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How Do Couples Decide Who Takes Out the Trash?

In heterosexual relationships, if the guy always takes out the trash, is the couple just repeating gender stereotypes?

Things are easier said than done, or so the old adage goes, and we couldn't agree more. That's why we do The GOOD 30-Day Challenge (#30DaysofGOOD), a monthly attempt to live better. Our challenge for July? Waste less.

“How did we decide which of us would take out the trash?” I’d pondered the question for three days, and finally got up the nerve to ask my husband. I needed a little courage since he’s been the default trash-taker-outer in our house for the entirety of our 12-year marriage. I know he hates doing it. But, since I hate taking out the trash, too, I didn’t want my question to be interpreted as a chance to renegotiate whatever deal we’d come to years ago—a deal that I simply couldn’t remember.

Instead of replying with, “I don’t know, but I think you should start doing it,”—which would've been my worst nightmare—he simply chuckled and said, “I think it was just decided that I would do it.”

Obviously, that response wasn’t helpful.

“But how was it decided? Did we have a conversation about it?” I couldn’t really picture either of us sitting at the dining room table with a pen and a piece of paper, methodically assigning each other household chores—playing rock-paper-scissors when it came to deciding who would be on trash duty. I mean, I’ve known him since I was 17, and we were young when we got married, but we weren’t that juvenile.

“I think you would complain about it,” he said. “And I think through gender roles, it just became something that I did.”

I do complain about the trash. It sounds terrible but if the trash can is full in our house and the smell is really bothering me, the most I’ll do is take the bag out of the wastebasket, tie it up, and set it outside, directly in front of the door. It’s my passive aggressive way of telling him, you better not come in this house without taking this to the dumpster.

The only time I’ve ever “enjoyed” taking out the garbage was when I was a kid hanging out at my grandmother’s house. Like almost everyone in her neighborhood, she had an old oil drum alongside the alley that ran in back of her property. In the days before cities banned burning garbage, she’d put the trash in the drum and light it up with a match. I loved watching the flames leap out of that metal can—and I loved the conversations I’d have with her as we watched it burn. That was fun. Hauling a bag of trash out to a dumpster, having to physically touch the dumpster and open the lid so the trash can be hurled inside, isn’t fun. It’s disgusting.

Sure, I had to take out my own trash when I was single. But I also don’t like stuff with a lot of packaging and I’ve been recycling everything I could for eons. When my husband and I first got interested in each other, I was living in Rogers Park on the North Side of Chicago. My ride home from work on the El got me home late, and I hated walking down the backstairs of my building, four flights down, into a dark and creepy alley to throw away what little trash I'd managed to make while fixing dinner. At some point—and he readily admits that he probably did it because “that’s the kind of stuff guys do when they want a girl to like them”—he started walking the trash down to the dumpster for me. All these years later, he’s still taking out the trash.

“So, essentially, we’ve both fallen into the same gender-based stereotypes we’ve tried to avoid our entire lives,” I said.

“Yup, pretty much,” he replied. “Men get to take out the trash.” He paused a moment before adding, “I think all gender stereotypes are bullshit.”

Here was the moment of truth. Here was where he was going to say that he thinks it's time I start taking the trash out to that gross dumpster behind our building. But, there was no turning back from the conversation. “So, why do you still take out the trash, then?”

“It’s more expedient.”


“Meaning that I don’t want to have conversations about it. I just like to get it done.”

Hmm. “But shouldn’t couples talk about these kind of things in a rational, logical way so we don't just repeat the past?”

“Sure, we’re a new generation and there’s room for changing our gender roles, but some men—or at least this man—doesn’t mind doing it. Besides,” he added, “You do way more work than me all the time. Every woman does. If I can’t handle taking out the trash, what would that say about me?”

Of course, after he said that, all thoughts of trash were gone and I found myself remembering why it was that I married him. And—whew—I’m still off the hook when it comes to taking the garbage out. But, now that we've had this little talk, I feel more inclined to take out the trash. Not every day, but once in awhile, just so I don't feel like I'm living out a stereotype.

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