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How To Navigate Marital Negotiation, Gender Roles, and Domestic Bliss

*My Story

Hi! That’s me and my beloved husband up there; Krista Welch took that photo when we were speaking in Marfa a while back. Today’s topic is personal AND political AND practical. See, we are merrily sweeping away in the Queen Sweep, and it’s brought up a marvellous question.

Why is the realm of home STILL mostly being taken care of by women?!

Is it perhaps un-feminist of me to offer a program that helps women take care of this historically feminine domain? (In which the historically feminine domain encompasses All Parts Of Life That Our Wives Would Take Care Of, If Only We Had Wives.) Why is it that even now, it’s mostly WOMEN who are dealing with the household and kids? Why is this true even when both partners would call themselves feminists and at least in theory believe in an egalitarian relationship?

Well because the patriarchy, of course!

I’m absolutely serious, dahling. But if you’re looking for something a TAD more nuanced— well, friends, there are REASONS, and Brigid Schulte breaks them down in her wonderful book, Overwhelmed. It’s a brilliant analysis of the way that even couples with the best of intentions can find themselves in shockingly dated and gendered roles.

I read it a few years ago, and my copy has turned-down pages, underlines, and a dozen sticky notes bristling from its pages.

Historically speaking, we’re still at the beginning of a sweeping sea of change

For those of us who are in it up to our eyeballs right now, part of why it feels so intense is that we’re trying to make history do a U-turn in a historical parsec. In other words, we’re trying to turn the airplane on a dime— while we’re already flying through the air. No wonder it’s so messy. And so loud!

When I think about helping to shape a new world, there’s the big sweeping societal change that we long for: smashing the patriarchy, empowering the feminine, restoring a healthy masculinity, broadening our understanding of gender in general, owning and dismantling racism, healing our beautiful planet— just, you know, to name some small things, TINY projects.

But in the meantime, my clients and friends and you and I are still living in the world that we’re in. My female clients can’t wait for the world of business to get less misogynistic; they are doing business in it RIGHT NOW. My clients of color can’t wait for America to figure out and heal its horrific history of racism and violence; they are living in America RIGHT NOW. We’re all living in this world, messy and broken as it is.

Thus, much of what I offer to my clients is a fix for living in that messy meantime. There are powerful historical and societal forces that press on all of us in ways we hardly even realize.

And one of the best ways we can press back is by making small but important shifts in our own private lives: in the way we negotiate what happens inside our kitchens, our beds, and our conversations.

Nothing would make me happier than if, in a decade, no one needed the Queen Sweep because we had shifted the narrative so radically around work and parenting that it no longer weighed heaviest on women. Nothing would make me happier than if my clients no longer needed an empowerment coach because they were finally on a fair playing field.

But until then, here we are! And oh, what a glorious mess it can be.

So, for the gloriously complicated meantime, I’m going to share a super-simple but oh-so-practical tool that helps my husband and me navigate the adventure land of making 84,000 decisions together. It’s a kind of code you can start using right away in your significant relationships to help you negotiate with compassion AND power.

You can use this on little things, like what to have for dinner, but also on bigger things, like which small country you plan to take over next.

It’s useful when applied to the world of household decisions 

Would you rather pay to have the car detailed, or tackle it ourselves? Shall we hire a cleaner, or save the money but give up our Saturdays? Who gets up with the kids in the morning, and who makes the lunches at night?

In case you’re new here, a little background might be helpful. Because in our household, gender roles are pretty interesting.

My husband Nick is a transgender man who has birthed four of our five children and been a stay-at-home mom; I’ve always carried the financial burden of supporting my family, first as a solo single mom to one kiddo, and now as part of a blended family of seven.

He is a great cook; I do unspeakable things to broccoli.

He knows all the babysitters’ names and schedules; I know where all our important documents are.

In some spots, we’re almost ridiculously heteronormative: he likes to cut the lawn, and I like to arrange flowers. He shovels snow, and I can get a stain out of anything. But for the most part, we’ve tried hard to carve out roles for ourselves that play to our strengths and shore up our weaknesses.

This process has taken us not just past “traditional”— aka 1950s sitcom— gender roles but past the “primary parent” and “primary breadwinner” roles that are so easy to fall into, even for same-sex couples.

The key? Learning to straight-up negotiate with each other 

The first big breakthrough was something we call, oh-so-cleverly, The Number System. (Yep, currently taking new name suggestions!) This involves rating how important certain topics are to us, using a straightforward number system.

When we’re deciding pretty much anything, we label how important it is to each one of us. It sounds weird until you try it. So as you start to embark on a conversation about, say, what new health food you want to buy for your dog, or whether you want to take a family vacation this year, or how you define monogamy, you come right out and say how much this topic matters to you. (Try it. It’s terrifying and wildly freeing.)

It sounds like this:

“Honey, I have an idea for Wilde’s birthday party, but it’s only like a 2 for me.”

“Babe, I’m putting this on the calendar, and I really need you to be home and fully on board for this day, it’s like a 7.”

“Ok, groceries— do you care what we eat this week?” “Nope, it’s a 1 for me, and I’d love it if you just pick.” Etc, etc.

A “1” means “I really don’t give a rat’s ass, but I can dredge up a preference if you need me to,” a 5 means “I definitely have an opinion about this, but I can also compromise,” and a 9 or a 10 mean “THIS MIGHT BE A DEALBREAKER FOR ME.”

You learn to be oh-so sparing with those upper numbers.

It turned out that often one of us was compromising on something that was a 6 to us, making a painful sacrifice when it came to something really profound, like the placement of the holiday decorations…when it was only actually a 2 for the other. This was a revelation! (And no, that is not a hypothetical example.)

Simply by saying, “This one really matters to me” or “I don’t truly care, I’m just picking a side because you asked my opinion” was NEW and BIG information that dramatically reduced our arguments and increased our satisfaction with the result.

If something is only a 3 for me, but a 6 for my beloved, it’s easier to let it go knowing that when it’s my 6 and his 3, he’ll reciprocate. And it lets us blow by the 1s and 2s and just make a snap judgment call, because they don’t really matter to either of us. But when we’re in the 5s and 6s, we know that we’re on important territory and to tread thoughtfully. And if something is an 8 or 9? It’s like a big red flashing light alerting us that this conversation REALLY matters and it needs time, space, respect, and care.

The beauty of this is that it means that we’re only really going to the mattress with each other when it’s really important. (I almost made a sex joke there. But then I didn’t. But I still had to tell you about it.)

Ah, now, you might ask, but what happens when it’s an 8 for both of us? That’s trickier, obviously, but it happens less often than you might think. When it does happen, sometimes we table it and take it to therapy.

Sometimes we press deeper until we understand WHY it’s so important to the other, which often gives us insight into a different or creative way forward.

It means that we open negotiations

This is where we get a chance to be really deliberate about what we choose to give and sacrifice, and what we’ll get in return.

Sometimes people are scandalized that we flat-out negotiate with each other. Isn’t that so unloving? Isn’t it harsh? Isn’t it cold?

Not at all! It’s clean, robust, interesting, and healthy. And sometimes it’s even kind of sexy.

If I’m going to make a major concession to my partner and it’s going to cost me emotionally, financially, energetically, or any other way, it’s only good and fair that I get something back in return.

If my partner is going to give me a generous gift, something that takes care of me and makes space for me, I want to know how I can reciprocate and take care of him.

The more clear and straightforward and honestly we tell each other how to do that, the easier it is to meet each other’s needs and head off the resentment that is so pernicious in coparenting and cohabiting.

We’re taught in a thousand different ways that good partners avoid conflict. But you can’t avoid it, you can only skirt around it, and eventually it tends to explode in a rather messy fashion.

We’ve found that when we dive right into the middle of the most contentious topics, it actually leads to less conflict. The only rule is to be as kind and blunt as you can…and if you can’t be kind, you have to be blunt. Because honesty is always the way through.

These private conversations might seem petty or frivolous, but they’re actually SO IMPORTANT

These small choices and squirmy conversations? They matter. Not to get dramatic about it, but they kind of shape the world we’re creating together. Because the choices you make at home reverberate out everywhere. 

We all start where we are. And what I want you to know is that you have enormous power, RIGHT THERE, at home, in the kitchen, in bed.

And if I trust anyone to shape this world, it’s you. 

You shape the world by negotiating fairly, kindly, and powerfully with your partner. You shape it with your political activism and also your fantastic gardening. You shape it by advocating for yourself at work with grace and tenacity, even when it’s uncomfortable (and even though it’s unfair that you have to be gracious because the boys don’t).

You shape it by parenting your children differently than you were parented, literally altering the emotional and spiritual DNA that gets handed down to the next generation. You shape it with your art, your voice, your heart, your passion, your faith.

I believe in you! I believe in us. So let’s make this thing gorgeous together. 

much love,


Marital negotiation, gender roles, and marital bliss. Photo by Krista Welch.

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I write things for women with big, gorgeous, COMPLICATED lives. I help women become epic fucking badasses… but I still retain my right to cry at every diaper commercial ever made.

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