Well, this should be a fun subject! There are a lot of factors that go into how household chores get divided up between husband and wife, and today we want to give you guidance as to how to do that without creating any unnecessary conflict or resentment.
Have you and your spouse ever had an argument over whose turn it is to do the dishes? Or do you ever resent your spouse for doing less around the house than you? Issues around the division of labor are common in most marriages and there’s a lot to unpack in terms of what society expects men and women to be involved with and what you each perceive as being “normal” or “fair”. And the research shows that it’s that perception of fairness that’s key to diving the work in a way that leads to a happy, distress-free marriage.
Unequal Division of Household Work
According to a piece of research by Breen & Cooke[i], husband’s contribution to household work is on average one third of the time that the wife puts in. This ratio, they claim, has persisted even with the increase in women having full time jobs and financial autonomy. Women still take most responsibility for, and spend the most time on, household tasks.
This is not due to any kind of power-struggle within the marriage and is not caused by different amounts of time available. “Rather, it is the non-conscious ideology developed from parental modeling that preserves traditional sex roles[ii]”. Meaning that women naturally end up doing more of the housework because that’s how things worked in their parent’s house and that’s still considered the norm in most of society.
So, do we have a gender inequality issue? I think that’s the question that we have to start with.
These researchers go on to say that we need to get past gender inequality. Women do more unpaid work around the house than men, irrespective of whether they work and the amount of time those women have available. And this often comes from expectations and from unacknowledged ideas about gender roles.
So, the researchers say, you need to work to balance this out.
But: not so fast.
Let me make a few points, and we have to keep all these points together. If you quote me on only one of them I’m going to sound like a liberal and the other, I’ll sound like a misogynist — we all know what that word means since the last US election, right?
I’d like to give a balanced perspective on this.
First, the Bible calls on husbands to live with their wives in an understanding way (1 Peter 3:7). The Bible puts the onus on us as husbands to be considerate.
I think a lot of guys don’t think through their own assumptions and don’t understand why their wife is disappointed about how chores get divided up. I want to challenge husbands to be the leaders in this discussion — not leading in the sense of authoritative decision making but leaders in the sense of facilitating an open, understanding, receptive discussion about how each of you feel about how fairly you divide up the housework and childcare.
So husbands need to be particularly considerate of the possibility that their wives are working harder than they are.
Equality vs Fairness
The next point to this section is that we also need to consider that there is a difference between equal and fair. I’m not talking about whether you and your wife are equals. You are. There’s nothing to discuss there. I’m talking about the equal division of labor vs. the fair division of labor.
An equal division and a fair division might not always be exactly the same. You may disagree on the equality of the division and feel that one of you does more than the other, including the outside work you do. Or you may agree on the equality of the division of labor but feel that it is unfair. For example, if Verlynda and I split hours of household 50/50 and I work outside the home and Verlynda doesn’t I might say, that’s equal household hours but to me, it still feels unfair.
The next couple, however, might be in the same situation but feel that this is fair because whatever else the wife is doing that doesn’t qualify as outside work or household work is so important that the husband is willing to do 50/50 even though he’s the sole breadwinner. Maybe she is taking care of a disabled child; maybe she is involved in the church somehow, whatever. So there could be meaning to her extra-curricular activity that they both support, and therefore he is willing to have equal hours of household work with her.
Bottom line: it’s not just about equality, it’s about fairness.
Further, it may be that a couple—both husband and wife—honestly prefer traditional gender roles. And perhaps they both work full-time jobs. But for whatever reason, by her own free choice, she prefers to do most of the household work and she is happy with how he uses his non-work time. Who are we to judge them? If they feel that is fair for them, God bless them! There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with traditional values—I’m assuming she’s not brainwashed or oppressed or anything. She just likes it that way and he does to. Good for them!
So that is why in our title for this show we talk about the fair division of labor. There are so many variables that I don’t think ‘equal’ is the best word. I think ‘fair’ is the best word. And I mean fair in both your minds.
Watch for Gatekeeping
There’s one more thing to keep in mind: wives themselves may also be a barrier to fairness, even while asking for this in their marriage. There could be cases of men wanting to do more but their wife prefers it done to a higher standard.
We’ve talked about gatekeeping in episode 80: Husband Doesn’t Help With The Kids? It Could Be Your Fault! That’s a situation where a husband cannot do more with the children because the wife prevents him. And meanwhile, she may be complaining that he’s not doing enough.
So I think having a really good conversation about actual tasks, chores, work and childcare that needs doing is essential. Talking about roles and expectations. What happened in your family of origin, what you expected to do the same and what you expected to do differently: we have to talk through these things as couples.
Learn to Identify Your Emotions
This five-page conversation guide (available to our patrons) will really help you talk through the different ways you can look at dividing up the work in your house. Taking the time to respectfully discuss this will move you towards a fair division of housework that you’re both happy with.
Expectations & Perceptions Around Household Labor
Let’s look a little at the different expectations you and your spouse might be bringing to the marriage in terms of gender roles and division of work. A study by Hiller & Philliber[iii] asked 498 couples about their perceptions of who should be responsible for what jobs, and their expectations of who should do what within the marriage.
They found that the majority of husbands consider it important to be better at traditionally “male” roles like earning the main income, and a significant proportion (43%) of women think it is important for females to be better at childcare. Now, this is an older study from the 80s and is reflective of the values of that time. But, even if the roles lead to an unequal distribution in terms of time, both men and women may still be quite attached to their different roles in a significant portion of marriages. So perhaps for you, the division of labor is about which tasks are important to you just as much as it is about which ones take the most time.
A more recent study from 2009[iv]analyzed survey data from 732 couples about attitudes to division of labor and found that “women have more favorable attitudes toward cleaning, cooking, and child care than do men: women enjoy it more, set higher standards for it, and feel more responsible for it.” Women’s favorable attitudes to these tasks and men’s unfavorable attitudes to them accounted for the reasons women actually did them more, rather than differences in available time or capacity to do them well.
So again, it’s not that women tend to have more time for these kinds of tasks: you can’t use that as an excuse! But there is, in a lot of marriages, a preference to do the tasks and jobs which society would traditionally assign to you.
Is this the result of social constructs? Probably. Is that a bad thing? Well: that depends on you. I don’t see a prescriptive Biblical assertion that says women should do dishes and men should do the mowing. Nor is there anything intrinsic about cooking or cleaning that makes women better at them or enjoy them more than men.
But I think the point here is that expectations do play a major role and those expectations are shaped by society, by your beliefs, by your family of origin and your life experiences.
Also, your spouse’s expectations may not be what you imagine them to be. In fact, when asked about their spouse’s expectations around the division of labor, husbands were often LESS traditional and wives often MORE traditional than anticipated[v]. So husbands were sometimes more willing to share traditionally female tasks than their wives were.
Again: we come back to needing to have the conversation. The best way to understand your spouse’s expectations is to sit down and lay them out.
Also, this same study found that both spouses think they do more work than the other spouse. So having an accurate idea of how much time you each spend on things can help you divide the work properly.
However: just a caution there. It’s not purely about the quantity of hours. That’s going down the ‘equal division’ by quantity trail, and you will probably need to go more down the ‘fair division’ in order to achieve a happy outcome to this discussion.
Perceived Fairness in Dividing Household Chores
But is imbalance a problem?
A study in 2009[vi] showed that an imbalance in the division of work was linked to marital distress. But the perception of the division as fair was the mediating variable. It wasn’t the imbalance in terms of hours worked that caused distress, it was the perception of things being unfair. So this is research confirming what I’ve been saying. Fairness matters. And a perception of what is fair is going to be very different from couple to couple.
This comes down to how we think about our relationship when it comes to these sorts of tasks. Research often looks at relationships as being either communal or exchange-based. In an exchange relationship style, you only do things for each other out of obligation or anticipation of future favors. So you’ll do the washing up because that means your spouse will have to do something else later. But in a communal style, you do things for your spouse out of concern for their current needs rather than concern for reciprocation. You do the dishes because they need doing and because that way your spouse doesn’t have to do them.
And in a communal relationship, perceived fairness is about seeing that your spouse is showing equal concern for your needs as you are for theirs, rather than whether the list of things you do appears balanced. You’re not measuring work; you’re measuring mutual concern.
I think this is a better way to come at things because keeping a list of chores you’ve done to save up as ammo to get your spouse to do something does not sound like a healthy marriage That sounds like two individuals trying to get the most for themselves out of their relationship. It’s driven by self-interest. It’s similar to the idea of not keeping a big laundry list of past offenses that we talked about in our episode on not bottling stuff up in your marriage.
It’s also important because, at different times (even month-to-month), workload intensity is going to shift. For example, December is crazy busy. And June is too: our local church hosts a large Bible conference, we have a garden on, we love being outside, kids are finishing school and so on.
I bring this out because the perception of what is fair can actually shift from month to month. It’ll shift to account for things like working hours and extracurricular activities and responsibilities. And we need to be willing to adjust to this constantly. And having this communal “we’re in this together” mindset allows you to be flexible and creates an attitude where you’re more likely to pick up the strain around the house when your spouse is particularly busy at work and things like that.
But take this on an even larger scale. What if your spouse is paraplegic? Or struggling with pneumonia for 4 weeks? Or you just get the flu for a week? Everything has to flex, to roll with life. And this means that fair is always a moving target, which means that we need to be willing to revisit the issues, be assertive in asking for what we need and want, and responding out of concern and care rather than just living in an exchange type situation where it’s you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch yours.
So fairness matters and flexibility matters.
And here are a few side notes here on fairness to watch out for.
First, perception of fairness can be negatively impacted by comparing the amount of work you do to others in your situation, e.g. seeing that someone else’s wife doesn’t do as much housework as you do[vii]. Watch that you don’t get bit by the comparison bug. It’s never helpful.
Earnings: wives who have high incomes tend to spend less time on housework[viii]. This is especially true when the wife’s income is high in relation to the husband’s. This could be to do with fairness- wives who earn lower than their husbands feel the need to make up for it by doing more around the house.
I’d say this means watching out for entitlement. You have really been cautious around the idea that earning more dollars means your spare time is more important than the lower earner’s spare time.
Fairness is a moving target. Watch this one as you go through life stages. When it’s just the two of you, between the wedding and kids. Then during toddlers. Then when kids get older and can start doing chores too, then you have modelling and setting an example to do. Then the teenage years as they are developing responsibility. And then as you become empty-nesters. You will probably want to consciously shift things around as you follow that larger trajectory of going through life together.
To summarize, here are the important messages that you need to relate to your own marriage:
- Typically women do more than men just because they are women. Is your marriage like that? Are you both accepting of that?
- Both of you probably think you do more work than the other person. So just be willing to really hear your spouse’s perception of the amount of work that gets done by each of you. Show appreciation. Be willing to acknowledge each other.
- Husbands: since 90% of us probably have the advantage here, let’s initiate and lead this discussion to make sure our wife knows she has a voice and that we are being sincerely considerate of her perspective.
- Come to an agreement based on what both of you think is fair rather than in being totally equal in terms of hours worked.
- View your relationship in a communal sense: doing things for the benefit of your spouse rather than out of obligation or desire for reciprocation.
In all of this, you need to forget about how other people do things or what anyone else perceives as fair or right; this is about what works for you and your spouse. Be honest and considerate about working this out, and remember that fairness can continue to change as your circumstances shift and you go through different stages of life. Remember that unconditional compassion and concern for your spouse are Biblically very important; if you can both keep Christ’s servant-heartedness in mind when it comes to your housework then you can’t go too far wrong.
[i] Richard Breen and Lynn Prince Cooke, ‘The Persistence of the Gendered Division of Domestic Labour’, European Sociological Review, 21.1 (2005), 43–57.
[ii] Rebecca Stafford, Elaine Backman, and Pamela Dibona, ‘The Division of Labor among Cohabiting and Married Couples’, Journal of Marriage and Family, 39.1 (1977), 43–57 <https://doi.org/10.2307/351061>.
[iii] Dana V. Hiller and William W. Philliber, ‘The Division of Labor in Contemporary Marriage: Expectations, Perceptions, and Performance’, Social Problems, 33.3 (1986), 191–201 <https://doi.org/10.2307/800704>.
[iv] Anne-Rigt Poortman and Tanja van der Lippe, ‘Attitudes Toward Housework and Child Care and the Gendered Division of Labor’, Journal of Marriage and Family, 71.3 (2009), 526–41.
[v] Poortman and van der Lippe.
[vi] Sharon T. Claffey and Kristin D. Mickelson, ‘Division of Household Labor and Distress: The Role of Perceived Fairness for Employed Mothers’, Sex Roles, 60.11–12 (2009), 819–31 <https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-008-9578-0>.
[vii] Claffey and Mickelson.
[viii] Sanjiv Gupta, ‘Autonomy, Dependence, or Display? The Relationship Between Married Women’s Earnings and Housework’, Journal of Marriage and Family, 69.2 (2007), 399–417 <https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2007.00373.x>.