Details from a very buzzy forthcoming study on gender equality have emerged, and what the released tidbits illuminate is a truth that women who live with male partners will likely be quick to agree with: Men who share the chores with their female partners make better lovers.
Set to be released in the journal Socius (put out by the American Sociological Association), the study zeroes in on whether the gender revolution has transformed the way heterosexual couples divide household chores. To conduct it, researchers culled data from 1965 to 2006 taken from the National Survey of Families and Households as well as the Marital and Relationship Survey. For this investigation, they focused primarily on low- to moderate-income married couples.
Among this group, they found the highest sexual satisfaction and relationship quality among those who split chores — suggesting egalitarian relationships are not only the healthiest, but the most fulfilling.
The findings contradict earlier reports that the gender revolution at home has “stalled,” instead offering proof that men are tackling more chores than they ever have before. To be sure, men in heterosexual relationships still do far fewer hours of housework than women (four hours a week to women’s 14), but they’ve increased their involvement across the board: in cleaning, shopping, laundry, and dishes. They’ve also revamped the way they behave as fathers, tripling the amount of time spent in direct care of their kids since 1965.
Although there’s much compelling data to be unpacked in the study, it’s the power that dish-doing wields that’s getting the most attention and for good reason. According to the study, it’s the single biggest indicator of happiness in a marriage. Specifically, women who shoulder most of the dishes report lower rates of sexual satisfaction and relationship quality than women whose partners split the load. An unequal sharing of dishes, when it comes to sexual satisfaction, made no difference to men.
So what is it about dishes anyway?
Dr. Sharon Sassler, one of the three authors of the study and a professor in department of policy analysis and management at Cornell University, says there is something inherently gross about dishes that renders them an instant burden. “It’s the grease on the plates, and the fact that they’re scattered all over the house. They’re this silent reprimand,” Sassler tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “If you ignore them, they don’t go away — if you want to eat, you have to clean them up.”
Sassler says women have cut out superfluous tasks, like moving the refrigerator to clean behind it, reducing the overall time they spend cleaning. But dishes are a mandatory task, one that seems to get under the skin of those who are saddled with it alone. “It’s the fact that whoever leaves them in the sink expects that someone else will clean them up,” says Sassler, suggesting a dirty bowl means more than meets the eye. “I think couples who share dishes have a better relationship quality because there isn’t as much resentment.”
In a write-up of the study’s main findings on the Council on Contemporary Families (a nonprofit education group), Sassler’s co-author Daniel Carlson echoes her thoughts. “Sharing responsibility for dishwashing was the single biggest source of satisfaction for women among all the household tasks,” writes Carlson, an assistant professor of family, health, and policy in the Department of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah. “And lack of sharing this task [was] the single biggest source of discontent.”
Carlson also points out an interesting trend — that the tasks most commonly shared overall caused the greatest tension in couples who don’t share them. To the researchers, this suggests that some satisfaction in relationships — both sexual and otherwise — stems from comparison of other couples. In other words, if your best friend’s husband does the dishes, it stings even more when yours doesn’t.
Their hope is that this comparison effect will inch us closer to equality. “Individuals and couples take stock of their arrangements in comparison to those around them, and those assessments of relative advantage or disadvantage come to shape their feelings about their arrangements and their relationships overall,” writes Carlson. “This suggests that as the sharing of other tasks becomes more common, the benefits of sharing — and the costs of not sharing — increase.”
Although it’s important to note that none of the chores were shared 100% equally, Sassler points out that almost all of the men in the study worked longer hours than their wives. That muddies the waters of what constitutes “equal,” but it doesn’t mean men should stop where they are. Dish doing or not, equality at home is still a work in progress.
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