The Lessons From “Fair Play” I’ll Bring Into My Marriage

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When I’m angry at my husband, here are some of the things I like to remind him that I do on any given day: laundry, register kid for camp, book tickets for winter vacation, send thank-you note to friends who hosted Thanksgiving, find a new babysitter, pay the HOA fees, fill out field trip form, make sure we don’t run out of milk. Have I mentioned that I also have a job?

I could go on and on and on. Let’s call it the daily mental load. It is — shocker! — exhausting and I often resent my husband for the fact that my list is so much longer than his, and, more than that, that he doesn’t even seem to realize it. All these tasks have simply defaulted — or, as author Eve Rodsky puts it, “she-faulted” — to me.

This default parent thing has been talked about a lot — here and here and everywhere — but the difference with Rodsky’s new book, Fair Play, is that she actually has a concrete solution to help couples find a solution. This solution comes in the form of a card game.

It goes like this: all big and small family tasks are categorized so that every single item is represented by a card, and every card needs to be claimed as someone’s responsibility — yours or your partner’s. Together, you take stock of all the cards that you’re holding, discuss, and then you reshuffle the cards so that tasks are divided in a way that feels better to all parties. Are you good at keeping track of frequent flyer miles and love booking family trips? Then maybe it’s a cinch for you to grab the “travel” card. He’s kickass at making sure you never run out of undies? Then he gets the “laundry” card. All this means that more likely than not, you aren’t slamming doors when you, once again, find that no one has taken out the recycling.

Of all the helpful advice Rodsky offers in Fair Play, here are the three biggest takeaways that I am trying to bring into my own marriage:

1) Retire the RAT Habit. 

We’ve all done it: “Hey, babe,” you say,  calling from the car, “can you pick up some milk on the way home?” Harmless, right? Actually, no.

These kinds of tasks — what Rodsky calls the Random Assignment of Tasks — can throw a wrench into the other person’s life and schedule. And worse yet? He or she will likely forget or mess it up somehow it because it is without context. For example, you’re in a meeting and glance down at your phone and see “ pls buy milk”; by the time you leave work you’ve long since forgotten it. But if I’m responsible for groceries in my household (and hold the playing card that makes it official), I need to figure this one out. If it’s my husband’s domain, he should know that we’re out of milk and figure out how to get it. But pawning off isolated tasks on each other causes resentment and confusion — and often means there will be no milk.

Now, if I am the grocery person but I feel like this particular week is going to be overwhelming and I just won’t have time to go shopping, I can hand off the grocery card for this week. Then my husband is responsible for the whole task of groceries from start to finish (more on that below) and I don’t need to worry about the milk at all.

2) If you’re going to take on a task — take on the FULL TASK. 

I am the cook in our family, which means that my husband does the dishes. His version of doing the dishes? Put the dishes in the dishwasher. Turn it on (90% of the time). Clean pots, but leave them strewn all over the counter with water pooling at the bottom. He doesn’t seem to know that they can a) be dried, or b) put away.

According to Rodsky, this means he has not completed the task, which (surprise!) leaves it on me. This is problematic because then I can’t divorce myself from either the mental load or the actual physical load. If my husband is going to take the “dishes” card,  he needs to perform “CPE” for said task. What’s CPE?

  • Conception: This is the stage where you assess what needs to get done and plan accordingly. Before I do dishes, does the dishwasher need to be unloaded? Do we have enough detergent? Do dishes in the rack need to be put away?
  • Planning: Create an action plan for the task to get done completely. I will clean the kitchen after I read to our daughter and before we watch some TV.
  • Execution: Get the job done. The kitchen is cleaned as we’ve agreed is acceptable. Of course, this means that you need to agree on what it means to fully CPE a task. In other words, what does acceptable look like? So while my husband might think that the task is done if he just gets the dishes into the dishwasher, that doesn’t work for me. We need to discuss what the completed task looks like so that we are both satisfied with the outcome and the person who is not holding the card can release herself completely from thinking about it.

3) Both partners deserve Unicorn Space.

This is Rodsky’s term for having the space to do the thing that makes you uniquely you and enables you to become a fuller, more complete version of yourself outside the confines of marriage and family. Do you want to write a book, knit a sweater, hike the Pacific Crest Trail, or learn to play the piano? That’s your Unicorn Space. If you absolutely love what you do for work — if you’re a vet and your passion is taking care of animals — maybe your job is your unicorn space, but for many of us, it’s not.

For me, Unicorn Space might mean going on a writer’s retreat for a weekend, spending a few hours a week volunteering for a political campaign or learning to bake sourdough. It might mean baking a cake every Sunday or repairing old cars. Think of it as the thing that gets you most in touch with your soul. When we lose this, our marriages suffer, so it’s important to stay connected with that part of ourselves.

So pop open a bottle of wine, deal the cards and see what can change — you might surprise yourself.

Abigail Rasminsky lives in LA with her husband and daughter. Her work has been published in the New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, and The Cut, among other publications. She teaches writing at USC Keck School of Medicine. Visit her at