A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families by Daniel L. Carlson, Associate Professor, Department of Family and Consumer Studies, University of Utah
April 25, 2022
Which marriages and relationships are happiest? And is it the same for men and women? These questions have come to the forefront of conversations about intimate partnerships in recent decades as the roles of men and women in families have shifted dramatically.
In 1960, seventy percent of married parent households consisted of a male income-earner and a female homemaker. At the time, family experts believed that this was not only the most efficient way to organize society but the best predictor of marital stability and happiness. Nobel prize-winning economist Gary Becker argued that labor specialization among heterosexual partners maximized the product of men’s and women’s labor, making for greater efficiency and leading to more satisfying and stable partnerships.
For several decades, research seemed to support Becker’s suppositions. Couples with a “traditional” division of household labor reported higher marital and sexual satisfaction than couples who shared housework, and earnings equality in intimate partnerships actually raised the risk of relationship dissolution.
Today, “breadwinner-homemaker” families constitute less than one-third of married parent families, while 60 percent of families are headed by dual earners. Gender responsibilities for paid work have become more evenly divided, and so have responsibilities for unpaid domestic work, though to a much lesser extent. On average, married mothers do half as much routine housework as they did in 1965 (16 hours vs. 32 hours per week) while married fathers do twice as much (5 hours vs. 2 hours). Among dual-earning couples, mothers do 13.5 hours of housework, compared to 9.5 hours for fathers.
Contrary to the expectations of scholars such as Becker, the decline in marital specialization has not hurt marriages. As of the 1990s, the increased risk of divorce for couples where wives earn as much or more than their husbands has disappeared. Additionally, couples who share childcare responsibilities report greater relationship and sexual satisfaction than couples where mothers are solely responsible for childcare. Since the 1990s, sexual intimacy among those who share housework equally has increased, whereas among couples where female partners do the majority of housework it has decreased.
Despite the seemingly positive impact of egalitarian relationships, movement in this direction has stalled in the past couple of decades. Although the gendered division of labor in families is much more equal than it was in the 1960s, there has been little change in women’s labor force participation or men’s housework in the last three decades. The COVID-19 pandemic threatened to reverse the progress of the gender revolution by thrusting domestic labor back into homes. Though fathers increased their domestic labor during the early days of the pandemic, so too did mothers, and the loss of in-person school and daycare was associated with significant decreases in mothers’ labor force participation.
Some people suggest that we have reached an upper limit to the benefits of equal sharing, beyond which men in particular are not willing to go without relationship quality suffering. Others argue that relationships would be happier if work policies and social norms encouraged more couples to share the housework as evenly as they now share income-earning.
Resolving this question is not as easy as it might seem. The research is fairly consistent in demonstrating that women are happier in relationships where routine housework responsibilities (i.e., cooking, cleaning, laundry, dishes, and shopping) are shared equally (see here, here, here, and here). But the findings are more mixed when it comes to men. Although some research finds that men report the greatest relationship satisfaction in couples where routine housework is shared equally (here, here, and here), others find that men are happiest in arrangements where they have no responsibilities for routine housework (here, here, here, here, and here). Still, other studies find no difference in men’s happiness between arrangements where they do no housework and those where they share it equally (here, here, here, here, and here).
These contradictory findings on the relationship between egalitarian housework and relationship satisfaction may stem from the fact that the way housework is currently measured doesn’t capture variations in how partners craft their housework arrangements. Conventional measures of housework simply calculate each partner’s total time spent on all tasks. Yet “housework” is actually an amalgamation of several distinct tasks. Because of this, partners can accomplish an equal division of tasks in many different ways. Some egalitarian couples may divide tasks between partners, with each partner doing all of some tasks and none of the tasks done by the other. Others may share equally in the completion of all tasks. For instance, each partner may do the laundry, the cooking, and the cleaning half of the time. A fundamental question therefore is how do couples, egalitarian couples especially, actually construct their housework arrangements? And does this matter for relationship satisfaction?
In a forthcoming study in the journal Sex Roles, I use data from two nationally representative surveys of married and cohabiting US adults to examine the degree to which partners share in the completion of routine housework tasks and how men’s and women’s relationship quality (feelings of fairness; satisfaction with housework arrangements; overall relationship satisfaction) varies by the number of routine housework tasks they both take equal responsibility for versus the number that they divvy up, with each focusing on a different set of tasks.
My findings suggest that when it comes to analyzing the impact of the division of labor on people’s satisfaction, we need to do more than count the total time or overall proportion that each partner puts into housework. There is significant variation in the extent to which couples, especially those in egalitarian arrangements, share or divide up tasks. As one might expect, there is little sharing in traditional housework arrangements (i.e., where men do less than 40% of housework). In such households, even when men do take on some of the routine tasks, 75 to 85 percent of partners equally share no tasks or only one. There is much more variation in task-sharing in egalitarian households (i.e., where women and men do roughly equal amounts of the housework, varying between 40 and 60 percent). Only 20 to 30 percent of egalitarian partners equally share no tasks or only one task with each other, while upwards of 40 percent equally share all or nearly all tasks.
As it turns out, the number of equally shared tasks matters a great deal for both men’s and women’s relationship quality. Indeed, among recent cohorts, there is evidence to suggest that it matters as much if not more than each partner’s overall proportion of housework. For both men and women, the number of equally shared tasks is associated with a greater likelihood of A) feeling their relationship is fair to both partners, B) feeling satisfied with their own housework arrangement, and C) feeling satisfied with the relationship overall.
This pattern explains some of the contradictory research findings from earlier studies. Using the same data, I find that increases in men’s proportion of overall housework is positively associated with women’s reports of relationship quality, but negatively associated with men’s reports. From this, one could conclude that men feel less satisfied in equal domestic arrangements compared to traditional arrangements. But looking at the association of men’s satisfaction with the number of equally shared tasks, one could conclude that equality is associated with greater relationship satisfaction for men.
Indeed, when considering both the number of tasks that partners share and the proportion of overall housework each partner does, it appears that satisfaction in egalitarian relationships compared to traditional relationships depends on the number of tasks that the couple shares. Men in traditional arrangements who do no housework are significantly more satisfied with their relationships than men in egalitarian arrangements who equally share only two or fewer tasks. But egalitarian men who equally share at least three tasks with their partner are as fully satisfied with their relationships and housework arrangements as men who do no housework at all.
Women’s responses also confirm that not all egalitarian arrangements are created equal. Compared to women in traditional arrangements, women in egalitarian arrangements who equally share at least one task are significantly more satisfied with their relationships. However, women who divide housework equally with their male partners but do not equally share any tasks are no more satisfied than women who do all of the housework.
My findings suggest that the most mutually beneficial housework arrangement for the dyadic relationship is one where all tasks are shared equally. Men may be equally satisfied doing no housework or sharing all or most tasks equally, but since women’s highest satisfaction is when all or most tasks are shared, the route to a happy relationship appears to lie in sharing.
Why might sharing the tasks equally create more satisfaction than dividing the tasks so that each partner specializes in a different set of tasks? One likely answer is that tasks vary in how onerous or enjoyable people find them to be – think doing the laundry or cleaning the bathroom vs cooking – and the unpleasant ones are less likely to be shared than other more enjoyable ones. As such, egalitarian partners who divide up tasks run the risk of delegating particularly onerous tasks to just one person, lowering feelings of fairness and relationship satisfaction. Even when couples try to divide the onerous tasks equally, it is hard for someone to assess whether their partner’s contribution is the same as their own when doing different things at different times. Sharing all tasks equally eliminates these sources of resentment or misunderstanding, ensuring that each partner feels their arrangement is equitable and satisfying.
The author would like to thank the staff at CCF for their assistance with the production of this article and Stephanie Coontz for her helpful comments in drafting this brief.
For More Information, Please Contact:
Brief report: https://sites.utexas.edu/contemporaryfamilies/2022/04/25/egalitarian-relationships-brief-report/
Press release: https://sites.utexas.edu/contemporaryfamilies/2022/04/25/egalitarian-relationships-press-release/
The Council on Contemporary Families, based at the University of Texas-Austin, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of family researchers and practitioners that seeks to further a national understanding of how America’s families are changing and what is known about the strengths and weaknesses of different family forms and various family interventions For more information, contact Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education, firstname.lastname@example.org.
April 25, 2022