The Difference Between a Happy Marriage and Miserable One: Chores

Couples without a system for household tasks can get very resentful, very quickly. A look at the results of an in-depth study of middle-class families.

DaveCrosby / flickr

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 Center 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, and 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 more than 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).

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 versus 3 percent), women spent more time on chores (26 versus 14 percent) and childcare (9.1 versus 5.6 percent, respectively). Women on average spent 39 percent of their time on these activities, compared with 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 with 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 each 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 8-year-old son. At one point, their 1-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 this mother not only feels that she has neither; 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 8, 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.

Travis and his wife, Alice, discussed their perspectives on their domestic lives in an interview. Alice explained that she and Travis have different orientations to handling household tasks: she recognizes that she is an “accomplisher” who can be “domineering” and less “easygoing” than Travis. Alice then elaborated on the consequences of these differences:

I have to, like, I manage the household, and, like, I delegate what needs to be done, ’cause basically I’m the one in charge of seeing that—everything needs to get done. That’s how I look at it. Anyway, so that’s a real source of tension between both of us, I think. It’s not like the trust thing. It’s just that—that, um, it wouldn’t be like Travis would walk into the room and go, “Gee, my underwear’s on the floor; I guess I’d better pick it up.” It’ll be, like, “Travis, pick up your underwear off the floor.” I mean, it’s like, basically for me, it’s like having three kids in the house. Sorry, no offense. I love you very much.

From Alice’s perspective, the need to push Travis stems from her belief that it is the only way to make sure that chores will get done. Alice and Travis expressed having divergent needs and expectations of what is necessary for running a household successfully. They have different ideas about how to organize their everyday lives, and they debate these approaches throughout the interview.

Travis: I mean, she’s no—she’s not a saint in terms of keeping the place clean and, uh, fixing stuff or—she doesn’t fix anything.

Alice: No, but I cook meals. I just can’t do it all. I don’t. But I made you dinner tonight.

Travis: That’s good.

Alice: There you go. I’m no saint, but I just can’t do everything.

I can’t buy all the groceries, cook the dinner—

Travis: I know, but just for the—don’t you think that there’s—you know that little board we have on the refrigerator?

Alice: Mm hmm.

Travis: Why don’t you use that and, like, say, like, um, write me notes?

Alice: I don’t want to.

Travis: No. 1, dishwasher. No. 2, rain gutter.

Alice: To be honest with you, I don’t want to have to tell you to do stuff. I want you to figure out that the—that the dishwasher needs to be—that you need to figure it out that the dishwasher needs to be—

Travis: I did. Did you ask me to fix the dishwasher, or did I?

Alice: No, you ordered a part, and then six months went by and we don’t know what happened to it. I don’t want to be, like, micromanaging you. Anyway, that’s a whole other story.

Alice’s frustration is evident in the content of her utterances and in her demeanor during the interview. Her tone of voice is tense and defiant as she expresses her exasperation. In the first several lines, she emphasizes that she “can’t do it all,” repeating the words can’t and don’t want to throughout the excerpt. During this exchange, it becomes clear that Alice does not wish to constantly remind Travis what to do around the house.

Perhaps as a way to distance himself from the nagging he experiences, Travis suggests that Alice post notes on the refrigerator, listing tasks that need to be done. She responds that she would prefer that he “figure it out,” indicating, once again, her desire for him to take initiative without her constant input, or as she refers to it, “micromanaging,” an approach that does not work for either of them. For Travis, Alice’s micromanaging is problematic because it does not occur only when something needs to be done; it permeates almost every moment of his waking life. He comments on his wife’s continual negative appraisals and states that there is a great deal of “punitive language coming my direction.”

Several findings stand out from the above excerpts. First, the burden spouses experience managing household responsibilities interferes with individual well-being and expressions of intimacy. Spouses spontaneously mention the struggles they experience in their relationship over the allocation and completion of chores, and when they reflect on the division of labor in their families they sometimes couch their arrangement in terms of trust (e.g., Does my partner trust me to do what I am expected to do?) and authority and subordination (e.g., I want my partner to recognize what to do and do it versus I want my partner to prompt me when tasks need attention).

Housework appears to be far more than the mere completion of tasks needed to keep the family running smoothly. It also colors individuals’ daily experiences and appears to affect how couples characterize their partnership.

Interactional Patterns Between Couples

While several of the spouses in our sample expressed frustration regarding household division of labor, some couples seemed to be particularly skilled at smoothly accomplishing domestic tasks. A study of the couples preparing dinner together revealed a variety of interactional styles, including (1) “silent collaboration,” in which both partners worked in the same space and went about the task at hand; (2) “one partner as expert,” in which one spouse was considered an expert or authority in a particular task, either humorously or with genuine respect; (3) “coordinating together,” in which partners verbally organized the activity in concert; and (4) “collaborating apart,” in which partners carried out their share of the labor in separate locations.

When coordinating together, couples displayed how they related to and treated one another in the midst of carrying out domestic tasks. In the following example, one couple collaborates harmoniously as they unwind after work one evening. As the dinner preparation begins, Adam has just put on a jazz CD and offers his wife, Cheryl, something to drink (he uses her nickname, Sweeps).

Adam: Sweeps, you want any wine?

Cheryl: Sure.

Adam: I bought you zinfandel that you love.

Adam displays his attentiveness to his wife as he uses a term of endearment and pours her a glass of wine. This couple often made dinner together, alternating who took the lead. At one point while Adam is out on the patio barbecuing chicken, Cheryl comes out to offer to help.

Cheryl: Adam, what do you want me to do? Rice? Salad?

Adam: I’m doing rice already.

Cheryl: Okay, You got broccoli?

Adam: I have mixed vegetables steamed.

Cheryl: You want that paper out here, or can I bring it in?

Adam: Yeah, that’s all done, I’m done with all that.

Cheryl: Okay.

In these exchanges we see that each spouse is trying to anticipate each other’s needs regarding the task at hand, as well as attending to other features of the setting and concurrent activities. Adam opens a bottle of his wife’s favorite wine and turns on music they enjoy; Cheryl asks about helping with the food preparation and checks with her husband on where he would prefer her to put the newspaper he had been reading.

When couples coordinate together, however, there is also the potential for counter-collaborative communication, which may produce tension and lead to conflict. In the following example, David is preparing dinner, which is particularly challenging for him because he only recently began to take on cooking responsibilities. He attempts to appease his wife, Julie’s, numerous queries, demands, and requests, which target him repeatedly throughout the dinner-making activity.

David: I’m making such a mess.

Julie: You always make a mess, David.

David: I know.

Julie: It’s like you don't know how to cook.

Julie: [This is going]—look at what you’ve done!

David: [laughs]

When David acknowledges that he is “making such a mess,” Julie confirms and generalizes his assessment to all the occasions on which he takes on meal preparation. Her next comment, “It’s like you don’t know how to cook,” is a further critique of his poor performance. David calmly accepts her condemnation and even finds his performance humorous. Instead of joining her husband in laughing about the situation, Julie continues to adopt a critical supervisory role.

Julie: First of all, you don’t do this on the stove. You do it over on the counter.

Ugh. You’re going to have to clean up, too. So sorry to inform you.

David: I know that. I’ll clean it up.

As Julie watches over and evaluates her husband’s actions, her tone is authoritative and her imperatives are unmitigated. She makes no attempt to soften her stance or to couch her talk as suggestions rather than orders.

She does not respond to David’s humor and instead maintains a monitoring role in the interaction. This pattern of participation also surfaces on a subsequent evening in the couple’s kitchen.

David fields Julie’s interrogations and comments without hesitation, and he appears to be doing his best to meet her expectations of how the meal should be prepared. He attempts to inject humor into the situation on more than one occasion. Julie continues to monitor the activity and notes that the researchers are videotaping his missteps. She then refers to a news story about police videotaping interviews with suspected criminals. David’s manner then shifts. He makes no more attempts at humor and self-deprecation; instead, his tone becomes curt and his words more adversarial.

Julie: You know what, I heard this morning on NPR that police departments are going to start taping their interviews with um [pause] you know, suspects.

David: You don’t say.

Julie: Well, they haven’t been doing it before.

David: Genius idea. Yeah.

Julie: You know what? I don’t need your sarcasm.

David: Yeah you do.

David’s response to Julie’s comment is received as antagonistic. David criticizes the idea behind the news story she is relaying rather than anything about Julie personally, yet she chooses to defend the idea and appears to feel slighted personally by his comment. Her annoyance is apparent in her hostile response (“I don’t need your sarcasm”). We can only speculate about the longer-term implications these exchanges have for future conversations between these spouses, yet psychological analyses of family interaction would suggest that David might respond more negatively to Julie’s incursions (by avoiding her more or criticizing her), perhaps leading her to escalate her requests even further.

While working women often complain that men engage less in accomplishing multiple and simultaneous family-related tasks, men express dissatisfaction about consistently being “nagged” by their wives, giving rise to the “henpecked” husband. Several studies have identified a pattern called demand-withdraw as a reliable marker of maladaptive communication and future relationship distress. In this pattern, “one member (the demander) criticizes, nags, and makes a demand on the other, while the partner (the withdrawer) avoids confrontation, withdraws, and becomes defensive.” Withdrawing responses can take many forms and can serve specific functions, including avoiding intimacy, avoiding conflict, and angry withdrawal.

The tension that arises in everyday interactions concerning household management can influence the quality and nature of communication between couples as they broach other domains of discussion. As some psychological studies note, humor and positive affect in marital interactions foreshadows marital success and can neutralize the effects of poor communication skills. Interactional patterns of conflict in marriage are complex and are often the symptom of underlying tension concerning other issues related to professional work status and differing rights, obligations, and expectations. For example, in the excerpt above, David was temporarily unemployed and seeking work, which may have contributed to Julie’s frustration, to David’s willingness to adopt a subordinate and subservient role, and to the apparent tension in their interactions.

Partnership and Shared Understandings

The couples in our study who lacked clarity on what, when, and how household tasks and responsibilities would be carried out often said that they felt drained and rushed and had difficulty communicating their dissatisfaction in their lives. Spouses who appeared to have a clear and respectful understanding of one another’s roles and tasks, in contrast, did not spend as much time negotiating responsibilities; their daily lives seemed to flow more smoothly. For example, in one family, the couple emphasized the importance of establishing a mutual perspective on managing household chores.

Interviewer: How do you divide the chores between you two?

Raya: He does outside chores, and I do inside chores; that’s very clear.

Interviewer: That’s how it works?

Raya: Yeah, very clear distinction. We both have professions, we both are strong minded so we make it clear—this is what you do, this is what I do, and I don’t go out and do, you know, his outside chores and he doesn’t do the inside chores.

Sam: Like, like, you know, groceries, most of the times I do it. If it’s things like—we need to get for the house I do it; things of that nature, but the thing—the way that we do it is if she does it, I don’t interfere; if I do it, she doesn’t interfere, so you know one person


Interviewer: Like, for example, for cooking.

Sam: Then she does it.

Interviewer: And you know that.

Sam: I know that it’s clear, it’s very clear.

Above Raya explains the need for clarity. “Outside chores” for this couple does not refer to the typical inside/outside distinction of the woman taking on the housework while the husband mows the lawn. The “outside” chores include doing all the shopping and often shepherding the children to various activities. What we ended up observing, however, was that each spouse frequently assisted the other with whatever needed to be done in each domain. On the weekend, for example, Sam cooked a rice-and-vegetable dish for lunch. The following morning, it was Raya who took the boys to their soccer games. While they appeared to have a clear division of labor, the underlying principle expressed through their actions was that they were a team, working together to keep their lives running smoothly. The frequent use of the second-person plural we by both parties indicates the management of the household as a joint project.

In the interview above, Sam’s realization that interference is a potential problem—one that can be avoided by a clear and consensual division of labor—is a critical insight. Couples that established a shared understanding of their respective responsibilities were less likely to monitor and critique each other’s behavior. These spouses were also more likely to spontaneously chip in when their partners were sick, away, or otherwise unavailable to carry out a task. These findings upend conventional wisdom about the value of communication between working partners: the absence of communication in certain domains may be an indicator of a healthy and efficient partnership in which spouses display mutual respect.

Couples are composed of individuals who coordinate their behaviors in relation to one another. In working families—where both adults work outside the home and raise school-aged children—the challenge of coordinating behaviors to meet family needs is especially great. The emotional tone of family life pivots to a significant degree on the extent to which family members negotiate and enact effective strategies for contending with the numerous tasks encountered in their daily lives. More generally, observing family members as they go about their everyday routines reveals important insights into family dynamics and communication. Although we have noted some salient exceptions here, our global impression is that expectations and roles are not yet clear and that satisfying domestic routines for many working couples have yet to be established.

Among the couples we studied, mutually shared understandings of responsibilities minimized the need for spouses to evaluate and manage one another’s task-related behaviors. These understandings enabled partners to fulfill their household duties with the knowledge that established boundaries would be not be crossed. Demands were few, disengagement in the face of demands was unnecessary, and partners were more likely to feel respected for the contributions they made. Conflict was more prevalent when couples had not worked out a clear division of labor in the home and had to renegotiate responsibilities from one day to the next.

Ambiguous models appeared to provide ample opportunity for partners to express displeasure toward one another as they completed their chores, such that various attempts at controlling these exchanges—for example, through requests and avoidance of these requests—revealed the ongoing and occasionally tense negotiation of power and influence between partners.

This post is adapted from Fast-Forward Family, edited by Elinor Ochs and Tamar Kremer-Sadlik.