A Smarter Way to Divide Chores?

Couples who share every task, rather than having their own separate to-do lists, tend to be more satisfied with their relationship.

A picture of soap suds and sponges, forming the shape of a smiley face
Katie Martin / The Atlantic

In theory, coming up with a fair division of housework should be simple: Take all the tasks and divide them in two.

In practice, it’s more complicated. Some people find certain tasks more bearable than their partners do. Some chores are ones that no one wants to do. And, on average, women end up bearing a disproportionate share of their household’s chore burden. A new study adds another variable in the equation of couples’ (dis)satisfaction with how they split up chores: It found that men and women in long-term, different-sex partnerships tend to be happier with their relationship when they share responsibility for each chore 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 jointly tackle all four chores.

“There is something to having all these tasks on your plate, as your sole responsibility, 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 gathered from couples in the early 1990s and mid-2000s, the basic contours—and inequities—of how housework is divided haven’t changed much since then. In one data set Carlson looked at, couples who managed each chore jointly were twice as likely to say that their division of labor was fair than couples who assigned chores to one partner or another—even though both groups split the overall workload more or less equally. The data didn’t cover same-sex couples, but Carlson suspects the study’s results apply to them as well.

To be clear, these findings don’t necessarily mean that a certain chore distribution caused couples to become happier—couples that are happier and more cooperative may be more likely to share responsibilities for every chore in the first place. That said, if the chore distribution is what matters, maybe the explanation is that sharing responsibilities builds a spirit of teamwork, or encourages couples to communicate better. A “grass is greener” effect could also be at play; if you never have to fold the laundry, that task may start to seem more tolerable than the pile of dirty dishes you’re about to work through.

Yet another possibility: “There might be something about really understanding all the work in the home … that makes people appreciate [their partner] and what they’re doing more deeply,” Melissa Milkie, a sociologist at the University of Toronto who wasn’t involved in the study, told me. “If you’re the partner that never cleans the bathroom, you might not realize how much energy it takes.”

This points to a way that couples might make their division of labor feel fairer without greatly altering the amount of time each person commits to housework. “You’re not being asked to do more,” Carlson told me. “It’s just changing where you’re devoting your energies.”

Sharing tasks in this way gives couples aiming for an equal chore split something to experiment with. Milkie suggested that couples might try a week of sharing chores that they don’t usually share, or occasionally swapping chores, so that each partner gets a reminder of the annoyances that the other encounters regularly.

Additional research supports the idea that there could be value in having each partner do at least some of every task. Last year, I interviewed gender scholars about how they pursued equal partnerships in their own life. One sociologist told me he was aware that some men spend less time looking after their kids because women are considered to be “better” at parenting, and so he purposely started supervising his son’s bath time, even though the child acted out less when his wife was the one doing it. Eventually, though, the researcher became just as “good” at bath time as his wife.

The patterns that couples fall into when divvying up household tasks are often gendered and unfair, but this might be one way to try busting out of them. Perhaps sharing more chores could lead to more of a shared understanding of all the work that goes into managing a home.