When we talk about the reasons we choose to marry, we tend to focus on the lofty, big picture things: shared values, shared goals, an abiding admiration for our partner’s strength and character.
Yet when we talk about actually being married—the daily negotiations between oneself and the person to whom you are simultaneously a romantic partner, roommate, co-parent, and car loan co-signee—our attention is hijacked by details of near-unspeakable triviality. In one Pew Research Center survey, respondents ranked sharing household chores as the third-most important factor in a marriage’s success—just after fidelity and good sex, but ahead of shared interests, shared religion, children, money, or even having a decent place to live.
Chores matter. Couples who strike a division of household labor that feels fair to both parties report happier relationships and better sex. After reviewing data from two national US surveys on domestic arrangements, University of Utah assistant professor Daniel Carlson has gathered a bit more insight into those dynamics.
Carlson looked at self-reported data from the 1987-88 US National Survey of Families and Households and the 2006 Marital and Relationship Survey. In the two decades separating the datasets, men in heterosexual US couples took on more chores. In examining the responses of men and women in housework-sharing relationships, for the Council on Contemporary Families, Carlson noticed some interesting patterns.
Men who shared the household shopping seemed particularly pleased with their relationships, reporting greater happiness and better sex than those whose partners shouldered the task themselves. (Men who did all the shopping, however, were less satisfied than those with more equitable arrangements. No one likes being stuck with a chore.)
For women, no single chore was more closely associated with marital satisfaction than dishwashing. Women who shared this job were happier than those sharing any other chore, and those stuck with the dishes were more aggrieved with their partner than those who took on the lion’s share of other household tasks.
There are a few reasons why the kitchen sink is a crucible of marital satisfaction. First of all, doing the dishes is a grimy, repetitive, thankless task—the type of household labor that women often end up with. No one admires a clean plate the way they do a washed car, a freshly mowed lawn, or a delicious roast, Carlson told the Atlantic: “What is there to say? ‘Oh, the silverware is so … sparkly’?”
There’s also the issue of comparison. Dishwashing was the most frequently shared chore between couples in the survey. It’s also one that’s easy to observe if you’re, say, at a friend’s house for dinner. Women who realize that other people’s husbands are doing the chores their own partner is not end up a lot more frustrated with their marriages. Comparison is the death of joy. Not doing one’s fair share can be, too.