The Guilt Bank

New ways couples use to divide household duties -- and why someone is always in debt

That hour spent getting a pedicure will come back to haunt you. Those nights he lets you get your beauty rest when Junior squalls will cost you. Sometimes it will be overt: "You got to take a nap, now I'm going to watch football for the rest of the afternoon." Or it may be subtle. Men don't tend to ask for permission to go off and surf the Internet for 45 minutes. You do, I bet. Am I right? And then you feel guilty. And then he ends up earning points for helpful behavior.

When the kids were little babies and even less sleeping went on, we were really tit-for-tat. I finally lost it one day when I returned home from the grocery store. As soon as I was in the door, my husband poured himself a cup of coffee and slunk off to watch soccer. When I—left with six bags of groceries to unload, dinner to make and a wide-awake infant—questioned his whereabouts, he replied that I had my break, and now he needed his. He had cashed in his points earned only moments before.

And this is when I explained something very important. Going to the grocery store is not a break. It may be easier for me to go by myself. I may enjoy a cup of coffee as I stroll the aisles, or a few minutes of leisurely People magazine reading as I wait to pay for the groceries—but it is still a household chore.

But that didn't matter in the end, because I still felt badly that he had "covered for me" so I could go out. In the end, this points system that has become part of our lives ends up benefiting him. If this were truly a bilateral arrangement, it would be fair. But it's not. While my husband earns points and keenly cashes them in, I just seem to acquire guilt.

Maybe I feel guilt because that's just who I am. Maybe I feel guilt because I am a woman. Maybe it's because of the woman I am. It doesn't matter that I can't do it alone: Somehow I feel I should be able to. That's why the point system exists. That's why it's so insidious.

I have modernized every other aspect of my life as a woman. But I somehow can't seem to shake the guilt that comes with getting help. And I vow right here and now to commit the ultimate woman's liberation: kiss the guilt goodbye and kick the points system out of our marriage.

Just after I ask my husband if it's okay if I go and get a pedicure.

Do you and your spouse operate on a "points system"? Chime in below!

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