Fwd: A couple's work

From: Wade Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Wed 13 Nov 2002 - 13:54:13 GMT

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    A couple's work

    Study says unmarried couples split chores better

    By Patricia Wen, Globe Staff, 11/9/2002


    The egalitarian model for modern couples goes something like this: A man and woman both work, divide the household chores, and live together in harmony.

    New studies find that this model applies fairly well for men and women who live together, but not for couples who tie the knot. Marriage, sociologists say, brings with it powerful social traditions that cause women to do a far greater share of housework - often twice as much - even when both spouses work and don't have children. Cohabitation doesn't come with the ''good wife'' image, so women who simply live with a man don't carry as great a housework load.

    ''Marriage still has a very powerful effect on people, even if they don't realize it,'' said Melissa Milkie, a University of Maryland sociologist. ''When you marry, you get a list of expectations about the good wife and the good husband. When you cohabitate, you're just sharing a household.''

    Joy Clark, 30, who married her husband in May after living with him for more than a year, said becoming a ''wife'' changed what others expected of her. Both civil engineers from North Andover, she and her husband have always shared cooking, dishes, and laundry fairly equally - and now she's worried she's being judged by relatives as unwifely because of it.

    ''It's as if I should now be taking care of my husband and creating my nest,'' she said.

    New studies comparing live-in and married couples give researchers a novel way to show just how social traditions - the nurturing wife and the money-earning husband - continue to affect today's working couples. Sociologists have long known the importance of other factors in explaining the imbalance in chores, including each spouse's work hours and earnings, educational levels and the presence of children.

    But these factors never fully explained one persistent finding: In study after study, men never shared equally in the drudgery of routine household work, such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry, even when they worked fewer hours or earned less money than their wives. Several studies in the past year put a married man's contribution to housework at anywhere from seven to 10 hours a week, compared to a wife's contribution of 18 or 20 hours a week. The range depended on whether the definition of chores went beyond daily tasks to include raking leaves, paying bills, and maintaining the car.

    Using the more liberal definition of household chores, a University of Maryland study this year found that typical wives spent an average of about 18 hours a week on housework, eight hours more a week than their husbands. In dual-income couples, the gap decreased but working women still did about six more hours of chores than men, researchers say.

    In trying to understand the imbalance, several sociologists embarked on studies of cohabitating couples to see how men and women - free of marriage's social norms - divided household chores. In all these studies, they found that cohabitating couples shared more equitably
    (though women still did quite a bit more) and they also were happier as a result of such a balanced arrangement. In fact, cohabitating couples were at greater risk of breaking up if they fell into traditional patterns and deviated from egalitarianism.

    ''There's a principle of equity that works for cohabitators,'' said Julie Brines, a sociologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, who has done extensive work studying couple arrangements.

    One study of more than 7,000 married and cohabitating couples found that women in dual-income married households had more strife in their relationship than cohabitating working couples. Married women took on roughly 71 percent of the total housework burden and generally had to effectively ''buy'' their way out of housework by earning more.

    Unmarried women who lived with men, however, took on slightly less housework - 67 percent of the burden - and did not have to earn more to shed chores, said the study's author, Lynn Magdol, a sociologist at the State University of New York in Buffalo.

    Magdol said the added strife in married life has to do with wives and husbands still struggling to define their roles against conventional norms.

    ''Marriage comes with expectations about roles,'' said Magdol, who presented her study on household chores at this fall's American Sociological Association meeting. ''We're changing our expectations - and that's stressful for couples.''

    In the end, she found that traditional marriages in which the husband focuses on career and the wife on home had the least conflict.

    Philip Cohen, a sociologist from the University of California in Irvine, said his recent study provides advice for any woman looking to marry a man who will pull his weight in the world of chores: Live with him first.

    In a study published in August in the Journal of Marriage and Family, Cohen found that couples who married after living together divided chores somewhat more equally than married couples who never lived together. For instance, husbands who had a cohabitating stint did 34 percent of the household chores, but husbands who went straight to marriage did 30 percent.

    It may be that men who choose to live with a woman, rather than marry her, are more nontraditional from the start, so they would pitch in around the house regardless of their relationship status, Cohen said. But he believes his study shows that men who live with women simply become trained in the rules of equal co-habitation, then bring that pattern into the marriage.

    Ken King, a Newton lawyer, found that to be true in his relationship with his wife. They lived together for about five years before getting married eight years ago. He said his contribution to housework falls far short of 50 percent, but he thinks he and his wife have worked out a system of managing the household work while both working and raising their child. A key element is recognizing how you want to be different from your parents' generation.

    ''There's a danger of importing baggage into marriage,'' said King, 48.
    ''You don't want to think this will be like Mom and Pop or Ozzie and Harriet.''

    Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com.

    This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 11/9/2002.
    Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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