American women have worked hard for gender equity, but their efforts — which have affected the boardroom, the playing field, politics, and so many other areas — have had less impact on stubborn, old-school ideas about household roles.
More women now serve in Congress than at any time in our history, for example, but women in straight couples still do most of the housework.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2018 American Time Use Survey reports that women in heterosexual relationships spend an average of 50 percent more time on domestic chores than their male partners do. This latest finding reinforces a longstanding trend researchers have seen since they began studying the topic in 2003.
Even when men claim to share household duties and childcare equally with their partners, the data — as revealed in a 2015 Pew Research Center survey — shows they often don’t.
Studies have also concluded that women handle the majority of routine tasks (such as cooking, meal cleanup and dishwashing, laundry, housecleaning, and grocery shopping), while men carry out more of the less-monotonous occasional chores, including household repairs and car maintenance.
A 2015 Ohio State University study found that this division of household labor tends to become more imbalanced after the birth of a child. Over the course of a year, that burden adds up, the authors note: “Parenthood increased women’s total workload by about four-and-a-half weeks of 24-hour days, whereas parenthood increased men’s total workload by approximately one-and-a-half weeks — a three-week-per-year gender gap.”
While the majority of research into this issue focuses on heterosexual couples, some studies suggest that same-sex couples may be more likely than straight couples to share responsibility for household chores. This is true even for same-sex couples with kids.
Psychologist Darcy Lockman, PhD, author of All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership, notes that one partner is also responsible for the majority of what researchers call the mental load — the burden of project-managing the household and thinking ahead about family responsibilities.
“It’s knowing that I have to schedule a pediatrician appointment, or knowing that we’re almost out of toilet paper,” Lockman explains. It’s also knowing that it’s time to see about having the stove repaired or getting the dog to the vet.
Whether it’s the physical tasks or the mental load, she adds that, for straight couples, “gendered assumptions leave the women in the default position as the handler of all of these things.”
This can result in a serious strain on the relationship. “A lot of research shows the adverse effects of the unequal division of labor in the household in terms of increases in conflict and hostility,” Lockman says.
In communities that don’t fully accept broader views of gender roles, these assumptions may be overt and articulated. But in more progressive relationships, they’re more likely to be unspoken, rooted in family experience and social norms.
So, should every relationship split tasks down the middle? Not necessarily.
True equality means jettisoning the unspoken stereotype that housework simply is women’s work, which can worm its unconscious way into the most well-meaning partnership.
More important for couples than abstract equality is equity, says University of Alberta social scientist Adam Galovan, PhD. “Equity means that you perceive the division of labor as being fair,” he explains. “People have different responsibilities in their lives, so the question is: How do they balance that in a way that they both agree on? It doesn’t have to be exactly 50-50.”
These strategies can help you find common ground.
7 Steps Toward Equity
1. Share your expectations.
The allocation of tasks begins with an honest conversation about what each person believes regarding gender roles and domestic labor, says Don Cole, clinical director of the Gottman Institute, which focuses on improving relationships through research and therapy. This can involve reflection and discussion about each person’s background and upbringing.
Even the idea of fairness needs to be discussed. “A sense of fairness is a predictor of marital happiness,” Cole notes. “But how do the two people define fairness? As for the equal sharing of domestic chores, if that’s a big part of fairness for one or both of the partners, why? Having the conversations to uncover those reasons is really what makes a difference.”
2. Agree on the goal.
Once you both agree on what fairness means to you, Lockman recommends crafting a simple mission statement noting that both partners are committed to fairness in the allocation of domestic labor. “And then if things start going south,” she says, “you can just say to your partner, ‘Hey, you know, we have an agreement that this was our mutual goal. Let’s sit down and talk.’ That takes the anger out of it. People communicate better when no one is feeling defensive or blamed.”
3. List the tasks.
Gary Chapman, author of The 5 Love Languages series of books on enhancing intimate relationships, suggests that couples make a list of all the required household tasks. “Someone’s going to have to buy the groceries; someone’s going to have to cook, wash the dishes, vacuum the floors,” he notes.
In the process of making your list, you’ll define what constitutes domestic labor and establish your priorities.
4. Decide and discuss.
Then you’ll need to decide who will do what and when. Chapman asks his clients to engage in an initial-marking method: “I have them consider the list independently of each other,” he says. The partners puts their initials by the jobs that they think they will do.
If one partner thinks a task will be shared, that person puts both initials beside it but underlines the initials of the person he or she thinks will have the predominant role. The partner does the same with the other’s list. “Then they come together to see how many they agreed on, and to discuss the ones they didn’t.”
5. Reassess and adjust.
Your domestic-labor assignments aren’t set in stone. The changes that life brings — a new job, a move, a pregnancy, and a birth — will require adjustments.
And one partner may discover, as Chapman’s wife, Karolyn, did, that he or she just hates an assigned task. “Karolyn said that paying the bills made her stomach hurt every month,” he says. “I love her, so I took it over.”
6. Be mindful of micromanaging.
When one partner micromanages the other partner’s household work (think hovering and offering unsolicited advice), he or she acts as a “gatekeeper” who maintains the mental load while also disempowering the one doing the work. Whether stated or implied, the gatekeeper is claiming a higher level of expertise.
This often happens if he or she had previously been responsible for the bulk of the domestic labor. But if you want to move toward a more equitable arrangement, it’s best for the gate to remain open for everybody.
The one taking on the chore may feel overwhelmed by a new task or believe that the standards have become unrealistic. To collectively work toward an equitable arrangement, both parties need to practice flexibility and understanding — and expressions of gratitude don’t hurt.
Remember that something as complex as equitable household management will never be perfectly executed. Disagreements are sure to arise.
Lockman emphasizes that the commitment to equity described in your mission statement — plus the willingness to defeat unspoken rules with open communication — can help you resist what she calls “the invisible weight of sexism that can show up in our most intimate relationships.”
“The couples I interviewed for my book who had the most success worked toward achieving what felt comfortable for both of them,” she explains. “It wasn’t dividing the work 50–50 down the middle with a hatchet, but just an agreement about what was going to feel OK given the requirements of family life. They committed to working together.”
This originally appeared as “Sharing the Burden” in the April 2020 print issue of Experience Life.