The Difference Between a Happy Marriage and Miserable One: Chores

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Couples who don't have a system for household tasks can get really resentful, really quickly. A look at the results of an in-depth study of middle-class families.

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Between 2001 and 2004, a team of UCLA researchers tracked the lives of 32 dual-earning middle-class families living in Los Angeles. The study's findings appear in the book Fast-Forward Family, from which the following post is excerpted.


In the United States, ambiguity in division of household responsibilities between working couples often results in ongoing negotiations, resentment, and tension. According to a 2007 Pew Research Poll, sharing household chores was in the top three highest-ranking issues associated with a successful marriage—third only to faithfulness and good sex. In this poll, 62 percent of adults said that sharing household chores is very important to marital success. There were no differences of opinion reported between men and women, between older adults and younger adults, or between married people and singles.

Mirroring trends in industrialized nations around the world, men's participation in housework in U.S. families has nearly doubled in the past 40 years, and their amount of time spent on childcare has tripled. Yet in the United States women still perform the majority of household tasks, and most of the couples in our study reported having no clear models for achieving a mutually satisfying arrangement. Determining who was responsible for various household tasks was a particularly contentious process for couples who tended to bicker about housework on a regular basis. Other couples, however, appeared to carry out tasks separately or in collaboration without much tension or discussion. Studying how couples divide their many household chores is important on its own terms, as the results of the Pew Poll suggest. More important, close examination of how husbands and wives collaborate on or fail to coordinate their household activities allows us to contemplate more encompassing phenomena such as gender roles, issues of power, respect, intimacy, and attempts to broker an equitable or fair partnership. What are couples' perceptions of their roles in the division of labor in the home? How do spouses coordinate and enact different patterns of household labor? How do family systems operate to sustain particular distributions of labor?

Working Couples and the Division of Labor at Home

Among couples we studied, on average, men worked longer hours outside the home, yet even in families where women worked equivalent or longer hours and earned higher salaries they still took on more household responsibilities. When our data were merged with the Chicago Sloan Study of 500 working families, we learned that men spent 18 percent of their time doing housework and took on 33 percent of household tasks, whereas women spent 22 percent of their time on housework and carried out 67 percent of household tasks. Women performed over twice the number of tasks and assumed the burden of "mental labor" or "invisible work," that is, planning and coordination of tasks. Moreover, leisure was most frequent for fathers (30 percent) and children (39 percent) and least frequent for mothers (22 percent).

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In our study we categorized household work into three activities: (1) household maintenance (e.g., organizing objects and managing storage issues); (2) household chores (e.g., meal preparation, cleaning, outdoor work); and (3) childcare (e.g., bathing, dressing, grooming, feeding, putting to bed). While men spent slightly more of their time on household maintenance tasks (4 vs. 3 percent), women spent more time on chores (26 vs. 14 percent) and childcare (9.1 vs. 5.6 percent, respectively). Women on average spent 39 percent of their time on these activities, compared to 23 percent for men. Women prepared 91 percent of weekday and 81 percent of weekend dinners, even though fathers were present at 80 percent of weekday and 88 percent of weekend dinners.

Overall, women spent much more of their time cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children, compared to their husbands. Women also spent more time multitasking, often juggling meal preparation with cleaning tasks and childcare.

Although our quantitative findings replicate the well-documented disparity in the division of labor between men and women, we also found that the nuanced ways couples interact with one another about and during these tasks were linked to the couples' relationship satisfaction and sense of well-being. More than constituting a series of simple instrumental tasks, household work represents a complex set of interpersonal exchanges that enable family members to achieve (or fail to achieve) solidarity and cohesiveness.

Couples' Perceptions of Their Roles at Home

While watching television on a Saturday morning, John kicks back in a lounge chair as his wife, Susannah, sits on the couch folding laundry and talks on the telephone to arrange a play date for their eight-year-old son. At one point, their one-year-old daughter cries for Susannah's attention, and she puts down the clothes to pick her up. Hanging up the telephone, she goes into the kitchen to start preparing a meal. Previously in an interview Susannah described how she holds down a full-time job while also handling most of the household work and the childcare—even when John is home:

Personally, I don't have a life. My life is my family because whatever their needs are they always come first before mine and I can honestly say that. He—and I think it's great—he does his golfing, he does his bike riding, and it doesn't take a long time and he needs that. I don't get that yet. I don't have that yet. I don't have the time or the luxury. That for me is like a huge luxury that I don't see happening in any time in the near future.

According to Susannah, while her husband has time to pursue his own interests, she views herself as the only member of the family who must continually sacrifice her well-being for the needs of others. Having time for oneself is equated with "having a life," and not only does this mother feel that she has neither, but she does not foresee any changes on the horizon. The strong sense of being burdened that Susannah expressed was not unusual among the women in our study.

Although working women's feelings of being overwhelmed is well documented, in some cases men are also often highly stressed by managing everyday household decisions and prioritizing the needs of family members. Travis, the father of two boys ages two and a half and eight, laments the constant demand of "managing someone else's needs," specifically, being unable to fulfill the "demands" of his wife, which often comes at the expense of his own health. He talks about his concerns as he spontaneously interviews himself in front of a video camera, which we provided to him for conducting a self-guided home tour:

You'll notice when I'm walking around the house that, um, there's basically very little respite for me. It's all about, um, managing someone else's needs most of the time, and admittedly, I'm not as strong and caring of my own needs, but I see that my own physical health is being compromised by not doing that, so, um, I'm starting to do more of that, which of course leads to aggravation from my demanding wife, um, by not paying attention to her and not fulfilling her needs.

So I think my house kind of represents, um, work. And my workplace kind of represents rest in a certain way.

This perspective on the workplace as a sanctuary reflects the phenomenon discussed by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, who found that for working parents one's job offered a less stressful environment than life at home.

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Presented by

Wendy Klein, Carolina Izquierdo, & Thomas N. Bradbury

Wendy Klein is an assistant professor of anthropology at California State University, Long Beach. Carolina Izquierdo is an anthropologist who is currently a visiting scholar at University of California, Los Angeles. Thomas N. Bradbury is a professor of psychology at University of California, Los Angeles.

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