Can Husbands Do Too Much Housework?

The age-old struggle between spouses over household chores can have a happy outcome — for real

by Jon Beaty | Updated 18 Jun 2017 at 8:32 AM

Even today, when we’ve made so many strides in so many areas, many married women believe they do too much work around the house — while their husbands don’t do enough. But a recent Norwegian study found that couples who split household labor equally had higher rates of divorce over a four-year period than those couples where the wife did most of the housework. Divorce rates were also higher when husbands did most of the housework.

Cultural attitudes continue to support traditional, gender-based roles for married couples at home, according to Natasha Quadlin, a doctoral student at Indiana University in Bloomington. We expect wives to handle the child-rearing and housework. We expect husbands to take care of automobile maintenance and outdoor chores. Quadlin shared results from her study on marriage and gender roles with attendees at last year’s American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in Seattle, Washington.

Nearly three-quarters of the 1,000 adults surveyed for the study believed wives should be responsible for household chores.

While the prevailing opinion is that wives should do most of the household work, most women believe they are doing more than their fair share. They want help from their husbands, according to research at NORC at the University of Chicago in Illinois.

It appears most women want dominion over their nest. But it is also clear they aren't wanting to let their husbands off the hook.

To a husband, it may seem easier to avoid conflict with his wife by adopting a hands-off policy when it comes to picking up a dust rag or scrubbing toilets. No man wants to be called on missing a spot. But husbands struggle with a problem of perceptions. A study by researchers at the University of Michigan in Dearborn found that husbands tend to overestimate the amount of housework they do. Wives tend to feel their husbands aren’t doing enough. At the same time, husbands create an extra seven hours a week of housework for their wives — and wives rescue their husbands from at least one hour of household chores each week.

This matter of household labor is an important and complicated issue for married couples. A Pew Research survey ranked sharing of housework as the third most important factor in a happy marriage, following fidelity and a good sex life. Couples can successfully work through housework issues by teaming up. Couples need to discuss and agree upon a fair approach to household chores, and adjust it periodically, as needed. If they don’t, trouble will come.

The key to fairness is not how much work each person does, or who does it. The key is working out a mutually acceptable agreement on who handles each chore. Getting there requires effort to effectively listen and communicate with each other, combined with a willingness to make some of the other's dreams come true.

Ambiguity about household responsibilities tends to contribute to resentment and tension between couples. Marriage researcher John Gottman tells a story to illustrate what can happen when resentment and tension escalate. A wife became fed up with how her husband kept throwing his dirty laundry on the bedroom floor. One day the husband arrived home from work to the sound of banging coming from the bedroom. He found his wife in the bedroom nailing his dirty boxer shorts to the wood floor.

Spouses who feel household responsibilities are fairly distributed tend to have happier marriages, including greater sexual satisfaction. This finding is from research by Daniel Carlson and his colleagues published last year in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Related: Three Character Traits of a Hero Dad

I recommend couples set aside time to discuss their household responsibilities, with each spouse agreeing to write up an inventory of their chores, and any dreams they have for a more satisfying distribution of labor. These dreams might include sharing the chore with the other spouse, having the other person do the chore, assigning it to one of the children, or hiring a housekeeper or yard service.

This first task may take a week or two, but it’s important it be thorough.

After the husband and wife have their individual lists, they should schedule an hour where they can sit alongside each other, uninterrupted, to share the lists and their dreams about how the distribution of chores could be better arranged. Sitting side-by-side sets them up to work as partners, while sitting face-to-face can trigger a me-against-you attitude.

The wife gets to read off each chore on her list first. On each item, she should tell the husband that she’s satisfied with doing the chore, or shares her dream for a better arrangement. The husband’s task is to listen, only speaking to ask clarifying questions about his wife’s desires for change. He isn’t to express favor or disfavor for any of her dreams at this point. Once she completes her list and shares her dreams, the husband’s responsibility is to tell her which of her dreams for change he wants to fulfill.

Then the husband shares his list with his wife, telling her that he is satisfied with doing each chore, or sharing his dream for a better arrangement. The wife listens and, as before with the husband, asks clarifying questions about her husband’s desires for change, also without expressing favor or disfavor. Then, as he completes his list and shares his dreams, she tells him which of dreams for change she wants to fulfill.

Once they’ve established an agreement for change, the couple can then discuss it and attempt to work out any acceptable compromises.

Related: Most Surprising Expectations from Wives

Couples may choose to avoid working out a fair approach to household chores because it can be tedious and temporarily increase stress. But the potential for a happier, more satisfying marriage makes it worth the effort.

Jon Beaty, life coach and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He's the author of the book “If You're Not Growing, You're Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”

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