Does Sharing Housework Really Lead to Divorce?

There's a study in the news that's bound to get a bunch of people talking (Drudge tweeted it this morning, for instance, with more than 100 retweets). Whether those people are for or against its pronouncements, it seems to fly in the face of what we thought we knew about marriage, gender equality, and the way modern, successful relationships work.

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There's a study in the news that's bound to get a bunch of people talking (Drudge tweeted it this morning, for instance, with more than 100 retweets). Whether those people are for or against its pronouncements, it seems to fly in the face of what we thought we knew about marriage, gender equality, and the way modern, successful relationships work. In a piece written by Henry Samuel for the Telegraph, he explains, "In what appears to be a slap in the face for gender equality, the report found the divorce rate among couples who shared housework equally was around 50 per cent higher than among those where the woman did most of the work."

Despite the glee of some about what they think this study means, it doesn't really make 1:1 sense, particularly given a spate of other research looking at how modern marriages function and that the couples who stay together and are happier together generally do share housework. And, oh, the studies that say that men who contribute to household chores are happier, too. And that, even, there's a correlation between shared housework and more sex in a marriage. So, what's up here? Well, there's a lot going on, not least of which is an oversimplification and conflation of factors. Is there really any correlation between shared housework and divorce? Let's look first at the study, called "Equality in the Home," co-authored by Thomas Hansen (affiliation not noted in the reports, nor have I been able locate this particular study online; I've reached out to what appears to be his email to try to find out more), who says, "What we’ve seen is that sharing equal responsibility for work in the home doesn’t necessarily contribute to contentment."

Well, of course not. Sharing housework doesn't mean you're going to have a good relationship! It's just a piece of what might help create something that's good for both people in the marriage. Or maybe what Hansen means is that men should do all the housework?

Anyway, Samuel's piece doesn't tell us much more about the details of this study, other than that it appears to have been done in Norway. Norway, per the Daily News, has a "long tradition of gender equality" in which childrearing is shared but household duties fall to women in the majority of cases (those women were "found" to have done the housework of their own volution and to be happy about it).

Hansen explains, per the figures, “the more a man does in the home, the higher the divorce rate." (Again, this is Norway, not the U.S., and the sample size, socioeconomic breakdown of couples, or other factors about who was involved in the study is not reported.) He caveats that it's not just about the chores, though, we're talking about roles in relationships here, and when they merge: “Maybe it’s sometimes seen as a good thing to have very clear roles with lots of clarity ... where one person is not stepping on the other’s toes. There could be less quarrels, since you can easily get into squabbles if both have the same roles and one has the feeling that the other is not pulling his or her own weight.”

Even that seems dubious, though, as it's hard to imagine that either men or women want the role of all-the-time-laundry-room-attendant. And from what we know from other recent research about marriage, educated women are more likely to marry later, and less likely to divorce. These are generally women more likely to expect equality in their marriages. On the divorce side, women are also likely to be the ones to initiate divorces when they do happen. Why? "Verbal, emotional and physical neglect." Shared housework hardly fits any of those categories.

Most enlightening is that Hansen really seems to blame divorce stats on modern couples themselves, who may not consider marriage the be-all and end-all, who might be happier living independently, and who have marriages in which women, educated and with their own careers, are no longer dependent on men. (Women, also, don't need to be married to be "socially acceptable.") Note: Each of these things has nothing to do with housework. Because these people sometimes "can manage much easier if they divorce,” says Hansen, they sometimes do. But this, again, is hardly about sweeping the floor: It means that if "they" (women or men) feel they'll be happier outside of a bad marriage, they will likely seek to end it. The way we perceive marriage has changed; couples are more easily able to get out of them, without stigma, and if they are to have them, want more from them—happiness, love, sharing of chores, equality, both partners achieving as much as they can. This means, as sociologist Eric Klinenberg, author of Going Solo, told me recently, contemporary marriages tend to veer between very good and very successful, or very much the opposite. Educated people who marry later are more likely to stay together, but if things do not go well, they will likely divorce, because the bars against them doing that are lower than ever.

Then there's this spurious quote from Dr. Frank Furedi, Sociology professor at the University of Canterbury, to the Telegraph: “The more you organise your relationship, the more you work out diaries and schedules, the more it becomes a business relationship than an intimate, loving spontaneous one," he says. "In a good relationship people simply don’t know who does what and don’t particularly care." Seems hard to cast that generalization upon all couples, and beyond that, it's sort of like saying not to worry about anything, it will all take care of itself. Somewhere between  a chore schedule posted on the refrigerator and complete chaos there is probably a balance, and it's probably up to the couples themselves to determine it.

In short, this study may mean nothing more and nothing less than that modern couples are more likely to divorce than they have been previously (this seems indisputable) and that modern couples are more likely to share chores in general (an idea backed by overall feelings about gender equality and studies that say that educated couples tend to marry later, are more likely to stay together, and that women are happier—and there is more sex—when household duties are shared).

Studies, though, whether we like what they have to say or not, need always to be taken with a grain (or many) of salt, because they're just studies. They often focus on small numbers of people of particular backgrounds or nationalities. They are not universal. They are simply a look at a certain part of a population. Data can be manipulated to serve a variety of purposes. And not every researcher is completely objective (not to say anything about Mr. Hansen). The best thing we can hope for with a study that media organizations appear to be happily complicit in using to troll readers is that we talk about the subject more, and that more research on that subject is done. That it's a study at all means that people are interested in the basic themes it hopes to address—if not the knowledge, necessarily, that it purports to deliver. This study may have merit (not sure what, exactly, yet) and it may not, but one thing is clear: People are deeply curious about determining the right way or ways in which we should coexist together.

But, yeah, clearly sharing housework is not the reason couples split. Come on, people.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.