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Are couples happier when women do more housework?

A Norwegian study quoted in the Telegraph[1] shows a surprising finding: that when couples do equal shares of housework, they’re more likely to get divorced.

What?

Apparently they don’t seem to have much data for situations where men do more housework (*cough*) but when women are doing more dishes and laundry, they say the couples are more likely to stay together.

I think the thing to take away from this study is not that “women should do more housework than men” but that having well-established roles within a relationship is very important, because it makes the relationship less transactional (eg. having to keep track of every unit of work you and your partner do). There’s a concept in business and computer science of a “transaction cost” — for example, if you’re paying a flat fee for shipping whether you order one item or fifty, then it makes sense to bundle purchases. The flat fee is a transactional cost. In general, if you have high transaction costs, you need to reduce the number of transactions.

There’s an emotional transaction cost embedded in relationships where chores are split down the middle. If you’re supposed to do exactly half of each chore that you don’t like, then you’ll spend a lot of time paying attention to whether you’re doing 45% or 55% of the dishes, or the cooking, or scrubbing the toilet. And every time you hit 55%, you have an opportunity to be resentful (or guilty when it hits 45%). It’s very small, but it’s more likely to build up, because that micro-resentment and micro-guilt is what emotionally reminds you to reset the balance.

It also erodes the trust in the relationship. Great relationships are built when two people focus on what they can offer each other. As soon as the relationship focuses too much on trying to get things from the other person, the trust erodes.

On a related note, it’s been shown that being 100% responsible for something allows for a lot more pride in your work than being partly responsible for it [citation needed]. If you really care about having a clean, orderly home, then you’ll get more satisfaction from making it happen the way you want than from trying to share it.

I discovered the importance of dividing tasks in my first business: trying to both do “equal shares” of each category of task was a big failure. There were certain things that neither I nor my business partner wanted to do–such as bookkeeping–and other things that we both enjoyed, such as design work and sales. But when we tried to split those things down the middle, we spent too much time on transaction costs–including just the act itself of switching from one mode to another, like going from accounting to working on a new web design.

In retrospect, that’s one major reason we ended the business partnership. Towards the end, we started to divide up tasks more effectively into bigger categories–such as my business partner handling the entire mailing list, and me handling all of the system administration. The more we moved towards categorized responsibilities instead of per-transaction divisions, the better we worked together.

When it comes to marriage, we tend to focus on avoiding the dynamic popularized in 1950’s America, of men as breadwinners and women relegated to housework. But there’s more than just that in a relationship. Who builds and fixes things around the house? Who decorates? Who seeks out new activities and social opportunities, like a new play that the couple will enjoy watching? Who does accounting, and who figures out why the computer isn’t working?

Aside from the fact that many of those activities also have a gender divide, the point is that in any relationship of two people, the differences in preferences and ability have more importance than outside the relationship. When two people who hate bookkeeping get married, they might just hire a professional, but usually the one who hates numbers and receipts the least becomes the accountant. You might not be great at writing, but if your spouse can’t spell worth a darn, you end up suddenly being the “English expert” of the couple. And when one of the two people is really good at something, it’s even more pronounced: if your partner is a professional accountant, you may never touch the books yourself again.

In fact, it’s been shown that couples actually use each other as auxiliary memory device [citation needed]. If you know that your spouse tends to remember the names of the children of your shared friends, you might get lazy about remember them yourself.

On the negative side, this makes things harder in a break-up: suddenly, after so many years, you have to learn how to do your own accounting again, and for heaven’s sake, what is the name of Charlie’s son again?

Back to the gender divide, studies have shown that men tend to feel more pressure to succeed in their jobs, and women worry more about both housework and how their children are doing[2]. There’s a strong argument to be made that this could be social pressure, but it’s not conclusive, either. And it doesn’t really help a couple just get along.

What’s actually relevant for a couple, though, is that it just works better for the couple if the person who cares more about something is responsible for it. If you split the bookkeeping between the person who doesn’t mind it and the person who hates it, it’s a recipe for resentment.

The best solution is to be honest about what you’re good at, and what you care about. It’s not about traditional roles, but it’s also not about abandoning roles and splitting things down the middle: it’s about each person finding the right role in their own relationship.

  1. Couples who share housework are more likely to divorce: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/9572187/Couples-who-share-the-housework-are-more-likely-to-divorce-study-finds.html
  2. Chore Wars: Housework (almost) evenly distributed in American households, and fathers feeling more pressure: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2084582,00.html

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