliked role and don’t learn to assign duties to other household members. This will certainly not bring about any change.

Different homes function differently, but for the purpose of our discussion let’s analyse an average Polish family, in which a woman still does most of the chores, according to many surveys.

Let me just add that we are not talking about relationships in which things are going very badly, but about those in which the foundations and mutual approach of the partners are good enough to enable a constructive change.

Nowhere in the world do men and women work at home in equal measure, but in Scandinavia women dedicate one hour more than men, whereas Polish women work five hours a day while Polish men only work two and a half hours. Various surveys, such as the one conducted by the OECD, show that Polish women work a lot compared to other nations (which also applies to Polish men). The time of so-called ‘unpaid household work’ performed by women is around twice as long as that of men. But what’s interesting, Polish men don’t work much less than, for example, those from Norway. And in Norway, equality is at the highest level in Europe, and the contribution of both sexes in domestic chores is the most balanced.

Are you saying that Polish men work at home as much as those in Norway, but Polish women work at home much more than Norwegian women?

Yes. I don’t know of any sociological analysis that would explains this, but certainly a better financial position of a household is of great importance. It is a wealthy society so many families benefit from paid help in doing their chores. They probably eat out more often than we do, someone helps them take care of the kids. Maybe their education system does not burden their children with homework as much as ours. But I think that the financial differences are not everything. A report by the European Commission shows that 77 percent of Poles believe that the main role of a woman is to take care of the house and children. Thus, being only behind Bulgaria and Hungary, we are among the leading countries, mainly from Eastern and Southern Europe, where the traditional approach to the family is very strong. This explains a lot.

Regardless of whether I work or not, my value as a woman, wife, and mother is assessed by how much attention I pay to my home. We often don’t ease off. 

Do you see that in your office?

It sometimes happens during a workshop or at my office that I witness this kind of situation: a woman is not satisfied with the division of duties, her partner agrees and admits that it is not even and that she has taken on more obligations, but at the same time he says: “I don’t want to do so much. We work hard professionally, so maybe we should relieve ourselves somehow, change our priorities and dedicate more time to ourselves. Do we always have to have the house so clean? Why don’t we hire someone to help us?”. And this is the moment at which some women resist: “No, I expect that you do more, not that I do less”.


For example, because they believe that this is the model they should show their kids: that it is you that work at home, not someone else. They think that it is their job which they must deal with, and they feel guilty if they can’t do it perfectly.

Being a good housewife builds confidence.

The feeling of confidence, usefulness, agency. To compare it with the 77 percent I have mentioned, in Sweden only around 11 percent of people believe that the home and the family are mainly the responsibilities of women, the European average being 44 percent.

So we must start the revolution for the fair division of duties with ourselves?


Then let’s start with the “I will do it faster and better” syndrome.

Oh, this is very common. Men often complain that no matter what they do, they know in advance that it’s going to be wrong. He does something and then his partner comes and checks. And she usually says that it’s nice that it is done but not well enough. We normally don’t like being checked like this.

Plus, not many of us like to be subordinate.

Many women specify not only the goal but also how to reach it. An example: the mother goes out to do her activities and instead of assuming that the father will properly take care of the children while she is away, which seems obvious, she leaves specific instructions. She lays out step by step what and in what sequence he should do with the kids, what to give them to eat, what to play, what not to play, etc.

Such an approach assumes that the man won’t cope with it by himself and lowers his value as an equal partner. In consequence, it turns against the woman. 

Then what should you say?

In a relationship of equal partners? “I’m going out! Have fun!”. I don’t interfere with it because I assume that my partner is responsible, won’t hurt the kids, will play with them, give them something to eat and put them to bed. He will do it his own way, which is different than mine, but I am sure that the children will be taken care of. And if their father doesn’t do the homework with the kids properly, he will have to face the Fs brought home from school.

Men don’t like being subordinate, but not many women like giving orders, either.

This is the flip side of the same coin. It’s because men often say: “But I’m ready to help you, just tell me what to do. Did I ever say no?”. And then I see the woman start to boil. Because many women don’t want to act as managers assigning tasks. It is a hard and burdening role, in which a woman doesn’t feel like a partner but as a mother or boss. Many women wish that the man would see the home as his own plot, not that he is someone who is assigned work, who merely “helps”. She wants it to be their common concern.

Jeśli jedna osoba w związku jest przeciążona, ma poczucie krzywdy, związek nie będzie funkcjonował harmonijnie
Jeśli jedna osoba w związku jest przeciążona, ma poczucie krzywdy, związek nie będzie funkcjonował harmonijnie  Rys. Marta Frej

Why is there such a big disproportion in dividing domestic chores?

We do it unconsciously, we follow patterns and become influenced by social expectations. Often, we don’t even set the terms on which our home is to function, it just goes on and then, after some time, it turns out to be inconvenient for us. That’s why it is good to start by thinking together about how we are doing, why things are what they are and what we should change. The aim is not to make women additionally blame themselves: “How silly I am that I took all of this upon myself!”. We take it upon ourselves because this is the standard shaped by generations.

It is not easy to resist family patterns or the view of our friend’s house that is shining all over and there is still a freshly baked cake waiting on the table.

Of course, this does not mean that in this shining house everyone is happy. After all it’s all about setting our family life up in such a way as to make our home a place where we all feel good.

A successful relationship can be shaped in many different ways. There are women who feel fulfilled by taking care of their households and don’t feel like sharing that field with their husbands. 

But there are those who find it inconvenient.

Women’s housework is said to be invisible, as the economists don’t count it in the GDP, but it may also be invisible to the members of the household. If we asked men and women about their domestic chores, the list of women would surely be longer. Because even if a man who doesn’t touch a cloth knows that they hoover or cook, he may not know that he should also hoover the lamps or that a few times a year they check their children’s wardrobe and separate small clothes from the rest. Maybe a list of chores would be useful for our revolution?

Of course. In Sweden, they even created an application which lists all the activities that partners do every day. At the end of the day, you can check who scored more points because the activities are awarded points.

Sounds a bit corporate, but this is a good tool, isn’t it?

It depends because, as we know, any tool can also be used as a weapon in a domestic war, a means of oppression or rivalry. If we want a change in our relationship, then the positive intent of both parties is a key.

But let me add something else. There is a list of domestic chores developed by Prof. John Gottman, which I give to couples to complete: everyone marks what they do and then we look if the list shows a balance or an imbalance. Sometimes we get interesting results, for instance it turns out that, contrary to what the woman claims, it is not that the man doesn’t do anything at all, and suddenly from the point where she is convinced that she does 90 percent and he does only 10 percent of the work, she finds out that the real share is 60 to 40. It is still a difference, but a better starting point than the “you don’t do anything”. Such a list shows one more thing: that in general people work at home a lot. As a therapist, I often suggest: “Find some time to rest and spend some good time together, and consider whether you really have to spend so much time on doing homework with your kids. Maybe they should be doing it by themselves at this point?”.

OK, then what should our motivation be when we want to carry out our bloodless domestic revolution?

I think of it more as a development than a revolution. Revolutions often lead to a change in the elites and revenge.

If we aim for a genuine change, we should not be driven by the wish to take revenge or gain an advantage. Our goal is to achieve a balance that will make both of us feel better in our relationship. 

So, let me ask you how to present the benefits to our partner. Because the benefit for the woman is obvious: she is released from part of the burden. But why should he take them upon himself so eagerly?

For him, the main benefit is that he can really become a partner. Feel co-responsible and abandon his position as someone who is barely acquainted with his home and family matters. I can see that many contemporary men seek this. For them, the thought that the woman would have to manage and be responsible for the home downgrades their role, as it brings them down to the role of a child who must be taken care of. And maturity and partnership are rewarding, they make us feel in control of our lives.

Any more obvious profits?

For many men, a reward for taking part in domestic chores is a better contact with their kids. As a matter of fact, fathers happen to be jealous of mother-children relations. When they are more present at home, they start to understand that you don’t build closeness with your child through attractions and playing but by helping them do their homework, solving common problems, and practising patience when the child doesn’t want to cooperate. Those men who have not actively participated in the care of small children before, are very satisfied when they tell me that the mother, previously not quite willing to do so, decided to go away somewhere alone and leave the children with their dad. They admit that at the beginning they would be afraid of it, that it was a challenge, but they gained the feeling that they can be an equal parent and became very tender when it came to children. They also find it easier to understand the woman and how much attention and effort it requires to take care of the kids.

For men with daughters, can it be rewarding to be aware that they give them a good example of a man?

Yes. On the other hand, it may be helpful for them to recall their own mother, always overworked and serving their father.

And what should you do with a partner who says he can’t handle a washing machine?

You know, I think this is an act. If in the 21st century, in the age of laptops and smartphones, he says he can’t handle a washing machine, it is either a learned helplessness or reluctance to do the washing.

You can always find a YouTube channel where they teach you how to turn the washing machine on. Just like a woman can find a relevant channel when she doesn’t know how to drive a nail. 

It is quite common that the father takes the children to the playground so that the woman can “clean up in peace”. Great, but I would rather sit in the park than clean the bath.

This is not a fair division, unless you switch the roles the following week. But on the other hand, it sometimes happens that the woman complains that she does not have enough time for herself, and the man says: “Let’s do something so you can have more of it”. They agree that on Sunday he will take the kids and she can do nothing. Then the father comes back home with the children, and the house is spotless because she cleaned it.

I think that the serious problem lies in that part of the chores which no one wants to take on. I have no problem stirring a delicious meal in a pot, but I’m not as keen on cleaning the toilet. I think that often women get mad because even if he drives the kids to school, she still has to pull out hair from the bathtub drain. This is not entirely fair.

The same question again: why did she take this upon herself? It would be good if a couple, using the present crisis, analysed the rules based on which they divided their duties.

I would bet that in many cases that rule was not set. “It just happened.” I started doing something, did it once, then again and so it remained. But I’m no longer fine with that, I feel frustrated. 

Yes, and here comes to my mind another benefit for the man, which may be the most important: a less frustrated woman. If one person in a relationship is overburdened and feels like they are being treated unfairly, the relationship won’t be harmonious. If one of the partners loses in the relationship, then the whole relationship loses! However, it’s not about dividing the jobs exactly into halves, which is sometimes impossible, but about the fact that both partners feel a relative balance between what they give and what they get.

Should the revolution also cover our children?

Of course. If we include the children in our duties, we teach them the community approach, show them that the home is our shared space and each member of the household tries to make it nice. Everyone has obligations suited to their age and abilities. As a matter of fact, small children get a lot of satisfaction out of helping. The aim here is not that the kids give us a real relief but that they develop various competencies for the future. That’s why it is good if boys and girls can practise household skills that go beyond the gender stereotype. This gives them a lot of self-confidence in building the independence necessary to start adult life.

How do you get all this going? Make a deal? Hang a schedule on the fridge?

Some couples find this helpful. A schedule, a list of tasks, a shared calendar. But this is only a logistical help. The key is to understand that we try to reach a balance in our relationship, as the lack of it makes us frustrated. And frustration maintained for a long time may trigger a crisis which, if not cured, leads to a break-up. It’s not about “keeping our relationship books”, meticulously recording how much each of us is doing, but about having the feeling that we are both equally involved. Even if what we give and receive refers to different areas.

Well yes, but in most cases the objective is that he does more. How do you divide this?

I recommend a method of competence and preference. What I can do and what I like doing. Someone says: “I hate ironing”, “And I hate hoovering”. “OK, then I’m going to hoover and you iron”. And then what remains on the table is what we both don’t like or are bad at. We may wonder whether it’s possible to give that part to someone else, for example to pay someone to do housekeeping from time to time. Nevertheless, there will still remain those unpleasant things like pulling hair out of the drain or cleaning the toilet. Here we have a few options. We can divide it in half: one week you do it, then one week I can do it, or we can draw lots. We can also treat it as a gift to our partner: I know it’s disgusting for you, I don’t feel it that much, someone has to do it so I will just do it”. These types of “gifts” work well in relationships and usually make the partner grateful.

So, I can trade the toilet cleaning for Saturday coffee service in bed?

Why not? The compensation for our partner’s involvement does not need to stay in the same area. When I study satisfaction in a relationship, many couples are satisfied with the giving and receiving even though their involvement in the chores is not equal. “I do indeed do more at home, but every day my husband massages my feet and always appreciates what I do.” I once knew an elderly couple. He was an old-school engineer, she was an old-school housewife. Their roles were traditionally divided. When he came through the door, she would welcome him like: “How was your day, are you very tired?”, and he, having noticed all that had been done at home, would reply: “Honey, you worked so hard, why did you do so much on your own? I would have helped you, that’s too much for you.” After dinner, which his wife would serve him, he would go for a nap, and after getting up he would make coffee for both of them, take care of her needs, they had a good time together.

Their care was mutual, and they wouldn’t probably even think that there was any kind of inequality. This was because they noticed their comparable involvement in their family and appreciated each other. 

In many relationships this is exactly what is lacking: appreciation, gratitude, hospitality.

What should we do if we have decided on everything but the revolution is not going as planned. He was supposed to do it but didn’t, and I had to finish it up again.

We just have to monitor it and arrange that from time to time we sit down and talk over what works and what doesn’t. Maybe we arranged it wrong? Maybe it will turn out that we didn’t arrange anything at all?

What do you mean?

Sometimes one of the partners comes and says that now it’s going to be like this and like that, and the other one just nods, not accustomed to giving their own opinion. But then they passively resist. This is not an agreement, and the sooner we discover it, the better. Often women say at my office: “But we agreed to this”. Then I ask the man: “Did you agree to that?”, and he says: “Like I had a choice”.

Did he?

Of course. He could have said: “I don’t agree”. Here we can reach deeper and consider why he didn’t use that option. Maybe he wants to avoid conflicts, maybe that was how it worked at his family home, that his father would agree to anything just to have peace and quiet. When we want a change, we must make the issue significant. We can’t talk about it in a rush or in anger. Arrange a talk and give your partner a change to prepare. Tell them straight up what you feel and what your objective is. Listen to your partner’s point of view. And together work out some better solutions. Sometimes it’s good to write down your arrangements, type them out on the phone or stick them to the fridge. If we are motivated, the good habit will come in time.

What happens if our feeling of harm and an unfair burden in a relationship remains unexpressed for years?

This is very harmful to the relationship. What is unexpressed, stays there and affects our attitude towards our partner. I feel treated unfairly, alone and overburdened, so I withdraw for an internal emigration. The partner may not be aware of what is really happening. He sees that I’m shutting myself in, that we are drifting apart, but he may not connect it with our domestic chores.

Living with an unexpressed feeling of harm, I start seeing bad intentions in my partner so I pay him back by being malicious, I can emotionally punish him and push him away. If the relations are full of bitterness, the emotional relationship falls apart and trust is replaced by aversion. At that point, it is very difficult to restore the relationship to a good condition. That’s why it is so important to express our needs, to risk talking about difficult things, to care about the feeling of balance, and to give a chance to making a change.

So, trying to start that revolution?

If its aim is that we both feel good with each other and strengthen our relationship, then yes, definitely. An important thing is the tenderness which you have in the slogan of your campaign. Tenderness soothes, it is an anaesthetic in a crisis. Partners who are tender towards each other find it easier to get through even a revolution.

Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.

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