More women than ever go out to work and yet surveys in Western countries show that wives continue to take on the lion’s share of domestic chores.
A new study has quizzed 389 couples in Austria, Germany and Switzerland to build up the most comprehensive picture yet of how this uneven distribution of domestic chores is associated with men’s and women’s marital satisfaction.
These were all dual-earning couples with young children, with both spouses working at least 15 hours per week. Eighty-nine per cent of the couples were married. The average professional work load for women was 30.2 hours per week; for men it was 48.6 hours. Consistent with past surveys, the women in this sample took on nearly two thirds of the domestic chores.
The researchers Gerold Mikula, Bernhard Riederer and Otto Bodi asked their participants several things: what share of the chores they took on; whether they thought that was fair; whether they felt the way the share had been decided was fair (so-called “procedural justice”); how much conflict they experienced in their relationship; and how happy they were with their relationship. They threw all these factors into a statistical pot and looked to see how they related to each other.
First, Mikula and co focused only on the direct associations between housework distribution and women’s and men’s answers. For women, it wasn’t the precise share of housework they did that was correlated with their experience of conflict and satisfaction, but rather how fair they thought that share was. Women who thought the division of household chores was unfair tended to experience more relationship conflict and less marital satisfaction. Women’s sense of whether the decision process for housework had been fair also had its own independent link with levels of conflict. So feeling that they did an unfair amount of housework was bad enough, but conflict was even more likely when women felt the unfair arrangement had been arrived at unfairly.
Men, by contrast, seemed largely detached from the way housework was shared. There was no direct correlation between the division of housework and their reports of fairness. And even men who said the arrangement was unfair didn’t tend to report more relationship conflict or less satisfaction – no doubt because the unfair arrangement was usually in their favour. In fact, the only direct association of housework distribution with men’s answers, was that the greater share their female partners took on, the more satisfied they tended to be.
But here’s where the picture gets more complicated. The researchers also looked at associations between participants’ answers and their partners’ reported sense of justice and experience of conflict and satisfaction. This suggested that men suffered when their female partners believed the housework arrangements were unfair. In fact, the negative correlates for men (more conflict, less satisfaction) of having a female partner who sensed injustice in the division of housework, outweighed the satisfaction associated with having a female partner who did lots of housework.
“The results support the proposition that it is not the balance of the division of labour itself but rather the subjective sense of justice associated with the division that matters primarily to the relationship satisfaction of the persons concerned,” the researchers concluded. “Spouses should exchange their personal views and preferences in open discussions to arrive at an agreement that considers the wishes of both parties … “
MIKULA, G., RIEDERER, B., and BODI, O. (2011). Perceived justice in the division of domestic labor: Actor and partner effects. Personal Relationships DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2011.01385.x