Researcher: 'There Is No Causal Relationship' Between Sharing Housework and Divorce

On Friday the news of a certain study was making the Internet rounds, pleasing an array of people who seemed to take it as support that all this "feminism" and "gender equality" stuff was a bunch of bunk, that women should really be in the kitchen, doing housework, if they expected their marriages to remain marriages and not head toward divorce post-haste.

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On Friday the news of a certain study was making the Internet rounds, pleasing certain people who seemed to take it as support that all this "feminism" and "gender equality" stuff was a bunch of bunk, that women should really be in the kitchen or maybe vacuuming the living room if they expected their marriages to remain marriages and not head toward divorce post-haste. I pointed out then that this study, or at least, the way it was being headlined in much of the media, seemed dubious and was probably not the whole story. You can read more about the reasons why in that piece.

Also in that piece, I mentioned that I'd gotten in touch with the lead author on the study, Thomas Hansen, to find out more. He responded over the weekend to some questions, and sent along the study itself, most of which is in Norwegian (the English summary begins on page 223). Hansen told us, as for the media-presumed causality between household chore sharing and divorce rates, "I primarily think that there is no causal relationship," and instead says that people have adopted more modern perspectives "in terms of household division as well as in their views on marriage and divorce (among other things)."

English readers will see, per the summary in the study, that the majority of what the study has found is not focused on a correlation of housework and divorce rates. A few interesting highlights of that research, which was done using data from two Norwegian surveys, the LOGG (the study of Life course, Generation and Gender) and the NorLAG (the Norwegian Life course, Aging and Generations) studies:

  • "Housework is divided more equally in younger than in older age-cohorts, which suggests a more egalitarian division of housework in later generations."
  • "The household chores are also divided more equally if the woman works full-time than if she is unemployed or works part-time."
  • "Yet, even when she works full-time, in 65 percent of the couples aged 30-49 she tends to do more housework than him. Socioeconomic status influences the division of housework, and it is her more than his education, income, and occupational class that are influential. The higher socioeconomic status (both genders), the more likely it is that housework is divided equally. We find the same pattern for childcare. We find marked differences between regions and between urban and rural areas. The most egalitarian division of housework is found in urban areas..."
  • "At present, most Norwegians hold a favourable attitude towards gender equality, and women more so than men. Most 'traditionalists' are men. The few women that hold a negative attitude are mostly older or low educated women."
  • "Both genders report the highest satisfaction with the division of housework when the housework is divided equally, and the lowest when they themselves do most of this work."
  • "95 percent of women and men are satisfied when there is an equal division, 60 percent of women are satisfied when they do almost all of the housework, and 84 percent of men are satisfied when they do the most. Women also report somewhat less relationship satisfaction when they do all or almost all of the housework: 76 percent are satisfied when they do (almost) all, 89 percent when they share."

It takes til Chapter 9 to get to the divorce versus housework portion of the study, and the question is asked like this: "Does an egalitarian division of housework protect against relationship dissolution?" From the study,

In this chapter we ask whether an egalitarian division of housework promotes marital stability ... On the contrary, the risk of divorce (over a period of 4 years) is higher when he does as much or more housework than her, compared to when she does most of the housework ... We discuss possible reasons for the greater risk of divorce in untraditional couples. Differences in values and attitudes are a likely cause: in traditional couples where she does most of the housework, both partners may tend to hold a high value of marriage and a more traditional attitude towards divorce. Untraditional couples, where he does the most of the housework, may hold a less traditional or more modern view about marriage, whereby marital dissatisfaction more easily leads to marital break-up. If so, the division of housework is no “cause” of later divorce.  

Hansen reiterated the commonly expressed view that modern, well-educated women are less financially dependent on husbands, and can more easily leave unhappy marriages; he agreed that the trend of women typically initiating divorce is one that's shared in Norway, too. "Having said that," he adds, "there MAY be beneficial (in terms of marital stability) aspects of a traditional marriage. Having clear and separate roles at home may lead to less argumentation over housework."

What isn't being highlighted in all this chore-sharing talk is something else, however. The old views of marriage are, quite simply, changing, and sharing housework is more likely representative of that rather than causal to any split. He says, "I think gender equality will continue to grow in Norway. We are leading internationally in terms of attitudes toward gender equality and practice" including chore-sharing at home and men being more involved. "Two facts suggest even more gender equality in the future," he says. "First, younger generations are more gender equal than older ones. Second, gender equality is strongly linked with the woman's educational level (and social class more generally). The fact that new generations of women are far better educated than older ones suggest a movement toward (even) more gender equality at home. Women especially are the happiest with their relationship when housework and childcare is divided equally. For this reason (and for a number of other reasons, related to gender equality outside of the home, and moral/normative issues), I recommend continued emphasis on gender equality in social policy, for example." He adds, though, that it's all up to us as individuals (coupled or not) to find our own happiness: "it seems that most couples find a balance at home that suits them, and with which they are content."

Over the weekend, there was a piece in The New York Times talking about, again, the ways that we may attempt to do marriage differently to suit our contemporary lives and needs. It's worth a read, whether you buy into the idea of a short-term marriage contract or not (and I don't think this is the answer, for the record) because, clearly, we're going to keep talking about this and keep figuring things out along the way. When it comes to the studies, though, let's remember to consider our sources and learn as much as we can before buying into any headline whole cloth. Also, take turns doing the laundry;  nobody wants to fold the socks all the time.

Image via Shutterstock/ Monkey Business Images.

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