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How relationship happiness is affected by who does the washing up

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Moya Crockett
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New research highlights how the division of domestic labour influences relationship quality – and shows that washing up is a particularly irksome task for women. 

It’s hard to believe that we’re still having conversations about the gendered division of domestic labour in 2018, but here we are. Despite the fact that a large majority of women in the UK go out to work, extensive research supports the idea that many heterosexual households – yes, even the most liberal, enlightened, ‘feminist’ ones – get a bit Mad Men when it comes to chores. 

One 2017 study found that women still do more housework than their male partners, regardless of age, income or their own workloads. A year earlier, the Office of National Statistics confirmed that women in the UK put in more than double the amount of unpaid work on average when it comes to cooking, childcare and housework, a gap that was especially wide for women aged between 26 and 35. Feminists have been pushing for a more equal division of domestic responsibility for at least half a century, but it’s clear we’re still a long way off that point.

Now, a forthcoming study has highlighted how the health and longevity of a cohabiting relationship can be damaged if couples fail to share household tasks. The report was carried out by the Council of Contemporary Families (a non-profit organisation that studies family dynamics in the US), and examines how relationship quality is affected by the division of common chores, including shopping, laundry, and house cleaning.

Researchers found that sharing specific chores is especially important for reducing conflict in heterosexual relationships – and for women, washing up is the big one. The women who took part in the study felt happier about sharing responsibility for doing the dishes than any other task, and those whose partners rarely pulled on a pair of Marigolds or stacked the dishwasher saw their relationship suffer.

“Women who found themselves doing the lion’s share of dishwashing reported significantly more relationship discord, lower relationship satisfaction, and less sexual satisfaction than women who split the dishes with their partner,” writes Daniel Carlson, the study’s lead author and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Utah.

Doing the washing up: not as idyllic as retro ads made it look 

Men cared less about whether or not they shared the washing up, but were more affected by who was responsible for slogging around the supermarket. Interestingly, the study found that men who shared household shopping with their partners reported greater sexual and relationship satisfaction than both men who did most of the shopping and men whose partner usually did the big shop. This suggests that people are not necessarily made happier by allowing their partners to do all the work, but are most content when tasks are shared. 

In a new interview with The Atlantic, Carlson proposes a couple of theories for why being left to do the washing up may have a particularly negative effect on women.

“Doing dishes is gross,” he points out. “There is old, mouldy food sitting in the sink. If you have kids, there is curdled milk in sippy cups that smells disgusting.” He adds that compared to some other chores such as cooking or gardening, washing up is a rather thankless task. “What is there to say [after the washing up has been done]? ‘Oh, the silverware is so… sparkly?’”

In addition, Carlson says, there’s the fact that chores involving cleaning up after other people, such as washing up, doing laundry or cleaning the bathroom, have traditionally been considered ‘female’ jobs (or “girl jobs”, if you ask Theresa May).

Men, in contrast, are usually more likely to take responsibility for less squeamish and more infrequent chores such as mowing the lawn, washing the car, DIY and putting the bins out. (A quick note on taking out the rubbish, for those who might want to quibble: while it undeniably involves handling other people’s mess, carrying a black bag outside is a much quicker and less disgusting job than scrubbing the toilet.)

As a result, women who are left to handle traditionally female chores on their own “see themselves as relegated to the tasks that people don’t find desirable,” Carlson says. 

Men were happier when they shared household shopping with their partner than if they did it alone - or if their partner did it all

The best way to operate, according to Carlson, is to divide dishwashing responsibilities equally, whether that means doing it on alternate days or using a ‘you wash, I’ll dry/you stack, I’ll unstack’ system. He suggests that another reason why washing up can cause particular resentment is because it’s a task that naturally lends itself to being shared, unlike many other chores. 

“My wife and I could take out the trash together, we could clean the toilet together, but that wouldn’t make much sense,” he observes. Washing up, in contrast, can easily be divided – so when it isn’t, that grates.

This isn’t the first piece of research to identify a link between splitting household chores and relationship happiness. One Swedish study found that both women and men experience psychological distress when tasks aren’t divided evenly, and research by the University of Illinois has shown that women’s marital satisfaction is significantly affected by whether or not chores are divided. That study also found that wives who valued equal sharing of housework were markedly happier if their husbands shared that belief.

In February, meanwhile, a post by parenting blogger Constance Hall in which she railed against her partner for not doing his fair share of housework went viral. “Just do the f**king dishes without being asked once in a while mother-f**kers,” she wrote. 

So: if you’re living with a partner who doesn’t pull their weight around the house, suggest to them that the happiness of your relationship depends on them doing the washing up more often. You’ve got the research to back you up. 

Images: Catt Liu / Unsplash / Pixabay / Getty Images

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Women's Editor at stylist.co.uk, where she is currently overseeing the Visible Women campaign. Carrying a tiny bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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