Prior to the 1960s, living together before marriage was not socially acceptable nor was it the done thing. But over time this has changed in a big way: 9.2 per cent of millennials are now cohabiting – a 59 per cent increase since 1997 – and more than 1.8 million American couples aged 50 and older are living together.
Cohabiting with a lover or partner is by no means an easy feat. In fact, the longer one lives with their significant other the more likely their marriage is to end in divorce. For couples who live together before marriage, there is a 49 per cent chance of being divorced within five years, but a couple who only moves in together upon being married has just a 20 per cent chance. The statistics are telling – the challenges of living together, be it the splitting of household chores, the pressures of home maintenance and repairs, financial issues or the lack of romance when living under the same roof can all contribute to couples deciding to end their relationship prematurely. The sharing household chores was in fact listed among the top three highest-ranking issues associated with a successful marriage in a 2007 Pew Research Poll, third only to remaining faithful and a good sex life. So how should couples split household chores such as laundry and cooking, and more importantly what is the right approach to home maintenance in an era where increasing importance is being placed upon gender ethics?
A few years ago, an American study revealed that when respondents were given fictional accounts of gay and lesbian households and asked who they thought ought to be responsible for certain tasks – from grocery shopping, to laundry, car maintenance and childcare – respondents matched up typically ‘female’ tasks to the person in the couple who displayed more feminine behaviours. Women are still drawing the short straw in terms of the division of household chores, with women doing on average 60 per cent more of the unpaid household work (according to the British Office for National Statistics), while men feel obligated only to take care of the odd home maintenance task, for example the annual task of maintaining patio door window treatments. This is despite the fact that the hours men spend on household chores has doubled in recent years. It is confusing, since we are simultaneously seeing the gender pay gap narrowing and more women returning to work while men opt to become stay at home dads than ever before. Yet the division of household labor remains, for the time being at least, unequal. In fact in households where the woman is the key breadwinner, partners contribute even less to the housework.
It just doesn’t make sense. Women are not only generally regarded the key caretakers of their children, are often the designated cook and grocery shopper and must work harder than men in the workplace to achieve the same promotions, but they are also left to bear the brunt of the majority of household labor. Why is this?
According to a recent study published by Huffington Post, the answer lies not in the financial contributions to the household but purely in our gendered perspectives. The study, which involved giving 1,025 random participants a sample marriage scenario to consider, saw that if a partner could be described as masculine or feminine then the chores they were assigned aligned with traditional thinking on what that gender was responsible (e.g. buying groceries for women and mowing the lawn, fixing household electronics and car maintenance for men). This was regardless of whether it was a same sex couple in question, or if the woman was the main breadwinner. That being said, primary responsibility for cooking, cleaning, laundry, dishes and childcare was given to lower-earning partners, while higher-wage earners were expected to manage the household finances. The pressure that working beyond-full-time hours can place on women is enormous and can have serious harmful effects on a woman’s health. Another study which examined women who worked more than 60 hours a week found that they were at risk of multiple chronic diseases – while men in the same boat were not at the same risk.
So what can couples do to avoid this from happening to them? For a start, being aware of the household gender imbalance is crucial. By actively noting the tendency for household labour to be unequally divided between different genders it enables couples to recognise when it is happening and take steps to prevent it from happening. Conversation and understanding are key. Using some kind of smartphone app – for example Splitwise – to record and track living expenses and who pays what will also prevent arguments from taking place, since it is a transparent means of ensuring one person isn’t paying more than the other. Create a loose inventory of home maintenance tasks and household chores and allocate who will be mostly responsible for what. Perhaps most importantly, remember why you are living together and ensure you take time to enjoy one another’s company whenever possible.