Are You an Egalitarian Couple?

These are at least 5 ways that egalitarian couples are better off.

Posted Apr 23, 2018

Y Photo Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Y Photo Studio/Shutterstock

What kind of couple are you? Are you conventional? Egalitarian? Counter-conventional? A new analysis of data from a large sample of heterosexual American couples (Carlson et al., 2016) suggests that how you divide routine housework along gender lines may be tied to critical relationship processes, including relationship satisfaction.

Think about your relationship: How do you divide up the work? Who makes dinner? Who takes out the trash? Who vacuums, does the laundry, or cleans the bathroom? Whether you're married, cohabiting, or dating, your relationship is enacting, modifying, or resisting culturally prescribed gender norms, and how it all plays out matters: A recent study reveals that how you divide basic household tasks can tell you a lot about your relationship. (Carlson et al., 2016)

The Study

Carlson and colleagues (2016) examined how housework might connect to relationship well-being, using the data of nearly 900 participants who completed the Marital and Relationship Survey in 2006, and examining their responses relative to approximately 2,500 individuals who completed the National Survey of Families and Households about a decade or so prior (1992-1994). This gave the researchers a chance to evaluate potential changes in the ways that American heterosexual couples organize housework, and how these labor-division decisions might predict relationship well-being.

What's most common? It turns out that, even today, most couples take a conventional approach to labor division (Carlson et al., 2016). About half of participants reported that women do most of the routine housework. Note: this number is considerably lower than in data from the 1990s, in which about 80 percent of couples were considered conventional.

If you feel like couples today are more egalitarian than in the past, you're right: More couples — approximately one-third — now share housework, compared to couples in the 1990s (about 15 percent). The egalitarian approach could reflect more women in the workforce, more men having flexible work schedules, or other important cultural forces. In fact, around 5 percent of participants reported that men are doing more of the housework. Such counter-conventional couples are more frequently found than in the 1990s, when only 1.5 percent reported the man doing most of the routine housework.

Do housework-division decisions have any bearing on relationship well-being? Potentially. Carlson and colleagues (2016) examined links between the division of labor and relationship factors. In a cross-sectional study — where variables are measured simultaneously — scholars are unable to establish causal relations, but the paths they can establish reveal fascinating associations between how housework is handled and relationship functioning.

What did they find? Their data point to five ways in which egalitarian arrangements appear better for relationship well-being than other arrangements:

1. Sexual Frequency.

Egalitarian couples reported having the most sex — nearly 7 times per month — which was a significantly greater frequency than conventional or counter-conventional couples. This was an exciting finding, given that data from the 1990s showed sexual frequency was lowest for those in egalitarian arrangements.

2. Sexual Satisfaction.

Egalitarian couples — and conventional couples — report similarly high sexual satisfaction, but, interestingly, counter-conventional couples report significantly less sexual satisfaction. What is it about an arrangement in which men take on most of the housework that might link that experience with lower sexual satisfaction? The data do not offer explanations, but this is a critically important question, given that more couples have this arrangement than ever before.

3. Relationship Satisfaction.

A potential benefit of an egalitarian housework arrangement is women's relationship satisfaction, which is higher than in conventional arrangements. Men in egalitarian relationships were equally as happy in conventional arrangements, but more happy than in counter-conventional arrangements.

4. Satisfaction with How Work Is Divided.

Couples that share household work tend to be more satisfied with how they divide labor than conventional or counter-conventional couples. This makes sense — sharing work reduces an undue burden on one person.

5. Fairness.
Feeling that something is unfair could translate to resentment, a troublesome emotion in romantic relationships. Luckily, feelings of unfairness can be avoided with an equitable distribution of housework. Data revealed that couples in egalitarian arrangements reported a significantly greater sense of fairness than couples in which women (conventional) or men (counter-conventional) tended to do most of the work (Carlson et al., 2016).

Do you have established patterns for how you and your partner divide labor? Or are you only at the beginning of figuring these things out? In either case, an assessment of fairness and equity — for both you and your partner — is important. The current data suggest that egalitarian labor arrangements may be part of a larger story of equity that benefits couples. Living together requires work — especially with children — and the way in which you divide those tasks could predict a more satisfying relationship.

References

Carlson, D. L., Miller, A. J., Sassler, S., & Hanson, S. (2016). The gendered division of housework and couples' sexual relationships: A reexamination. Journal of Marriage and Family, 78(4), 975-995.  

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