Who’s Cleaning the House?

Marriage is certainly about love and connectedness and having a partner to share a life with. But there’s also the practical side of living together, like maintaining a home. Housework is a thankless, repetitive and boring job that we have deal every day. Yet it can’t be ignored and it won’t go away.

It’s also something we spend a lot of time talking about with our spouse, and can play a role in our relationship. The extent to which partners treat it as a shared responsibility can affect how they think and feel about each other. If not handled correctly, housework can infect other aspects of the relationship and be a major cause of marital problems.

While both partners see it as a necessary evil, wives are still regarded as the ones who are supposed to do it, and that’s by both men and women. In many marriages, housework for women is assumed, whereas men believe that taking care of their home is optional. When they do something, they see it as helping out their wives and being the good husband, but don’t regard it as their actual responsibility. Instead, they often expect what they do to be noticed and praiseworthy, and sometimes a basis for negotiating other goods and services from their wives.

It’s true that many husbands are more willing to pitch in today, but  things are far from equal. Taking care of the home is still squarely on the shoulders of wives, despite the fact that many are working. Some studies suggest that women have almost three times the workload of their husbands. Interestingly, these proportions stay about the same, regardless of whether a wife has a full time job, and whether or not her husband is currently working.

This inequity is in part a result of childhood training. We learn from our parents that girls are the home keepers and boys are the breadwinners, and we perceive and interpret events in terms of these self-definitions: if you’re a husband and see yourself as the breadwinner, you’re not the housekeeper. Some even believe that, as the supporter of the family, they deserve to be compensated for their housework even if their wives are working and earning as much as they do.

Of course, such role definitions play right into the hands of men, but women also do things to keep this stereotype alive. Many wives want to control the housework because they see the home as their territory. Some see housework as a way to confirm their identities as homemakers, and to express love and support for their families. Additionally, because the cleanliness of a home reflects on the wife and not the husband, she may have higher standards on how to do things. It’s probably safe to assume that if his wife thinks he’s inadequate as a housekeeper, that’s something he can live with.

How much housework is taken on by each partner is where problems can arise. The issue comes down to perceptions of fairness, but men and women have different ways of defining what’s fair. Men look at the total picture. They consider everything they do in their marriage. They throw in the amount of money they make and time spent at their jobs or with their kids. Some add in activities they feel forced to take part in, such as visiting family members or other people they don’t like. They add it all up and then calculate how many household chores they still owe. Women tend to focus only on the amount of housework that has to be done, irrespective of everything else they do. They look at how many chores she does and her husband does and from there she determines if both are doing their fair share.

What’s fair depends on the couple, but from many a husband’s viewpoint, half the housework as unfair, regardless of whether or not his wife is working. Women think the situation is unfair only if all, or virtually all, of the workload falls on her. That said, the general consensus on fairness, and that’s from both men and women, seems to be about two-thirds for women and one-third for men. That ratio makes sense if a wife isn’t working, but not if she holds a full time job. If a man has a male roommate and both are working, neither one would think the other should have more chores. Such perceptions imply that both genders still regard housework as mostly woman’s work.

It’s not just the amount of work that plays into a husband’s perceptions of fairness — it can also be the types of tasks they’re assigned. Many men consider only certain chores to be appropriate for them. Tasks like landscaping and repairs are acceptable because they affirm their manliness and personal identities. Others, such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry are seen as women’s work.  One individual boasted about how much he helps his wife around the house. When asked if he cleaned the bathrooms, and more specifically, the toilets, his response was “absolutely not”. That runs counter to his beliefs about what men should do. How he sees cleaning toilets as appropriate for his wife is a mystery, but for his sake he’s fortunate that women don’t use chores to define their self-image. They simply do what needs to be done.

The whole idea of fairness is tied into how partners expect to be treated. Housework is not just about physical labor. Like everything else in a marriage, it has an emotional component. There are expectations, self-image and role issues, support, status and fairness questions, and possibly feelings of abuse. It’s the emotional side that can harm a relationship.

Many wives regard help from their husbands as a demonstration of love and appreciation. On the other hand, overburdened wives may feel abused and taken for granted, and will be dissatisfied with their marriage. If she’s working, she may find it too difficult to balance her work and family life, and that can lead her to feel depressed and demoralized. They might also look at what other husbands are doing, and if their husband is doing as much or more, they interpret that as being supported and treated well. If he doesn’t compare well to others or she feels her workload is unfair, then she’s apt to think she’s unsupported and paying too a high price for her marriage.

It really comes down to a simple point: when men help around the house, the relationship benefits, but it suffers when either partner sees the split as unfair and unjustified. While housework may not directly lead to divorce, it’s through a back door that it can disrupt a marriage. When there are bad feelings from any source, and that includes housework, these feelings can spill over into other aspects of a relationship. Resentments that we develop because we feel over-burdened will affect how we think and feel about our partner, and that will come across in how we treat them.

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