The Key to a Happy Marriage: Discussing Equal Division of Labor

Why it's the little things that count the most

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It’s hard to believe that the conversation surrounding the division of labor in a household is still a topic worthy of discussion. In theory, we all understand that partners in any relationship should share the load when it comes to household chores and other tasks. Marriage should all be smooth sailing, filled with chore division and mutual effort. Right? Well, there’s a big divide from where we are in theory and where we are in reality—and it can end up drastically affecting your marriage.

Bearing the Load

While many modern partners say that they believe in equal distribution of labor, and studies have shown that many men feel they do their equal share, there is evidence to the contrary. More and more, it's becoming apparent that this has to do with the mental load that women shoulder. Even if male partners are happy to chip in, they often expect the woman to be the manager of the household tasks—that it’s the wife’s job to tell them when they need help. But that assumes that women need to be the ones watching, noticing, keeping track, and delegating. That, in itself, is a lot of emotional labor to bear.

The truth is, both parties in a relationship are completely able to share this responsibility. One partner doesn't necessarily have a special ability to notice more—they’re just forced into doing it, thereby letting their spouse feel like they are off the hook—and on continues the vicious cycle. “It’s just that her willingness to do it allows everyone else the freedom not to,” Lisa Wade, associate professor of sociology at Occidental College writes in Money about a woman who takes on all the mental responsibility for her household. “If she were gone, you bet her husband would start noticing when the fridge went empty and the diapers disappeared. Thinking isn’t a superpower; it’s work. And it all too often seems only natural that women do the hard work of running a household."

Don't Give Into Stereotypes

The bad news is, this feeling of taking on too much only gets worse once you start a family if the division of labor in a household has not been discussed ahead of time. A study found that in the weeks after a baby is born, men cut back their household chores by five hours a week, while women only cut back by an hour a week. Not only that, having a child only added 10 hours a week to a man’s workload—but it added 21 hours a week to a woman’s. And at the same time, the fathers felt they were doing their fair share.

There are a few different theories about this. Part of the issue is the mental load, but there are also deeply rooted societal expectations of motherhood that couples may unconsciously revert to—even with the best of intentions. Starting a family often means inching closer to the 1950s nuclear family model, even if you don’t realize that you’re doing it.

The consequences of this unequal distribution are huge, and it's best not to underestimate the impact they can have on your marriage. Most people say that equal distribution of chores is key to relationship success, and almost two-thirds of couples say they argue about them at least once a week. Even when you think you can handle it, eventually resentment builds. In fact, disagreements over chores are even cited as grounds for divorce.

How to Handle Household Division of Labor

So what can you do? Well, as you head towards marriage, or if you're looking to begin the conversation with your spouse about division of labor, start by setting some ground rules. Now that you know that part of the issue is one partner assuming the mental responsibility more than the other, talk about it with your partner. Explain that both of you need to be keeping track of what needs to be done around the house instead of just waiting until the other person brings it up. There are even list-making apps that can help, allowing you both to brain dump what needs to be done and then access the list, rather than nagging each other.

Take action to discuss your concerns with your partner if you feel yourself deferring to stereotypical gender roles—and call your partner on it if they're doing the same. Your relationship needs equality to keep resentment from growing, and you deserve to have a partner who’s really helping you.

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