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The HR-ification Of Marriage

Google Docs. Slack channels. In search of more equitable unions, some couples are adopting the types of structures that have long existed in corporations.

Originally Published: 
To keep the peace in marriage, some couples are creating Google Docs, Slack channels, and setting up...
Caroline Wurtzel/Bustle

My friend Allison, who has been married for 10 years and has three kids, has a Google spreadsheet for everything. When we travel together she creates an Excel for our hotels, our meals, the beaches we can’t miss, and even ideas for “serendipitous fun.”

I love this about her. It makes me feel taken care of, lets me just go along for the ride. She recently revealed that she has similar spreadsheets for her marriage, a literal accounting of the labor that she and her husband fill out together every single week, almost like a clocking in of hours to make sure no one is spread too thin. They have one that manages household tasks, and another that tracks the work involved in getting kids to and from school and to all their sports and activities.

I wondered if this was a burden on both of them cloaked as a tool for equity. (Who wants to punch a timecard when they change a diaper or take out the trash?)

I asked her husband recently, and he shrugged. “It’s how we get it done,” he said. “We have three kids. It’s work. Life is work.”

I didn’t think so much about this in those glossy, glowy, early days of my marriage. In the beginning it was much more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, figure-it-out-as-you-go adventure filled with trips around the world at a moment’s notice. And car sex. The idea of having a weekly meeting with my spouse, of using a spreadsheet for anything besides tracking my work expenses, would have seemed absurd and unsexy.

But in search of a more equitable, a more fair, and a more palatable union, some couples are opening up about adopting the types of structures that have long existed in corporations and organizations to work in their partnerships. It’s also a discourse, if you’re a coupled-up person who finds yourself in a very specific corner of Instagram and TikTok, being served to you on a very regular basis these days.

“It helps us keep those ‘unsexy’ and frankly annoying convos — like about taxes or tree pruning — to our admin meeting rather than trying to bring up a million tiny topics of admin conversation all week long,” mom of three Rachael Shepard-Ohta tells me. Shepard-Ohta recently posted a TikTok of her weekly administrative agenda meeting with her husband that they created after her therapist suggested it would help them manage the mental load that largely fell on Shepard-Ohta.

The idea of having a weekly meeting with my spouse, of using a spreadsheet for anything besides tracking my work expenses, would have seemed absurd and unsexy.

“My therapist recommended that we hold a ‘weekly admin’ meeting with each other, similarly to how we would have a standing meeting at a workplace. We’d discuss everything that we had coming up, purchase things online that needed to get purchased, fill out forms for the kids, book flights or make reservations,” Shepard-Ohta says. “We did it all while sitting down together to make sure we were on the same page and one person wasn't ‘in charge’ of all of the family admin tasks.”

Some of the more than 100 commenters on TikTok cheered on Ohta for this kind of organization. Others decried it as the “corporatization” of marriage, saying, “Just talk to each other” or, “Just figure it out.”

Just talking to each other or just figuring it out, however, are easier said than done. I say this all the time now that I have been married for almost eight years. My relationship is so much more like a business partnership than I ever expected it to be, especially when kids are involved. The products of the company I seem to be running with my husband are well-adjusted and happy children, a decent retirement account, and occasionally content adult humans.

I started to come around to this idea through the writings of Eve Rodsky, an author, speaker, and activist who wrote a book called Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live). In it, Rodsky introduces a system of organization and communication that helps couples identify shared domestic labor, communicate how that work should get done, and divide tasks so nobody takes on an unfair burden.

I devoured it.

“There is a fundamental data problem in most marriages. According to my reporting, men tend to overreport the amount of work they do by about as much as two-thirds, and women underreport their contributions. Without accurate data you are getting a system that is garbage in and garbage out,” Rodsky says of the benefits of using organizational systems in a partnership.

Rodsky adds that the way to solve for the reporting gap is ownership. “When someone is willing to own a task from start to finish,” she says, “the reporting and data gap goes down because the person understands the magnitude of what the task entails and can use the important tools to manage it.”

And the key to understanding these gaps, and who owns which tasks in a partnership, requires regular meetings with calendar appointments and spreadsheets. If this sounds mundane and businessy, it’s meant to be. Rodsky uses a truly excellent analogy of her Aunt Marion’s mahjong group, which treats the get-togethers like an organization.

“They rotate who brings the stacks,” she says. “If you don’t bring the stacks twice you’re out. It’s absurd to me that there are more clearly defined expectations in Aunt Marion’s mahjong than in most homes.”

The idea, Rodsky says, is that when people have explicitly defined expectations, when they know their role, when there is fairness, transparency, and accountability and trust — then they can thrive. “If you put two people in an organization or in a home and you don’t know your role, then you’re screwed,” she says.

There’s also a sense of emotional safety when you aren’t mired in the chaos and decision fatigue that can result from not having these kinds of organizational meetings and tools with your spouse. I don’t know about anyone else, but I need that level of calm if I ever want to have sex with my husband.

“The other day, we went back and forth on the type of tree we wanted in our yard. It could have been a he-said, she-said bickering situation, but we checked the Slack and there it was,” Viera says. “‘The Slack never lies’ is what we always say.”

Some may see these tools and processes and make the argument that this is yet another example of capitalism destroying our brains and intuitions, and forcing itself into our relationships. But let’s be honest — a majority of the labor of making romantic relationships run smoothly historically has fallen, and still does, on the female half of a straight couple. Someone has to do the work, and if these tools make it more equitable many people are totally fine with that.

Becky Viera, the author of the book Enough About the Baby: A Brutally Honest Guide to Surviving the First Year of Motherhood, says she created an actual Slack channel with her husband when she noticed he was always on his work Slack and how much easier the tool made his work life — he could pull up anything he had questions about. (She says the benefit to using Slack over, say, texting, is that they exchange so many texts in a day that more important messages were lost among the sea of TikTok videos or ideas for new dining chairs. It was a mess. Email was the same problem.)

“We’d have 11 different emails about Little League, but he couldn’t find the details about picture day without reading all of them,” Viera says. “I moved everything over to Slack, and things became better almost immediately. He could no longer say I didn’t tell him something — check the Slack — or if he claimed to forget details, I could send him there instead of becoming frustrated over having to tell him the same thing twice.”

They try to cover just about everything on Slack — their family schedule, finances, anything and everything pertaining to their son’s activities, and when they last visited family and when to go next. They’re currently in the midst of a landscaping project that has been easier to coordinate over Slack than through any other communication tool.

“The other day, we went back and forth on the type of tree we wanted in our yard. It could have been a he-said, she-said bickering situation, but we checked the Slack and there it was,” she says. “‘The Slack never lies’ is what we always say. I believe it keeps our marriage strong because it helps us stay connected and on the same page.”

Certain elements of a marriage need to be treated like a business encounter, she adds, because that’s essentially what they are. Identifying and approaching these as such saves time and prevents emotions from running too hot.

“Prioritizing productivity, efficiency, and targets in your marriage doesn’t necessarily make it less sexy and appealing — in fact, it can actually help strengthen your relationship by establishing a clear framework for communication, goal-setting, and conflict resolution. Love is not enough to sustain a relationship — something I learned during the demise of my first marriage,” Viera says. “Every relationship will ebb and flow over the years, with times when you are more connected than others. If you and your partner are still aligned on what you want from your marriage and life, and how to continue working together to achieve that, the periods of emotional distance seem less troubling.”

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