In theory, achieving a fair distribution of household chores should be simple: take all the chores and divide them in half.
In practice, it is more complicated. Some people find certain tasks more bearable than their partners. Some chores are the ones no one wants to do. And, on average, women end up bearing a disproportionate share of household chores. A New study adds another variable into the equation of couples’ (dis)satisfaction with how they divide up tasks: it has been found that men and women in long-term, opposite-sex partnerships tend to be more satisfied with their relationship when they share responsibility for each task on their to-do list, as opposed to when each partner has their own set of tasks. In other words, a couple in which one partner cooks and cleans and the other does the dishes and laundry will, on average, be less satisfied than a couple in which both partners perform all four tasks jointly.
“There’s something about having all these tasks on your plate, on your own, that…seems to undermine a person’s sense of happiness in their relationship,” said Daniel Carlson, the author of the study, as well as a sociologist at the University of Utah and a board member of the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonpartisan research group.
Although the study analyzes detailed survey data collected from couples in the early 1990s and mid-2000s, the basic contours – and inequalities – of the distribution of household chores have not changed much since then. during. In a dataset Carlson examined, couples who handled every chore jointly were twice as likely to say their division of labor was fair than couples who assigned tasks to one partner or another, even though both groups shared the overall workload more or less equally. . The data did not cover same-sex couples, but Carlson suspects the study’s findings apply to them as well.
To be clear, these results do not necessarily mean that some division of labor cause couples become happier – couples who are happier and more cooperative may be more likely to share responsibilities for each task in the first place. That said, if the distribution of tasks is what matters, perhaps the explanation is that sharing responsibilities creates team spirit or encourages couples to communicate better. A “grass is greener” effect could also play a role; If you never have to fold laundry, that task may start to seem more tolerable than the pile of dirty dishes you’re about to work on.
Yet another possibility: “Maybe there’s something about understanding all the homework…that people appreciate [their partner] and what they do deeper,” Melissa Milkie, a sociologist at the University of Toronto who was not involved in the study, told me. “If you’re the partner who never cleans the bathroom, you might not realize how much energy it takes.”
This indicates that couples could make their division of labor fairer without significantly changing the time each person spends on household chores. “You’re not being asked to do more,” Carlson told me. “It just changes where you put your energies.”
Sharing chores in this way gives couples who aim for an equal division of chores something to experiment with. Milkie suggested couples could try a week of sharing chores they don’t usually share, or occasionally swapping chores, so each partner gets a reminder of the troubles the other regularly encounters.
Additional research supports the idea that it might be helpful for each partner to perform at least some of each task. Last year, I interviewed gender scholars about how they pursue equal partnerships in their own lives. A sociologist told me he was aware that some men spend less time caring for their children because women are considered “better” at parenting, and so he deliberately began to monitor the his son’s bath time, even though the child acted less when his wife was the one doing it. Eventually, however, the researcher became as “good” at bath time as his wife.
The patterns couples fall into when dividing household chores are often sexist and unfair, but this could be one way to try to break them. Perhaps sharing more tasks could lead to a better shared understanding of all the work involved in running a home.