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BYU, USU study says marriage thrives on shared chores, strong dad-child bond

Todd and Natalie Hollingshead doing dishes together.
Todd and Natalie Hollingshead doing dishes together.
Mark A. Philbrick

PROVO — Husbands who work alongside their wives on household tasks and who participate in child rearing are more apt to be in marriages described by both spouses as happy and high-quality, according to researchers from BYU, the University of Missouri and Utah State University.

The researchers also found that the "very strongest effect" on whether either moms or dads viewed the marriage as happy was the woman's perception of the quality of dad's relationship with the kids, whether dad and the kids adore each other, said Erin Holmes, an assistant professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. The next factor was the wife's perception of how her husband takes care of the kids, whether dad helps her with them.

The researchers measured paternal involvement in various ways, including playing with the children, sharing interests with them and finding teaching moments.

The wife's view clearly is primary to marital satisfaction, said Holmes of the study, which is published by the Journal of Family Issues.

Dads who want moms to look favorably on the division of labor within the household should work alongside her — even if she's doing the lion's share of the day-to-day work, they found.

"The big key with regards to fairness and marital quality that we found was that it didn't matter as much how couples divided the work as long as they were satisfied with the arrangement," said Adam M. Galovan, a doctoral student and graduate instructor at the University of Missouri in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies. "Wives also preferred to do the work together rather than alone."

His advice for marital happiness? "Good couple relationships are those where spouses can agree on who does what and what they do together, and those where fathers are involved with the kids and have positive relationships with them. When this happens, couples really seem to feel better about their marriage."

The researchers were surprised that the findings didn't suggest, flat out, that the more dad did at home, the higher the marital quality. Neither did a study released by Cambridge University researchers this past summer find that women were happier if men did more around the house. It didn't change their view of their marriage, although the more men did to help at home, the greater their own sense of personal well-being and the better balanced the men's work-home obligations.

"Contrary to expectations, they found that men, not women, benefited from a less traditional gender role divide in households chores," those researchers wrote of their study of men from several European countries.

"The academics expected to find that men's work-family conflict rose and their well-being fell when they did more housework," the Cambridge researchers said at the time. "In practice, they found the opposite, with conflict falling and well-being going up."

Holmes believes the findings appear because women view division of labor, household chores and father-child time as "relational." And that's what they value.

"What they really value is dad having a quality relationship with the children," she said. "They are thinking about contributions as relational contributions: 'I'm really not crazy about doing the dishes, but I do the dishes because that is one of the ways I care for my family,' " she said. Women see time with children as part of that relational contribution they value and that makes them — and their family relationships — happy.

The researchers controlled for income level, which spanned a wide range. It was not a diverse sample, though, in may ways, Holmes pointed out. The study was a follow-up using participants in earlier research on newlyweds. The 160 couples from a single Midwest community were white, had young children (up to age 5) and only 36 percent of them worked outside the home, which is low even in that parent-of-a-young-child demographic.

It's not the first time Holmes has pointed out the importance of perception to marital satisfaction. Of older studies, she wrote in 2009 that, "It is interesting when you look at the research on housework and marital satisfaction that women who are doing the majority of housework in their homes can still perceive the division to be fair, and women whose husbands do more household work than the average man can still perceive the division of labor to be unfair. Our perceptions seem to be more critical to our marital satisfaction than the actual way we divide our responsibilities."

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