Is washing dishes harder than buying groceries? Does one load of laundry equal two takings-out of the garbage? Should people who clean bathrooms get a free pass from ever having to keep track of what bills need to be paid? These and other questions about the division of labor in the home have been marital fight-starters for years. A new study, however, finds that couples have been thinking about this all wrong. Dividing up tasks is good for factories. Sharing tasks is better for families.
In an analysis of nationally representative surveys from the 1990s and early 2000s that gathered information on family life and time use, University of Utah associate professor Daniel Carlson noticed some interesting trends. Couples who each took on specific chores and didn’t share any of them were not as satisfied with their relationship as couples who shared at least three chores. “The number of equally shared tasks matters a great deal for both men’s and women’s relationship quality,” writes Carlson in a Council for Contemporary Families research brief for the paper, which will later be published in the journal Sex Roles. “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.”
This does not mean partners need to be doing a given chore at the same time; they can switch off. It’s the fact that both are doing the same sort of work that’s key. “One of the biggest predictors of satisfaction is a feeling of fairness in relationships,” says Carlson. “It turns out that the more tasks couple share together, that they do jointly, the greater their feelings of equity, the more satisfied they are with their housework arrangements.” Looking more closely at recent cohorts he noticed, the effects were amplified. “Those who were equally sharing all the tasks, 99% reported that their relationship was fair,” he says. “Those who had 50/50 housework, but they didn’t share any tasks together? Only half of them thought their relationship was fair.”
One of the reasons for this, he speculates, is that not all household tasks are created equal. “Some are more enjoyable than others. Some are more isolating than others,” says Carlson. “If I get to go through the grocery shopping, I get to go out of the house, I get to interact with people, potentially, as opposed to sitting on my knees, cleaning the toilet.” So even if the amount of time spent on housework is the same, or the number of tasks is the same, the labor involved might not be remotely similar. “I might get the three easy ones, the more fun ones, and you might get the three harder ones,” says Carlson. “So even though we’re kind of splitting it up on the surface, when it comes down to it, those tasks are not equivalent.”
Another reason why sharing tasks works better may be that doing things together fosters collaboration and a sense of togetherness, even if people are not actually doing the chores at the same time. “I could do the laundry on Tuesdays and Thursdays, you could do the laundry on Mondays and Wednesdays, but that requires coordination. That requires communication,” says Carlson. “Good high quality relationships are built on good communication between partners, a sense of togetherness and mutual decision making.” In some supplementary analyses which aren’t in the paper, Carlson found that couples who shared chores tended to have better communication skills. It’s unclear, however, which came first. Do happy couples share chores because they already know how to work together already or did their ability to collaborate become enhanced by figuring out together how best to stack the dishwasher?
Family scholars have long known that a perception of fairness is a big contributor to partners’ happiness. This partially explains why people in traditional marriages—in which there is one breadwinner and one home-maker—often report levels of satisfaction equal or greater to those in so-called egalitarian marriages where both partners pursue paid employment. In many traditional marriages, the partner (pretty much always the woman) who stays home and does the bulk of the housework and childcare understood or even welcomed the deal going into the marriage.
Meanwhile, in most egalitarian heterosexual marriages, the burden of housework and childcare still fall unequally on the female partner, a situation which hasn’t shifted very much in three decades. In families where both parents work outside the home, mothers do 13.5 hours of housework, while fathers do 9.5 hours. This asymmetry was amplified during the pandemic, when many women made the decision exit paid employment because of the increased demands on the home front. Many of the reasons for this were structural; women are usually the lower-earner partners, so it makes more sense for them to stay home. But as many researchers have pointed out, it’s a positive feedback loop: If women have to take on more of the domestic burden they are less able to compete for higher-paying jobs and promotions. And if they earn less, it only makes sense that they’re the ones who leave the workforce when things at home get hectic.
How strong is the effect of doing chores together? “If you’re a woman in an egalitarian relationship where you’re not sharing any tasks, then your level of satisfaction is as low as it is for women who are doing all of the housework,” says Carlson. “And if you’re a man who is sharing the majority of tasks with your partner then you’re just as happy in your relationship as a guy who doesn’t have any housework responsibilities.”
This last finding surprised Joanna Pepin, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Buffalo, New York, who was not involved in the study. “That was a little counterintuitive from what we’ve been assuming,” she says, which is that less housework for either party in an egalitarian partnership always means more happiness. But she says the result may well have to do with partners getting a clearer picture of what each other is doing and how much work it is. “If they’re sharing tasks rather than splitting them up, I can envision that it’s making visible all the invisible things that they may take for granted,” she says.
Pepin’s research examines why gender inequality within families is still robust despite gains in women’s earning power. “Women’s roles have changed so much and we are kind of trying to figure out what the incentive is for men to take up more of the labor at home,” she says. “This is a really smart approach to thinking about why we might be stuck in getting to more equality in relationships.”