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The science of sharing chores

Learning how to split chores with your spouse is a lot harder than it looks.

Loyalty and a fulfilling sex life are the top-ranked necessities for a successful marriage, according to the thousands of married couples surveyed in a 2007 Pew Center study.

Chores Meme

Don’t let your marriage get this “dirty”…

And coming in third place? Distributing housework.

That’s right—sharing household chores was listed as the third most important aspect of a prosperous marriage, placing it ahead of similar interests, adequate income and shared religious beliefs.

That’s a very telling statistic—one you and your spouse should take seriously.

How couples share housework is about more than simply cleaning and childcare. The domestic sphere often becomes a battleground where couples fight to establish gender roles, power dynamics and communication channels.

A healthy division of labor within your marriage is key. Unbalanced chore management can breed other, outwardly unrelated, problems. For example, if your wife’s libido has mysteriously nosedived, then she may be exhausted or frustrated from a heavy household workload. Or, if your husband is suddenly spending too much time at work, then perhaps he sees the office as a refuge from constant chore-related nagging.   

Comprehensive research shows us a lot about division of labor among married couples. Based on that expertise, here are a few important principles to consider when discussing household management with your spouse.

Check your perceptions at the door

Reversed Gender Roles in Marriage

A 2012 study from the American Sociological Review shows that couples differentiate gender roles through division of household chores.

Gender roles are how a person expresses their gender identity, or their masculinity and femininity.

Society tells us to idealize a woman who can cook, clean and care for the kids, or a husband who can clean the gutters, fix the car and be your handy man, because these qualities are tied to femininity and masculinity. The study shows that when these ideals—and others that you may have internalized—aren’t met, it can lead to dissatisfaction with your spouse.

You should let go of those perceptions to avoid unhappiness.

The key here is to divide chores and establish roles that fit your personal relationship, not broad stereotypes.

People often don’t conform to these stereotypes.  Your husband may know nothing about cars, plumping or practical labor. Likewise, your wife may be a terrible cook. And that’s completely OK. You should not model your domestic life after what is traditionally accepted.

Forcing your husband or wife into a domestic role they are uncomfortable with can lead to dissatisfaction, on both ends, when they can’t live up to your expectation. Find what roles within the home work for each of you. Above all, you should…


Work to your strengths and comforts

Perhaps your spouse is wonderful cook who can pull together a delicious meal in minutes, and you have yet to master the frozen pizza. There is no reason you should be responsible for cooking in this situation.

We all have strengths and weaknesses, like and dislikes when it comes to housework. Take those into consideration.

If you think of household management like a business venture, then you would consider comparative advantage, opportunity cost and efficiency. This is an effective way to delegate chore assignments and prevent nagging, according to the 2011 book “Spousonomics”.

If you’re a good cook, then watching your spouse fail in the kitchen could cause you to micromanage or pester them. Have you heard “You’re making a mess,” or “You’re doing it wrong,” lately? This often stems from your spouse’s belief that they could do it better. Their time spent managing you could be spent doing the chore themselves, while you could be working on another task—a more efficient use time.

That said, if one spouse holds the advantage in every single aspect of domestic management, that doesn’t mean they should do it all.

Again, think of your household like a business. If you want your spouse to take on all the work because “they’re just better at it,” then you will suffer serious trade-offs. Their quality of work will decrease in every area as they struggle to do it all. Also, the overworked spouse will lose the time and energy needed for sex, social engagements and a day-job. This is an unrealistic and unfair expectation to make of your spouse.

If one is simply better at household work in every way, then focus on the areas where the gap between each of your skills is the smallest. Plus, the more you work at a task—be it laundry, childcare or dishes—the better you will become.  

Equality is not always a 50/50 split

Couple splitting housework and choresStudies show that successful couples adopt a team mentality with housework. They see the division of labor as a team effort, and not a strict separation between yours and mine.  

Couples should be flexible with each other’s schedules. Sometimes a work project will require a few late nights, eating into a spouse’s time for housework. This should not be a source of resentment. The domestic management breakdown is a give and take and should change in tandem with your needs.

If it helps, establish a maximum number of hours each of you can spend on housework before feeling overwhelmed, and a minimum number each of you should aim to complete regardless of other commitments.

Work within that range to your comfort. It’s ok if one person is doing a little more or a little less, as long as neither of you are feeling overworked.   

If you are in a struggling marriage and want a definitive “Marriage Saving” blueprint, then I highly encourage you to visit this website and watch its free video presentation.

Men, click here to save your marriage.

Women, click here to save your marriage.