The other day, a friend was lamenting the fact that her live-in boyfriend refuses to cook dinner for them at home. His argument? It’s not a skill that comes naturally to him and, as such, executing a recipe would take up too much of his energetic “bandwidth” after a long day of work. Meanwhile, the woman in question is a successful entrepreneur juggling multiple businesses, without much bandwidth of her own to spare. And yet, someone has to put food on the table, so the task inevitably falls to her.
I have to admit, I not-so-subtly rolled my eyes when I heard this—but research shows that my pal’s situation is incredibly common, even among dual-earning millennial couples who grew up in an era celebrating non-traditional gender roles. Take this study, for example: In 55 percent of heterosexual American couples with children younger than six years, both husband and wife had jobs outside the home in 2014, and they spent a similar number of hours at work each week. Yet married women perform almost twice the amount of housework as their husbands, per a 2012 study, which also shows that while fathers are spending more time on childcare than they did in the mid-90s, mothers are still devoting twice as many total hours to taking care of the kids.
Not only is this straight-up unfair for those shouldering the extra burden, but it may also be detrimental to our health. A 2016 study found that women who work more than 60 hours per week have an increased risk of early-onset diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and certain kinds of cancer, while men who work the same number of hours don’t have the same elevation in risk. A researcher on the study posited that these results may have to do with uneven division of household labor—in other words, women often forgo rest in favor of making dinner, cleaning up, and getting the kids ready for bed, while men may not be expected to take on the same after-work tasks.
“When criticism is a person’s consistent experience, they will eventually get to a point where they don’t want to try anymore, because who wants to sign up for that?” —Crystal Bradshaw, licensed professional counselor
So what gives? According to experts, gender division of labor is a complex issue with a few factors at play. For one thing, says therapist Lisa Marie Bobby, PhD, LMFT, the gender roles we witnessed as children often play out when we reach adulthood, even if society has since deemed them to be outdated. “Whether we like it or not, old, deep, subconscious expectations about who does what are baked into us by the time we reach junior high,” says Dr. Bobby. “Today’s adult parents absorbed powerful meta-messages about gender roles from observing their own mom’s cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry, and scheduling the social activities, and dad going to work and mowing the lawn. Both men and women often feel that the tasks they observed their same-sex parent doing are theirs, and that their partner should do what their opposite-sex parent did.”
Another thought: Unequal maternity- and paternity-leave policies reinforce these gender stereotypes, says licensed professional counselor Crystal Bradshaw, even with more progressive policies cropping up slowly but surely at a number of companies. “In the United States, most men are allowed only two weeks of paternity leave, while mothers are allowed six and sometimes up to 12 weeks of leave,” she says. Though this setup also caters to post-birth recovery time for women, it simultaneously sends a message that men are meant to be in the office, while women are meant to take on the role of primary caregiver. “Women aren’t intentionally placed into this role, with all these added responsibilities, by their partner—it’s by virtue of the couple transitioning into a family within a culture that reinforces separation of roles,” says Bradshaw.
Let’s also not forget the perfectionism factor: When clinical psychologist Darcy Lockman, PhD, was conducting interviews for her new book—All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership—she found that some women felt their partners didn’t do certain tasks well enough, while others said they picked up the slack when their partners “forgot” to do chores. In many of these cases, men believed their wives simply enjoyed housework, Monica-from-Friends style. (Shocker: The wives didn’t necessarily agree with that characterization.)
Bradshaw says that cases like these are a matter of “unintentional grooming,” or taking control of household tasks in a way that inadvertently shuts out the partner. And, in her practice, it’s common, especially when someone doesn’t do a chore to the other’s liking. “When criticism is a person’s consistent experience, they will eventually get to a point where they don’t want to try anymore, because who wants to sign up for that?” she says, adding that Pinterest and Instagram make matters worse by presenting endless visual evidence of impeccably styled homes, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy and stoke perfectionistic tendencies.
What can couples do to equalize the gender division of labor?
It might sound obvious, but experts agree that communication is crucial for delegating household tasks. Ideally, says psychological counselor Jor-El Caraballo of Viva Wellness, this conversation should happen before kids are in the picture—or, better yet, before the couple even moves in together. “There’s no one ‘right way’ to do things, but it’s most important that couples are matched on their values,” he says. To strike a balance everyone can feel good about, Bradshaw recommends listing out all household tasks, delegating based on each person’s availability and strengths, and attempting to make the division of labor as equal as possible. (She notes that the “Who Does What” assessment in The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work, is a good tool to use.)
Viva Wellness cofounder and psychological counselor Rachel Gersten adds that this should be an ongoing conversation. “People need to communicate what’s happening for them individually in their lives on any given day,” she says. “Resentment can build if you feel like your partner isn’t there for you when you’re overwhelmed and need a little extra help. But people don’t know what you need until you tell them, including your partner.”
“It’s okay if your partner doesn’t do things exactly the way you would, as long as the task is accomplished in the set time frame. Give your partner the opportunity to show up.” —Crystal Bradshaw, licensed professional counselor
If one partner feels like they take on most of the housework, Bradshaw says that person should look honestly at their behavior and see if they tend to micromanage the other person. “Don’t try to control how things get done,” she says. “It’s okay if your partner doesn’t do things exactly the way you would, as long as the task is accomplished in the set time frame. Give your partner the opportunity to show up.”
That’s not to say that the partner who contributes less is off the hook, says Dr. Bobby. “That person needs to learn a very different way of thinking—considering what currently needs to be done, what will need to be done, and taking the initiative to do those things,” she says. For some tangible inspiration, a recent report from The State of the World’s Fathers found that to tip the scales toward equality, men need to do 50 more minutes of unpaid household work per day and women need to do 50 minutes less.
And accomplishing this will probably require some effort. “Each person needs to be mindful of stepping outside of their comfort zone and pushing themselves to improve upon skills that may not come naturally to them,” says Gersten. “For example, if one partner is generally better at scheduling and remembering dates, the default shouldn’t be to assume those tasks fall to that person just because their partner ‘isn’t good at them.’ It’s up to that partner to do the work so they can also participate in the task.”
If this all sounds like a drag, here’s something to consider: Couples who split the household chores have better sex, according to Cornell University researchers. It makes sense, since nagging and burnout aren’t exactly turn-ons for anyone involved. Bring this up in your negotiations, and you may just find that your partner develops a sudden fascination with vacuuming.
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