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Chore wars

Chances are you’ve engaged in one or two skirmishes yourself. But this particular couple has raised the "chore wars" to an art form. And we should know. We've been following them for years. But this time around, Dateline did more than observe -- we brought in reinforcements.
/ Source: NBC News

She works hard around the house. He works hard at avoiding work around the house. Sound familiar? It’s the battle over housework. Chances are you’ve engaged in one or two skirmishes yourself. But this particular couple has raised the "chore wars" to an art form. And we should know. We've been following them for years. But this time around, Dateline did more than observe -- we brought in reinforcements.

It's been five years since Dateline first visited the Razon family from Long Island, New York, and it seems not much has changed.

Back then Lisa Razon complained she was always cleaning up after her family, with no help from her husband, Victor. And victor complained his wife was often on his case.

“At times she can be unfair,” says Victor. “Sometimes I just have really busy, rough days. I come home, it's six thirty, seven o'clock and I'm exhausted.”

Let's go back to the fall of 1998, when the Razons, like many couples, are fighting about housework. They say their fights have even threatened their marriage. Lisa once got so mad at victor she wanted to throw him out along with all his clutter.

“I would just take like his clothes that he hadn't cleaned up and I would open the front door and I would (gestures) just right out the front door,” says Lisa.

“I came home and my entire office was in a dumpster,” says Victor. “And I had to get my brother-in-law to come help me and hold my feet as I went into a dumpster to retrieve work.”

In hopes of ending their war over chores, the Razons agreed to let Dateline come into their lives, to set up hidden cameras in their home and then to show our video to an expert who would offer advice on how to solve their housework woes and mend their relationship.

Before you start taking sides, there's a few things you should know about the Razons. At the time of our visits, Victor is a sales consultant who works long hours and makes a healthy income. Lisa is a stay-at-home mom who cooks, cleans and takes care of their two children aged five and 10. She has help from a cleaning woman once a week, but says Victor is hardly any help at all. Lisa would be the first to tell you she hassles her husband all the time.

“I appreciate what he does,” says Lisa. “He's a hard worker, he's a good husband and he tries to be a good father.”

But there are some things about Victor, Lisa does not appreciate. She gave us a tour of chores her husband either hasn't done or has done badly.

Lisa: Well, he empties the dishwasher. But right now, it's full, so there are dishes waiting to go in. He cooks sometimes for himself. He makes eggs and bacon. And he'll make this whole big to-do with the eggs and the bacon, and like he'll take the egg and he'll crack it here and he'll walk it across to the garbage, so it's like dripping egg all the way. And then he'll make the bacon, and it's splattered to death all over. And then he sits down and eats it. And he'll throw it all in the sink. And that's it. “

Sometimes Lisa says Victor does empty the garbage, but when he doesn't he's full of excuses. As for home repairs, forget about it. She says Victor walks past a broken stone in the doorway everyday. The stone is called a saddle. She says he broke it three years ago and that he says he needs to get a piece to fix it.

Next stop is the master bedroom. Lisa goes straight to the sock drawer. But by far what irks Lisa the most is the garage. Victor was supposed to clean it three years ago. What's Victor's excuse for not helping out more around the house? He says he simply doesn't have the time or energy to clean up. Lisa admits he's a terrific breadwinner, and Victor says he's too busy bringing home the paycheck.

“I usually bathe my little one who takes a bath every night,” says Victor. “I get her in her pajamas. I load the dishwasher, empty the garbage.”

“It’s not true,” says Lisa. “This is Victor's conception of giving his child a bath: I have to run the water, I have to put the stuff in the bath. I have to get my daughter undressed, into the bath tub. He will then come upstairs—“

“That's not true,” says Victor.

“There has never been one time in the five years that child's alive that he has been in the bathroom for the entire duration of her—“

“That's not true, I don't buy that.”

“He comes down, he answers the phone, I go where's Sam? Oh she's in the bathroom, Nothing's going to happen. I walk in there, and she's floating on her back.”

Is there any way to get Victor to do more housework? Or get Lisa to turn down the volume?

Focus on teamwork

“They need to work as a team, and most people are just not working as a team when it comes to housework and other issues,” says Dr. Howard Markman, a research psychologist at the University of Denver, who studies couples like this and runs workshops.

He's found that after money and children, housework is the number three cause of fights among couples. And he's written a book called “Fighting for Your Marriage.”

“Things just kind of build up and build up and resentments build up and hostilities build up,” says Dr. Markan. “So these little events that happen daily trigger a lot of emotional resentment that erupt into bigger fights, into name calling and hostility. And it's that kind of interaction that ultimately erodes from many couples the--the joy, the chemistry, the magic, that brings people together in the first place.”

Dr. Markman says the biggest mistake most men make is taking their partners for granted. Over time, wives get angry over all the work they do that goes unnoticed. And the more they complain, the more men like Victor withdraw. Dr. Markman saw this happening again and again when he sat down with the Razons and watched our tape.

Lisa: “I'm bored to death. I can't stay here like this. I'm bored to death.”
Victor: “You're always bored to death on the weekend. And then you complain during the week that you do too much.”
Lisa: “Shut up, Victor! I do too much cleaning possibly. I do too much work possibly. Maybe it would be nice to do something other than physical labor. You do nothing.”
Victor: “Uh Hmm.”

“I think that's one of the things that Lisa really wants to see changed in the relationship, even more than the housework -- is just kind of getting your attention,” says Dr. Markman. “And having you communicate to her that you really care about her and love her. And visa-versa. But sometimes we don't communicate to the people we love the most that we treasure and honor them.”

As for Lisa, she doesn't have any trouble expressing her feelings and in this scene after waiting a week for Victor to help around the house, she's about to explode.

Victor: “What? I gave Hallie her breakfast.”
Lisa: “You gave Hallie--who? You gave Hallie breakfast?”
Victor: “Gave--made her a bagel. We're eating breakfast. What do you want from me?”
Lisa: “You gave Hallie a bagel? She didn't eat it. I gave Hallie breakfast. I gave her pancakes.”
Victor: “Okay, I was out of the house when you gave her pancakes.”
Lisa: “You're out of the house! What were you doing Victor, mowing the law?”
Victor: “No.”
Child's voice: “No.”
Lisa: “What were you doing? Smoking a cigarette?”
Child's voice: “Yeah.”
Lisa: “That constitutes housework.”

“What feelings did you hear?” asked Dr. Markman.

“She was angry,” says Victor. “She's always angry.”

“But you were ignoring me,” says Lisa.

“If you could just paraphrase, or summarize,” says Dr. Markman,” or just somehow let her know that you're--put down the paper, and say, Lisa, it seems like you're really angry at me right now. You know what can we do to make this better? Something like that. That'd go a long way, to kind of calming down the situation. And it's really hard for men when their wives are angry to try to engage.”

Committing to a peace plan

In Victor's defense, it's a Saturday. He’s trying to read the paper. He’s trying to eat. And he doesn’t want to have a conversation with anyone.

“That's terrific. All you have to say is, Lisa, it's Saturday. I'm tired. I don't want to have a conversation with anyone right now. How about if I just read the paper, and then we can take a walk together. Or then we can talk? In other words, just express what you want. Structure things a little bit,” says Dr. Markman.

And what about Lisa? What can she do to change?

“Your job is to realize that talking about your negative feelings, at the time you're feeling them, is not a good idea,” says Dr. Markman. “Take some deep breaths. And the two of you need to find another time to talk about these issues when the kids aren't around.”

Dr. Markman says husbands need to take responsibility for following through and doing the things they say they'll do without being reminded by their wives. In one scene, Lisa asked Victor three times to make a phone call.

“You want to present your side of it,” says Dr. Markman. “You have a side. You may say, I want to watch the Yankee game. I'm going to make the call right after the Yankee game. But then you need to make every effort to do it. And you can't rely on Lisa—“

“Right,” says Victor. “To keep remind me to do it.”

Dr. Markman came up with a peace plan for the Razons, a list of obligations for Victor and Lisa. They should meet once a week to air their feelings and argue about housework only at this time. Lisa should reduce the size of her chore list to just three items a weekend. And Victor would agree to complete at least one of those jobs each week.

Would Victor be willing to try it?

“Yes, I am. It's worth a shot. I mean, I think I can try and do so more things around the house that I do not do.”

So the Razons agreed to call a temporary truce in their war over chores. For two months, Lisa tried to complain less and Victor tried to help out more. And when we stopped by for a progress report, there was a definite difference.

Lisa: “I'm a little happier.”
Victor: Is Lisa less angry?”
Victor: “No, she's just controlled.”
Lisa: “Are we fighting less? I think a little bit. Yes.”

Two months later: Where's the peace plan?

Lisa: “He fixed the blinds that were broken!”
Victor: “And I threw out the boxes.”
Lisa: “And threw out the boxes in the garage, he did do that.”

The mood of the house seemed to have improved. Lisa wasn't yelling in front of the kids as much and not hassling Victor all the time.

Dr. Markman says the Razons are on the right track. But that was after two months. It's now been a year and a half -- three years after our first visit— and the Razons invited us back for an update.

Before we go inside, keep in mind some things have changed since the last time we were here. Lisa now has a part-time job and no longer has help from a housekeeper. And as for Victor, he's working longer hours than ever before.

In the last three years, do they think they’ve been able to follow through on the peace plan that they came up with?

Victor: “Have a hard time remembering what that plan was.”
Lisa: “A resounding no.”

And as Lisa gave us a tour of the house, it was clear the peace plan was a distant memory, at least for Victor. He’s had three years to clean the garage. Lisa says she’s asked him to do it about once a month.

“Saturday and then Saturday comes and goes and it's either too hot, too cold, it's raining, it's snowing,” says Lisa. “Not unlike the garbage, it's a weather condition.”

So she still have a sense of humor about it.

“I'd be dead if I didn't,” says Lisa, laughing.

And what about the infamous saddle, the piece of broken stone in the doorway. It’s still broken, and now it’s been six years. It’s actually worse than last time.

Victor admits that he hasn't changed, but says his wife has.

“I think she's complaining a little less, yes,” says Victor. “Probably not as angry as before, too.”

Lisa's got a part time job. She doesn't have the housekeeper. So she's doing more than she was doing three years ago.

“I'll be the gracious one,” Lisa says of Victor. “He's much, much busier now.”

But what if Victor had more time? What if he had another year and a half to clean the garage? Surely he could carve an hour a week out of his busy schedule to complete the number one item on Lisa’s honey-do list.

Will more time make a difference?

Dateline returned to see what kind of progress they've made getting organized and cleaning up the clutter in their house.

First stop is the garage, the moment of truth for Victor. Had he squandered the year and a half extension on his assignment or had he buckled down and found time to clean the garage? No, but he defends himself.

In fact, Victor did hire a contractor to resolve one of Lisa’s other pet peeves, the infamous broken saddle in the kitchen doorway that had been the source of so many fights. So Victor gets an A for that, even though he didn't do the work, he did foot the bill.

And the Razons didn't stop there. They had the entire kitchen redone. Lisa says the trouble is Victor was supposed to clean out the cupboards before the carpenters started the job.

According to video of the process, it was not exactly a strong start for Victor. It looks like business as usual, with Lisa remaining the general, barking out orders.

Lisa: "Don't put the dog food in there! I don't want the dog food with the people food! Come on Victor! Start thinking! You don't put glue in with the medicine. I said the medication! It's Epacat in case I poison you, you might want to save yourself.”
Victor: “Cyanide poison, I've been waiting for that day.”
Lisa: "Just get a freakin' box! I don't want it! It's old! I just need a box!”
Victor: “I don't think I have one.”
Lisa: “Is that so much to ask?"

Actually it is, because getting to the basement where the boxes are kept proves to be a dangerous journey.

Call in the professionals

But we digress, let's get back to the garage. Victor was supposed to have cleaned it over the 18 months since our last visit, and just about everything you can think of is in still in there. So after eight years, two national television appearances where the world saw it, finally even we were fed up. Something needed to be done and fast. So with the Razons consent, Dateline decided to conduct what you could describe as an intervention.

We brought the Queen of Clean to meet the King of Clutter.

“He'll make mincemeat out of her in 10 seconds,” says Lisa.

Well, don't be so sure. Meet Penny Lambright. She heads a company called Clutter Cleaners. She calls herself a clutterologist. After watching the Razons' story and seeing what a packrat Victor was, Penny wrote to Dateline and offered her services to Victor and Lisa pro bono. Her assistant Mary Dawson came along to help.

“So the goal is to have a car in the garage,” says Penny, something the Razons haven't been able to do in years.

Penny has a simple three step strategy for anyone trying to conquer the clutter in their lives. First, remove everything. Second, divide your belongings into three categories: throw, save, donate to charity. Penny says anything you haven't used in more than a year should probably go. Third, dive in and just start. Have a lot of water on hand, and in the Razon's case, a really, really big trash can.

So Victor has his work cut out for him. But within15 minutes, an extraordinary transformation seems to begin. Victor takes to the task with enthusiasm. Right away, he's pitching in and throwing out. Lisa helps but it looks like Victor is really doing most of the work.

How would he feel if Lisa was supervising?

“I wouldn't be involved,” says Victor.

Obviously, that's the answer. It's penny who's in charge, not Lisa. Also, Penny knows you can't reason with a 200 pound packrat but you can use some psychology to manipulate him, giving him a game plan of going through things and just keep checking on him. And some positive reinforcement seems to keep him going.

“There's the floor, there's the floor!” says Lisa.

There’s a place to put shelving and clear plastic containers the Razons will buy to store the stuff they decide to keep.

Penny says this is actually the best time. When people are tired and disgusted they tend to throw out more of the things they don't really need. But as the afternoon sun bears down tempers begin to heat up.

Lisa: “I'm throwing out garbage, Victor it's all garbage. Time to start getting rid of it.”
Victor: “What are you throwing out?”
Lisa: “It's garbage.”
Victor: “How do you know it's garbage.”
Lisa: “What are you following me, it's garbage, newspapers. That's garbage, you took it out of your car!”
Victor: “No I didn't, I need these, will you stop it.”
Lisa: “You know what? I'm done.”

But it's a bluff. Lisa stays. And people come by thinking it’s a yard sale, proving once again that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. They get rid of the ugly lamp and then they find something really vital -- their our last will and testament.

And looking at Victor's accelerated heart rate, that could have been a fortunate thing. But Victor would survive to see something he never thought he would see: the back wall of his garage. Seven hours, one dumpster, and a lot of sweat later, it’s the moment the Razons had been waiting for.

But a few minutes later, his daughter Hallie says, “give him like a few weeks and he’ll trash it again.”

Victor vows to keep it clean, but what about the basement? Well, he's not ready to go there yet. It's a place where Victor's found a spot for just about everything, but he'd rather our cameras stay out.

“You're not allowed in here. You're not allowed in my basement.”

So how is the new program going? Well, we're told the last time the car saw the inside of the garage was August. Lisa says that while the garage is no longer "life-threatening,” it is once again a mess, thanks to the VCR, the computer and the treadmill that got dumped there after all that new space became available. But there is hope. Lisa says the garage is still not as bad as the basement.