Caring is sharing

Arguing about the housework again? It could be a sign of a deeper problem.

You’re a self-sufficient wife who believes in sharing the bills, the childcare and the housework. But researchers say your marriage is more likely to last if you do most of the cleaning.

In a major U-turn on the march towards gender equality, the report says couples who share the chores are 50% more at risk of divorce than couples who don’t.

Thomas Hansen, co-author of Equality in the Home, says the report found that 25% of the couples surveyed shared the housework equally — yet these were the ones at a far higher risk of divorce.

“It’s often accepted that equal division of the housework has a protective effect against divorce, but we found that there was a higher divorce risk among those couples who were more modern in how they did the housework,” Hansen says, speaking from his office at the government-funded institute, Norwegian Social Research, in Oslo.

There’s a deeper reason for this higher divorce rate, says Hansen, who is on parental leave and shares housework and childcare equally with his wife, with whom he has two foster children.

Couples who share the housework have higher educational qualifications, a higher income, are more independent and more tolerant of divorce — and, as a result, are more likely to leave a failing relationship, he says.

“Couples who shared housework equally were more prone to divorce, because they were more modern people who would tend to escape a bad marriage.”

A very traditional couple “would be traditional in terms of how they divided the housework, but also they would be more traditional in terms of seeking divorce”.

The Norwegian researchers were surprised by the lack of correlation between equality in housework and contentment in the home. Hanson says they were expecting to find that women who did most of the housework would be less happy with their marriage, but, it emerged, they were almost as happy as the 25% of women whose husbands shared the chores equally with them.

“We find there is only a weak relationship between marital contentment and how a couple shares different household tasks,” he says.

“We were expecting that women who have to do everything at home would be depressed and unhappy, but they were quite contented with their marriages — though not as happy as the ones who shared equally. The happiest couples were the ones who shared equally, but we were surprised to find the difference was not bigger.”

However, it’s stress rather than housework which is more likely to cause divorce, says Dr Brendan Halpin, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Limerick.

“To me, the reported correlation between housework and divorce is a spurious one,” he says.

Being well-organised about sharing the housework should make things better rather than worse.

However, dissatisfaction with the way one’s partner shares the housework is an important contributory factor in marital stress, says Bernadette Ryan, psychotherapist and relationships counsellor with Relationships Ireland.

As a working mum, I can attest to that — some years ago, I went on strike for several weeks in protest at the amount of housework I was expected to do.

Having a full-time job, an able-bodied spouse and two perfectly competent and intelligent children wasn’t translating into any help around the house, so, one day, I stopped getting mad. I stopped nagging everyone.

But I also stopped making the dinners, and the school lunches, doing the laundry or any of the routine daily cleaning and the tidying. The family got the point — and I got more input.

To this day, they’re more helpful, although, even now, no one besides myself would even dream of tackling a household chore without being asked.

And that’s another issue — one person’s perception of a fair distribution of the housework can be very different to that of another. “For some, fairness can be based on a strict equality of sharing everything, while another perception can be different,” says Ryan.

“If one person sees being fair as everything rigidly shared 50/50, all the way down the line, and the other sees fairness as a different proportion ... there can be trouble.

“Strong disagreement about fairness, or how tasks should be shared, is more a reflection of the quality of the relationship.”

Festering resentment over a spouse’s failure to pull his or her weight around the house can have its roots in a deeper, more troubling dissatisfaction with the marriage.

“Trouble over the sharing of household chores is often a symptom of a much deeper problem with the relationship,” she says.

“This underlying problem may be what eventually contributes more to a divorce than the sharing of household chores.”

Ryan cites author and relationships expert, John Gottman, who has warned that if small niggles become “gridlock issues” there is a much deeper problem at work.

Relationship breakdown is a major issue in this country — the number of divorced people has soared by more than 150% since 2002, with 87,770 people now divorced and 116,194 separated.

According to the statistics, men and women in this country are most likely to get divorced between the ages of 45 and 54.

This group is often referred to as ‘empty-nesters’, because their children have left home. It’s often the woman who drives the break-up, says Marie Daly, couples counsellor with Relationships Ireland.

Women who have worked full-time, but also carried the burden of running the home and rearing the children — in effect performing two full-time jobs — can sometimes get fed up with doing all the work.

They may decide they want more from life once the children are gone, especially when the marital relationship has been neglected. There’s no denying that housework can be a hot potato for relationships — and that women are usually the ones left holding the dishcloth.

“I think men just don’t like doing it. It’s probably rooted in gender roles,” says Hansen, adding that women can also have higher standards — and place higher priority on cleaning at home.

In Ireland, says Ryan, there’s a long tradition of women doing the housework, and, sociologically, although things are changing, we are “still wired” to that.

Indulgent mums, pampered dads — it’s all in our background and we’re resistant to change.

Upbringing is a major factor — between the ages of 12 and 20, most males develop attitudes that will influence their participation in housework later on, says psychologist Patricia Murray. “You can predict the ones who will do it at a later stage, because of the way they have been brought up and what they’ve seen in the home,” she says.

However, research into the public perception of the ‘hero’, published by the University of Limerick last summer, showed just how the traditional view of a good mother still prevails.

“The person who was rated number-one hero in this study was the mother,” says Dr Patrick Ryan, director of the UL doctoral programme in clinical psychology, adding that despite the march to gender equality, the ‘ideal mother’ role involving the management of the home and the housework.

This can influence the way young men view housework, he says. “Young males are being socialised into thinking that the good mother, who manages the home, is the ideal. Therefore, they will not necessarily see the housework, and the management of the home, as their territory, so it has to be negotiated in their own relationships.”

Bernadette Ryan says it’s important to acknowledge that men often do ‘invisible’ tasks, as well — ensuring the car is serviced or bringing it for its NCT test. Also, when men do housework they will do it their own way — and sometimes women don’t like the way they do it.

Can a dispute about housework break a marriage? Possibly, says Murray, who says housework is often characterised by role confusion.

If you go into a partnership with expectations of a 50/50 split on the housework, you’re in for stormy weather, she says. An important part of being in a relationship is being able to ‘dilute’ your expectations.

“Absolute expectations in life shows a blindness. That’s one reason housework is such a time bomb — people will have expectations, but these need to be communicated and not assumed. Conflict over housework could be something that breaks a marriage because, deep down, it can be about respect — if you have someone who is prepared to be idle while you’re doing everything, they don’t respect you,” she says.

How to negotiate housework with your partner

1. Explain and discuss the time to be spent on housework — for example, catching up on the weekend could involve one and a half hours each on a Saturday.

2. Avoid the use of controlling language such as “I want this to be done and done by…”

3. Understand the importance of getting agreement on the parameters and don’t schedule chores without consultation — it may suit your partner to catch-up on week nights instead of a weekend.

4. Both partners identify what they would prefer to do.

5. Share out the tasks that nobody likes — cleaning the bathroom, doing the ironing, washing the floor — as fairly as possible.

6. Don’t impose your own high standards on to your partner.

7. If your partner doesn’t do something as well as you would like don’t jump in with criticism. Say nothing if he or she has clearly made an effort. If no effort has gone into the work, simply mention, for example, that the floors still have to be done, then change the subject.

8. Use the phrase “basic hygiene” to shame a reluctant helper into action.

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