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Division of Labor in Relationships

How We Decide, Divide, and Conquer

Courtesy of Pixabay
Source: Courtesy of Pixabay

A large percentage of relationships are ones in which both partners work. Two incomes are useful for supporting a family, or may enable you to have extra funds to spend on pleasurable activities or to save up for a rainy day. However, when both members spend time away at work, navigating the household chores becomes more difficult. So, what is the best way to divide the household labor and how can we effectively communicate our needs?

What the Research Says

The way in which couples coordinate and divide their responsibilities will affect the quality of their relationship. In fact, Klein, Izquierdo, and Bradbury (2007) note, “…partners’ consensual understanding of roles and duties in the home are expected to promote efficient and affectively neutral interaction between partners, whereas partners’ inability to agree upon and enact a clear division of labor is expected to result in continual re-negotiation of duties and responsibilities, which in turn is expected to engender frequent disputes and feelings of frustration” (p. 30).

They note that previous research has often shown the demand-withdraw pattern in marital relationships when a problematic topic is brought up in laboratory settings. This communication pattern leads to problems and distress. Basically, in this situation, one person makes demands, which can be accompanied by criticism and nagging, while the other person withdraws to avoid potential conflict and confrontation. Often, there is no resolution or one person’s needs are not being met.

In their particular work, Klein et al. (2007) focused on a week in the life of 32 middle-class dual-income families with children in Los Angeles. They found that ambiguity when it comes to assigning household responsibilities and division of labor can create tension between the partners and can lead to relationship dissatisfaction. This is because ambiguity often results in ongoing negotiations. In fact, it’s best when partners are equitable in the division of labor and clear about their boundaries. If this happens, people will know exactly what is to be taken care of, without stepping on one another’s toes.

So How Does This Relate To You?

An open, honest discussion with your partner is important. Even if you are not married but are spending a great deal of time with your significant other, there will be roles which you will want to divide within the household(s). It is important to lay out the tasks that must be taken care of, and decide who will handle what. Sure, there will be times in which responsibilities may change or get redistributed, but having a clear framework from the start is beneficial.

You can’t get mad at your partner if he/she doesn’t help with the dishes or take out the trash, if he/she doesn’t know that it is important for you two to share these tasks. Don’t make any assumptions about what your partner knows and does not know. Instead, you should communicate your needs clearly and decide on the best way to handle your chores in a fair, equitable manner.


Klein, W., Izquierdo, C., & Bradbury, T. N. (2007). Working relationships: Communicative patterns and strategies among couples in everyday life. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 4(1-2), 29-47.