The housework division of labor can be a pain point for some couples, but figuring out who should do what can boost both relationship quality and sexual satisfaction. When it comes to cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, doing the laundry and dishwashing, a new study suggests that sharing beats dividing tasks.

That’s according to research by Daniel L. Carlson, an associate professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah. The briefing paper on his findings, “Mine and Yours, or Ours: Are All Egalitarian Relationships Equal?” for the Council on Contemporary Families was published Monday. His full study will be published later this week in the peer-reviewed journal Sex Roles.

In the housework wars, Carlson believes science has to some extent measured equality wrong, because housework is not a singular thing, but rather a collection of different tasks. Couples can accomplish a fair split in different ways: You do the dishes, I’ll do the laundry. Or they can pitch in and share the jobs. Sharing can mean they alternate who does a task or do them together. Either way, partners tackle tasks equally.

But if a good relationship is a goal, how couples choose to define sharing might really matter, Carlson told the Deseret News. “It turns out that those who divide are far less satisfied than those who are working together to complete all tasks.”

Why pitch in

Women are happiest with a household arrangement that lets them share most or all tasks equally, the research showed. Sharing even one task makes women “significantly more satisfied” with their relationship than women who do most or nearly all the housework. 

However, women in households that divide work evenly but don’t share any of the tasks are no happier with their arrangement than women who do all the home chores themselves.

Men say they are happier when they don’t do housework — or at least not much housework — compared to the egalitarian approach where tasks are divided or only a few are equally shared. But those who share all or most tasks equally with their partner are as happy with their relationship and housework arrangement as men who don’t do any housework.

Carlson said his findings suggest that men ought to share tasks equally — whether the couple works together or takes turns with the different jobs. Because while men are just as happy doing no tasks as they are sharing them, it makes a big difference to women.

“The route to a happy relationship appears to lie in sharing,” he said.

Melissa Milkie, president of the Work and Family Researchers Network and a sociology professor at the University of Toronto, told the council that sharing work instead of dividing tasks might give relationships a boost by helping partners understand what’s really involved in the jobs to be done around the house.

“There are many details involved in planning and cooking family meals, for example, which may not be obvious to someone who rarely does more than get take-out food or heat up leftovers,” she said. “The same is true of keeping track of family finances or home repair maintenance. Doing the same tasks can also forestall any notion that the other person’s tasks are ‘easier.’”

Milkie, who was not involved with this study, also noted that making similar efforts throughout the home may increase the feeling of being a team.

Carlson suspects doing things together lowers resentment and ensures that the housework arrangement affects the partners the same. After all, tasks are not equal. If his job is shopping, he said, he gets out and sees people and enjoys fresh air. It might take longer than cleaning the toilet, but it’s certainly more enjoyable.

“In divide-and-conquer relationships, it can be the case that there’s still a sense of unfairness that can bubble up,” Carlson said.

Doing things together, on the other hand, “requires you to communicate more, make decisions together and leads you to spend more time together. We all know those things are good for relationships,” he said.

Carlson said it’s hard to say if the relationship between couples’ satisfaction and how they divvy up housework is causal. “It could certainly be the case that people who have better relationships are more likely to want to do tasks together. Or doing tasks together might make the relationship better,” he said.

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The way we were — and are

Carlson documents changes since 1965, when 70% of married parent households consisted of a male wage-earner and a female homemaker. Not only was that deemed the most efficient arraignment, but also the most likely to lead to marital and sexual satisfaction. Earnings equality back then raised the risk of divorce.

And so it went for several decades.

But times have changed, according to Carlson, who notes that fewer than one-third of married-parent families today are composed of a breadwinner and a homemaker. Now 60% are headed by dual earners. Married mothers overall do about 16 hours of routine house-related chores, compared to 32 hours in 1965. Meanwhile, married fathers do about 5 hours, where they used to do just 2. Now, among dual-earning couples, mothers do 13.5 hours of housework compared to 9.5 hours for fathers.

Researchers used to find increased risk of divorce when both worked outside the home and the woman earned as much or more than her partner. But that disappeared in the 1990s, according to the briefing paper. Studies say that, since the 1990s, sexual intimacy has increased for couples who share housework equally and has decreased where female partners do most of the chores.

To make sure the patterns were robust over time, as well as for different demographics and ways of measuring household participation, Carlson said he used two surveys of married and cohabiting adults: the very large U.S. National Survey of Families and Households from the 1990s and the 2006 Marital and Relationship Survey.

To see if just spending more time together doing tasks accounted for the difference, he controlled for time together. That didn’t make the difference. “It actually seems to be how they tackle the chores. I think there’s a positive here to doing them jointly and there might be a cost to dividing them up,” Carlson added.

Because the division of labor can be a major factor in predicting conflict, he thinks therapists should consider its role in a couple’s conflict.

And he hopes new couples might benefit from starting off their domestic life on the right foot. “When we look at housework in this different light, sharing is associated with better relationship quality for both men and women. There really isn’t a competing narrative,” he said.

Still, couples have to think about the dynamics of their own relationships and situations, warns Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families. “I think it’s really helpful for people to look at this kind of information. But just because something works better on average doesn’t always mean it is the best arrangement for any particular couple,” she said.

Coontz added that it’s important not to assume one person is better at a chore because a chore is typically associated with their gender. It’s also important not to assume the other person’s chores are easier than your own.

The more couples talk about their likes and dislikes and what they can learn by either sharing or trading off tasks at least sometimes, “the more likely they are to be able to recognize when someone is feeling the division isn’t fair and to be able to fine-tune their household arrangements accordingly,” said Coontz.

“One of the things this study should remind us of is that people do NOT take marriage more lightly than they used to,” she added, emphasizing “not.” “We have higher expectations of fairness, communication and intimacy of our relationship and that means we have to be more thoughtful and open about how to arrange it than our grandparents did.”