It’s 2017, so it’s almost unbelievable that we’re still talking about division of labor in a household. In theory, we all understand that (when discussing heterosexual relationships) men and women should share their load. Marriage should all be smooth sailing, filled with chore division and mutual effort. But there’s a big divide from where we are in theory and where we are in reality—and it can drastically affect your marriage.
In fact, many modern men say that they believe in equal distribution of labor. And studies have shown that many of those men feel they do their equal share—despite proof to the contrary. More and more, we are understanding that it 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.
And that, in itself, is a huge mental load. Instead of automatically taking on some of that load, men respond with the familiar phrase, “But you should have asked!” By that reasoning, occasionally unloading the dishwasher when they’re told to means that they’re pulling their weight—for a perfect visual representation of this dilemma, see a a recent Guardian comic that nails it.
The Family Connection
The bad news is, it only gets worse once you start a family. 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. But, again, the fathers thought 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 we may unconsciously revert to when we have children—even with the best of intentions.
Starting a family often means that we inch closer to the 1950s nuclear family model—even though we don’t realize that we’re doing it.
The consequences of this unequal distribution are huge—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 It
So what can you do? Well, as you head towards marriage, set some ground rules. Now that you know that part of the issue is women assuming the mental responsibility, 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—and not just wait 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.
Because the truth is, both parties in a relationship are completely able to share this responsibility. Women don’t have a special ability to notice more—they’re just forced into doing it, thereby letting their partner 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 Time 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.”
So watch yourself if you feel yourself deferring to stereotypical gender roles—and call your partner on the carpet for doing the same. Because your relationship needs equality to keep resentment from growing—and you deserve to have a partner who’s really helping you. “To truly be free, we need to free women’s minds,” Wade writes. “Of course, someone will always have to remember to buy toilet paper, but if that work were shared, women’s extra burdens would be lifted. Only then will women have as much lightness of mind as men.”