YouIs it harder to wash dishes than shopping for groceries? Do two loads of laundry make it more difficult to take out the garbage than one load? People who clean bathrooms should not be required to track what bills they have to pay. This and similar questions regarding the division of labor at home are a source of marital conflict for many years. However, a new study shows that this is a mistaken way of thinking. For factories, it is a good idea to divide up the tasks. SharingTasks can be more beneficial for families.
Professor Daniel Carlson, University of Utah Associate Professor noticed interesting patterns in a study of national surveys that collected information about family life and use of time. The data was drawn from both the 1990s as well as early 2000s. Couples who each took on specific chores and didn’t share any of them were not as satisfied with their relationship as couples who shared at least three chores. “The number of equally shared tasks matters a great deal for both men’s and women’s relationship quality,” writes Carlson in a Council for Contemporary Families research brief for the paper, which will later be published in the journal Sexual Roles. “Indeed, among recent cohorts there is evidence to suggest that it matters as much if not more than each partner’s overall proportion of housework.”
It doesn’t mean that both partners have to do the same chore. They can also switch between tasks. It’s the fact that both are doing the same sort of work that’s key. “One of the biggest predictors of satisfaction is a feeling of fairness in relationships,” says Carlson. “It turns out that the more tasks couple share together, that they do jointly, the greater their feelings of equity, the more satisfied they are with their housework arrangements.” Looking more closely at recent cohorts he noticed, the effects were amplified. “Those who were equally sharing all the tasks, 99% reported that their relationship was fair,” he says. “Those who had 50/50 housework, but they didn’t share any tasks together? Only half of them thought their relationship was fair.”
He speculates that this is because not all housework tasks are equal. “Some are more enjoyable than others. Some are more isolating than others,” says Carlson. “If I get to go through the grocery shopping, I get to go out of the house, I get to interact with people, potentially, as opposed to sitting on my knees, cleaning the toilet.” So even if the amount of time spent on housework is the same, or the number of tasks is the same, the labor involved might not be remotely similar. “I might get the three easy ones, the more fun ones, and you might get the three harder ones,” says Carlson. “So even though we’re kind of splitting it up on the surface, when it comes down to it, those tasks are not equivalent.”
Sharing tasks can also be beneficial because it fosters cooperation and a sense if together, even though people may not do the chores simultaneously. “I could do the laundry on Tuesdays and Thursdays, you could do the laundry on Mondays and Wednesdays, but that requires coordination. That requires communication,” says Carlson. “Good high quality relationships are built on good communication between partners, a sense of togetherness and mutual decision making.” In some supplementary analyses which aren’t in the paper, Carlson found that couples who shared chores tended to have better communication skills. It’s unclear, however, which came first. Are happy couples able to share the chores they have done together because they are familiar with how each works together? Or did their collaboration improve by learning how to best stack the dishwasher together?
Family scholars have long known that a perception of fairness is a big contributor to partners’ happiness. This partially explains why people in traditional marriages—in which there is one breadwinner and one home-maker—often report levels of satisfaction equal or greater to those in so-called egalitarian marriages where both partners pursue paid employment. Many traditional marriages have one partner, almost always the woman. She stays at home to do the majority of the household chores and care for the children.
Meanwhile, in most egalitarian heterosexual marriages, the burden of housework and childcare still fall unequally on the female partner, a situation which hasn’t shifted very much in three decades. Mothers are responsible for 13.5 hours housework in families with both parents working from home. Fathers work 9.5 hours. The pandemic brought out this imbalance, as many mothers made the difficult decision to quit paid employment due to increased household demands. This was due to structural reasons. Women are often the lowest-earner spouses, making it more sensible for them not to leave the home. But as many researchers have pointed out, it’s a positive feedback loop: If women have to take on more of the domestic burden they are less able to compete for higher-paying jobs and promotions. And if they earn less, it only makes sense that they’re the ones who leave the workforce when things at home get hectic.
Is chore sharing a strong effect? “If you’re a woman in an egalitarian relationship where you’re not sharing any tasks, then your level of satisfaction is as low as it is for women who are doing all of the housework,” says Carlson. “And if you’re a man who is sharing the majority of tasks with your partner then you’re just as happy in your relationship as a guy who doesn’t have any housework responsibilities.”
Joanna Pepin was an assistant professor of sociology at University of Buffalo. Joanna Pepin wasn’t part of the study. “That was a little counterintuitive from what we’ve been assuming,” she says, which is that less housework for either party in an egalitarian partnership always means more happiness. However, she believes that the results may have something to do with both partners being able to see what their partner is upto and how hard it is. “If they’re sharing tasks rather than splitting them up, I can envision that it’s making visible all the invisible things that they may take for granted,” she says.
Pepin’s research examines why gender inequality within families is still robust despite gains in women’s earning power. “Women’s roles have changed so much and we are kind of trying to figure out what the incentive is for men to take up more of the labor at home,” she says. “This is a really smart approach to thinking about why we might be stuck in getting to more equality in relationships.”
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