Unmarried couples share housework more equally than married ones

Here’s an interesting finding: It turns out that unmarried couples who live together are more likely to share the housework equally than married couples. That is, men in unmarried couples do more housework than married men, and women in unmarried couples do less housework than married women. Why? Possibly because, as the authors — Theodore Greenstein and Jennifer Gerteisen Marks of North Carolina State University — suggest, marriage is such a culturally powerful institution that men and women shift their views of themselves when they say “I do”.

As extra proof, Gerteisen points out that this shift occurs even in couples that have an “egalitarian” point of view — i.e. where they believe that men and women ought to share the work equally. When couples like this marry, the men still wind up doing less of the work. As Gerteisen says in a press release:

“Marriage as an institution seems to have a traditionalizing effect on couples — even couples who see men and women as equal,” says Davis.

You can read their full study online here as a PDF if you want. There’s a lot of fascinating data here, and it seems reasonably solid; the researchers polled 17,636 respondents in 28 nations. (Mind you, there are the usual problems with this sort of research — i.e. partners might be misreporting the amount of housework they do, either adjusting it up or down.)

Here’s one interesting finding buried towards the end: It turns out that in households where the women make a lot more the men, the men report doing more housework — but the women do not report their housework going down. Someone’s perceptions are off: Either the men or women are overestimating the housework they do in this situation. What’s going on? The authors suggest this curious result might be because of men and women have divergent attitudes towards the meaning of work and money.

Men, they hypothesize, “are more likely to see money as a way to ‘buy out’ of housework.” So in situations where the women makes a lot more money than they do, they see their partner as having “bought out” of housework; consequently, they themselves ought to be picking up the slack. In this situation, they’re more likely to feel okay about reporting that they do more housework, whether or not they’re actually doing it.

But the women, the scientists suggest, have a different view. They’re “more likely to view money as power within the relationship that is not as directly tied to hours of housework”: i.e. making more money, for them, means they’re storing up credit to be dispended in other parts of their relationship negotiations. They don’t see themselves as “buying their way out of work” — so they report doing the same amount of housework (again, whether or not their amount has actually gone down.)

At least, I think I’m reading the study correctly. Someone check it out and let me know if my interpretation of this is off. It’s really intriguing, either way.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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