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My cousin is a wonderful person, she is a feminist, ecologist, etc.. activist, she cares a lot about people and I really love her (I see her and her family ~once a month for the weekend and I spend some holidays with her. I also spent two weeks at her home when I was looking for an apartment).

As a feminist, my cousin knows a lot about "mental load" and the problems with chores distribution in a couple's relationship. However, since I'm at her house very often, I couldn't help but notice that there is a chores distribution problem in her relationship (she seems to do much more than her share).

I know such subjects can be sensitive and I don't want to "make a mess" of her relationship with her husband. However, I believe that she might not be really aware of this fact right now and I think that, if she "knew", she could talk to her husband which would (at least partially) fix the issue and life would improve for her.

So, how can I tactfully talk about that with her, without coming off as someone who likes to "put oil in a fire"? I just want to help her see that there might be a problem here (but if she tells me there isn't one, then there isn't one).

Notes and clarifications

  • I don't know if this causes problems in her relationship. However, it might very well be the case and, even if it isn't, she will probably be happier if she had fewer chores and more free time.

  • I see no reasons why this would have been mutually agreed upon, since her and her husband basically do the same job.

  • Why don't I just mind my own business? Because I care about her and want her to be in the best relationship possible

  • I'm not planning on making any accusations, I just want to tell her something like "Hey, I have observed that you do a lot of chores, I was wondering if there is an issue there?"

  • I don't think my cousin should be unhappy, I'm wondering if she is. I know talking to someone about your problems can be helpful and I just want a conversation here.

The answers here made it clear to me that you have no idea what my relationship with my cousin is. I won't try to convince you that I'm legitime and close enough to her to talk to her about it (because I have better things to do). But I would appreciate less doubt in me and more help to tactfully bring my concerns to her.

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    @Noon If your cousin says that she is happy with their relationship and her chores, are you prepared to accept that? Or do you want to proceed with a discussion as to why she should be unhappy with the arrangement she currently has? – DaveG Jan 23 at 15:49
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    As a feminist, my cousin knows a lot about "mental load" Huh? What does that have to do with feminism? Very puzzling. – only_pro Jan 23 at 17:07
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    @only_pro It's a common theme/argument in feminism going a ways back, regarding the consequences of underestimating the costs of doing household work, along with the observation that women tend to do more of that type of work (and are often expected to do so by default) – Upper_Case Jan 23 at 17:13
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    @only_pro I'm not 100% clear on how/why the OP selected that phrase here, so I won't comment on specific interpretations of the phrase compared with others. It's not a fundamentally feminist concept, but it has particular salience for feminists given that women (on average) do the bulk of domestic and childcare tasks. I would expect anyone that engages with feminist thought enough to describe themselves as a "feminist" to be either familiar with the topic, or interested in and receptive to the idea in a feminist context. – Upper_Case Jan 23 at 17:24
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    Why are there so many downvotes? The question might have a seemingly obvious answer, but I think it’s still valid and follows the site’s guidelines. Especially since it might be helpful to those who ponder asking familiar groups about a glimpse of a situation; one they don’t fully understand. – Anilla Jan 24 at 23:40
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TL/DR: You don't.

There is no tactful way to do this without...

A) butting in on something that's none of your business (because Cousin hasn't made it your business by even mentioning it) and

B) making an implicit accusation that Husband is not participating equally in all chores.

If you really want to take the risk to pursue this, the Interpersonal Skills you would use are Probing Questions and Subterfuge.

For the frame change, make it about yourself and a fictitious situation. To solicit her thoughts, ask generalized questions. For example:

My (last/ex/current) boyfriend/girlfriend asked me to move in, but since I'm kind of a neat freak, I was too worried about how we'd divide up the chores...how do you and Husband do it?

or...(while helping her with some mundane task)

I'm such a neat freak, I could never let someone else do the cleaning, probably why I don't have a girlfriend. How do you guys divide it up?

This should get Cousin to talk about this situation by giving you advice.

If she doesn't express and explicit displeasure with the situation, let it go. Otherwise, you risk forever straining your relationship with her and especially Husband if he ever finds out.

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    I feel it could be important to note that if someone has strong feelings about how a chore should be done (for example, folding laundry in a specific way) it would not be unusual for that person to monopolize doing that chore to ensure it gets done in the way they like – BKlassen Jan 23 at 16:59
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    @BKlassen Yep. There's so many perfectly valid reasons for a perceived 'imbalance'. I have one friend who does all the housecleaning because he wants things exactly his way. His husband is basically not allowed to clean. – Johns-305 Jan 23 at 17:06
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how can I tactfully talk about that with her, without coming off as someone who likes to "put oil in a fire"?

If you want to be very careful, and don't really know what's going on or where the path goes, and as you most probably walk on eggs in such a situation, I would just use an indirect approach. Kind of approach (nice and smile, be funny) that can be deflected if it backfires:

Bob is really lucky, having such a great wife doing all the chores :D

From there, and depending on her answer, you can use many techniques to "end the story/joke". Because your sentence can be interpreted in many different ways, it's very broad, and unclear. It's easier to wipe it out if it seems to have upset/annoy her. But you have let her know something, and opened a door. If, and only IF she wants to step in, you can talk about that. Otherwise...

I would do no more than that, because, as earlier said, you walk on eggs. You never know, and you sometimes have to mind your own business. What if you tell me that some time ago, while I was doing almost 85% of the chores at home? Did you know that I was supporting my GF who had some problems, and relieving her? And when she did that for me, when I was really tired (hard hard work), for weeks? Do you think people outside needed to know? This is a private part of their life, and unless BIG problem that needs your assistance, well, don't interpret/interfere with private matters of others. You could do more harm than good.

As you don't know what is going on, and what their agreement on this is, I'd say again, be very careful, throw a bait, but don't be mad if the fish doesn't bite it...


After you edited your original question and added some clarification, I think this answer still stands, but the small steps opening doors can be a little bit different. This means that you can also use a tactic working with kids (too): distract (divert?) their attention and move it to another topic.

Hey Alice, wouldn't you like to do [name any activity you both like] instead of doing these chores again? Doesn't it bother you?

If chores are really a pain in her neck, she'll probably feel relieved, and may want to talk about it. You can also, from there, move on deeper into the topic or away from it. It'll depend on her reaction, something you'll have to wait for and interpret...

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If you feel you must, do it sideways. Bring up the topic generically, and ask after your cousin's experiences in an open, non-leading way.

Find out what she thinks, don't tell her how things are. That means do not open the conversation with the example of your cousin's household, and do not express your assumptions (and that is all that they are) about what is probably the case. My rationale for this is several-fold:

  • You do not have the appropriate perspective to make a confident judgment about what the situation really is

It seems unlikely to me that you are fully observing the household with regard to this situation, based on portions of the question listing what you don't know. It is entirely possible that there are tasks of which you are unaware, or that you do not group into the "chores" category in the same way as your cousin and her spouse, or any number of other factors. There may also be issues with differing preferences between them-- perhaps your cousin likes things neater than does her spouse, and so she works a bit more to achieve that standard, and they are both OK with that arrangement.

  • Assuming that your cousin needs the situation to be pointed out to her infantilizes her

Your cousin is an adult, and sounds like a conscientious and capable one. To assume that she is somehow blind to the situation and requires you to point it out to her undercuts this. I'm not saying that this isn't the case, nor that outside perspectives can never be valuable. But having someone assume that you're too blind/foolish/incompetent to even notice a situation can be grating. Conspicuously missing from your question is any explanation of why you think she is oblivious to the situation that you see so clearly.

  • 50/50 isn't the only reasonable distribution of chores

In the absence of any other information such an arrangement seems very reasonable, but in reality there can be lots of other factors. Not all chores are equal, and not all people have the same preferences. For example, I don't really mind vacuuming but I hate washing dishes. It's hard to compare those directly (how many dish-washing sessions equal one vacuuming of my home?), and if separated can lead to a worse situation (if I did 50% of the vacuuming and 50% of the dish-washing, I would be "losing" a lot more to the dishwashing than I gained from vacuuming less).

  • Your assumptions about what would make her happiest are less significant than the choices she has made, for reasons which at least seem good to her

This assumes that she is, in fact, fully aware of the situation. But if she's happy enough with the arrangement, and has chosen it rather than alternatives, then it will be extremely difficult to challenge that tactfully. The position implicit in that is that she has the wrong values and/or makes the wrong choices. If that's what you feel, you can say that directly, but that doesn't seem to be the case here (at least, not right now).


So, here is how I would bring it up if I had to:

Hey [cousin], I was [reading/thinking/talking] about [chore distribution/mental load/household gender dynamics] and saw that [some observation]. As a married woman, what do you think about that? What have your experiences been like?

Lots of blanks about the specific lead-in, I know, but the key part is the end. As I mentioned above, all you need to do is introduce the topic and then find out what your cousin thinks. Asking about her experiences will ground her comments in her actual situation, helping to avoid a more theoretical analysis of the topic. You can add your own specific observations if you must, but those can also be framed as questions to help you understand her situation more fully.

The most important element is that you avoid describing her own experience to her, which can easily be seen as condescending.

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    I like the points this answer makes but I would go further. Instead of bringing up the chores at all, just ask how she's doing in general. When I was in an abusive relationship, I was doing all the chores, but that was the least of my problems. – DaveG Jan 23 at 20:00
  • @DaveG Isn't asking someone "how are you doing (in general)" too vague? I often respond with really basic stuff to this kind of questions and I think my cousin will do the same (telling me what she did recently instead of actually telling me how she is) – Ælis Jan 23 at 20:05
  • @Noon Not really, if you listen and follow up. Right now you are making a lot of assumptions: that there's a problem, that you know what the problem is, and you know how to fix it. If you are concerned about your cousin, letting her express her thoughts and concerns is the right way to go. Which is what this answer is saying. I'm just saying to take the answer even further. If your cousin is bothered by chores, let her bring it up. I do about 75% of the chores, and I'm very happy that I can offload that work from my wife, given everything else she does. – DaveG Jan 23 at 20:23
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I know this is hard to believe but some people actually enjoy cleaning.

So I would start out by finding out what she feels about housework. Next time you see her doing any simply say "ugh I hate doing XYZ, but it has to be done doesn't it?"

She might surprise you by going "Oh I love it, gives me a real feeling of satisfaction".

I would say as you don't actually know your cousin well enough to raise this without asking here first I would then drop it.

I believe the best way to do this kind of stuff is tell a story about somebody else (even somebody on a forum) who is in the same situation and talk about them, never ever mention your cousin in this conversation unless she brings it up herself.

And then never mention it again, unless she starts the conversation.

A best friend can start this conversation, somebody as unconnected as you seem to be can not.

I know 3 people who I would accept this conversation from My Sister and 2 really good friends. If anybody else started it I would get defensive and shut them down.

Unless your cousin invites you in to her confidence with a line like "I know partner is a lazy bugger I do too much", the best you can hope for is sow the seeds of doubt about how fair the distribution is.

This woman draws excellent cartoons about this whole subject

https://english.emmaclit.com/2019/01/17/do-you-want-me-to-do-it-no/

now read them and drop into conversation next time you see her alone or them as a couple about the cartoons and how much they made you think about your life/ your parents/ your grandparents.

Her cartoon about being the parent always doing the children pickup made me realise how much that had affected my working life since kids. It explains that the parent who picks up the kids every night is the one who has to leave meetings halfway through, is the one who can never stay late to finish stuff, is the one who can never go out for the spur of the moment work social or entertaining clients, visiting CEOs. They are tied to the kids.

Somebody not talking about you, but talking about your situation can be just as powerful (if not more) as it leaves the person to self reflect in their own time and a time which is good for them.

  • Thanks for the details. And for the link, this is actually where me, my cousin and a lot of French people learned about the concept of "mental load". Both my cousin and I are fans ^^ – Ælis Jan 23 at 18:18
  • she is french isn't she. – WendyG Jan 24 at 9:55
  • Yes, she is indeed :) – Ælis Jan 24 at 9:58
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You don't - you're making value judgements on one aspect of someone else's relationship based on what is a relatively narrow window into their lives. While you say that you are there "very often" you say that it's one weekend a month, which is 24 days a year and that is only ~6.58% of the time, and "chore distribution" is only one part of a relationship. It's a very real possiblity that you are living out the Blind men and the elephant.

Aside from the above you say that your cousin knows a lot about this subject, is (presumably) an adult and capable of making her own choices. Telling her that her relationship is set up wrong and that she should be talking to her husband about changing x, y and z and this is what is best for her is infantalizing her.

If you absolutely feel the need to say something you could ask her if she is okay with it:

Hey [cousin], I don't want to pry but are you okay with the chore distribution with [Mr cousin]?

And be prepared to accept her answer - even if it's not the one that lines up with your views. If she says something like:

Well, actually it's been bothering me - I wish [mr cousin] would do more around the house

then you can work with her on ways she can work towards those changes.

  • Do you have any backup as to why saying "I don't want to pry but are you okay with the chore distribution with" will be accepted well? Because this sounds a little bit too straight to me... – Ælis Jan 23 at 15:20
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    @Noon Honestly? I'm not convinced it would be accepted well, in fact I think there is every reason to believe you'll be told to MYOB. I think it stands a better chance of going down well then just telling her it's a problem but TBH I only included it as you insisted on a non MYOB answer. – motosubatsu Jan 23 at 15:22
  • Side note: I also spend some holidays with my cousin and I recently spent two weeks at her home when I was looking for an apartment – Ælis Jan 23 at 16:56
  • Also, I have no intention of "Telling her that her relationship is set up wrong and that she should be talking to her husband about changing x, y and z and this is what is best for her is infantalizing her" and I find your assumption on me very displaced and unkind. I would appreciate if you edited that out. – Ælis Jan 23 at 16:58
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    @Noon I'm sorry if you felt that way about it but I won't be editing it out - I don't say that to make you feel bad but rather it is my honest assessment of the situation. – motosubatsu Jan 23 at 17:02

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