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The Chore Wars

"I picked up the kids from daycare all week; you bathed the dog."

"I took the baby to his doctor appointment (and he got shots); you picked up dinner and vacuumed out the car."

"I mopped the kitchen floor; you forgot to clean the bathroom."

Sound familiar? Moms and dads argue like badly behaved kids when it comes to weighing who does the most. Take Jenny and Marc Fink of Mayville, Wisconsin. They're champion scorekeepers. Both work  -- Jenny as a freelance writer from home, Marc full-time-plus as a civil engineer with a long commute. Jenny also takes care of their four sons, ages 20 months to 9 years, and homeschools the two oldest. When Marc gets off work, he switches to full-energy-dad mode, hanging out with the kids before giving them baths and getting them to bed.

Partly because of their demanding schedules, the issue of divvying up household chores is a constant hot button. "My primary job is taking care of the kids," Jenny says. "But Marc still doesn't fully understand why the house is a mess when he gets home. He thinks I should find time to clean it."

Personal time is also a point of contention. Marc plays in a local softball league twice a week. Jenny tries to get to an exercise class once a week, or to meet up with friends for a movie or to grab coffee, but sometimes just doesn't have the energy.

Then the scorecards come flying out. Jenny angrily scrawls lists: Marc's chores and time spent with the kids versus her chores and kid-care time. She claims that her list is always longer, and fights the urge to toss it in Marc's lap. "I know I'm supposed to wait and have those kinds of conversations when I'm calm, but that doesn't always happen," she says.

The real score? It'll never be a tie. You probably have a load of laundry waiting (the one your husband should have done last night), so let's cut to the chase: Forget keeping score. Why? It won't organize your household any better  -- and it could make things worse.

"Couples usually don't start keeping score until they're feeling stressed or disconnected from each other," says Scott Stanley, codirector of the Center for Marital & Family Studies at the University of Denver. "These finger-pointing conflicts aren't about trying to get tasks accomplished together. They're about one or both members feeling ripped off."

Marriage isn't supposed to be a competitive sport, Stanley says. So the reality is you may never reach a perfect balance of who does what. But you can aim for a partnership that feels more fair. To become less of a scorekeeper and more of a team player (not just because that's a nicer notion but so that stuff gets done):

Stop nagging, start talking

"When we're tired and stressed out, we don't usually talk to our partners as respectfully as we might otherwise," says Kristen Harrington, a marriage and family therapist in Kingston, New York, and a mom of two. "We women, particularly, get bitter about our husbands' not noticing what needs to be done around the house and start treating them like their IQs are twenty points lower." Men, for their part, seem to tune out their wives when they nag.

And herein lies a basic opportunity to wipe the scorecard clean: better, kinder communication. Face it  -- you're not going to win any brownie points, or get any more help around the house, if your conversations with your spouse degenerate into something like this:

You: "You never empty the dishwasher! Do I need to start serving food on paper plates before you realize that you need to help out?"

Him: "Whoa, are you having your period? You're totally overreacting. It's just dishes. Of course I'll help. Just tell me what you want me to do."

You: "Oh, so I have to teach you how to stack dishes?"

Getting a little heartburn? If this sounds like you, what should you do? Although it may seem contrived, Harrington insists that a technique called "The Sandwich" really works. "Your goal is to 'sandwich' your concern or complaint between two positive statements," she says.

The first piece of "bread" is a statement of appreciation: "I love it when you make dinner for the family. Your chili is the best!" The filling in your sandwich is your complaint, phrased as an "I feel" statement: "I always feel really exhausted after dinner and wish I didn't have quite so much to clean up in the kitchen." More filling: "Would you consider cleaning up as you go?" The other piece of bread is another appreciative statement: "I'm sure we can work this out because I love your cooking!" If you mean the compliments, it won't sound cheesy.

When you do start talking, keep in mind that sometimes the issue might not really be about chores. Making cracks about your husband's cleaning techniques (or lack thereof) might be your subconscious way of getting back at him for something. Could you be feeling disconnected from him? If, for instance, he likes vegging in front of the TV and you don't, maybe you really miss having couple or family time together.

If that's the case, consider a little honesty instead. "Try, 'What's going on with us right now?' or 'I'm concerned with how we're managing things. Let's make time to talk about it,'" says Stanley.

Teri Cettina also writes for Real Simple.

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