Couples can be forgiven for not knowing whether to give chores the side-eye or the come-hither.
A new study says that dividing them evenly, particularly child-care responsibilities, leads to a better sex life and all-around happier marriage.
Still, a big, splashy New York Times magazine piece last year warned us that divvying up household duties is a sex-life killer.
I called Daniel Carlson, the author of the more recent study, to ask him.
Carlson, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University, studied data from a 2006 marital and relationship survey involving 487 heterosexual couples, all of whom had children. In the relationships in which women did most or all (at least 60 percent) of the child care, men and women both reported lower quality relationships and sex lives compared with couples who divided child care responsibilities evenly.
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“We looked at how happy they were in their relationships overall,” Carlson told me. “When it came to the quality of their sexual relationships and satisfaction with how much sex they’re having, egalitarian couples had the best outcomes.”
But what about that New York Times story? With the cover photo of the man and woman forming a sad, chaste equal sign, a visual admonishment to couples who strive for a 50/50 division of labor?
“The less gender differentiation, the less sexual desire,” the story warned. “In other words, in an attempt to be gender-neutral, we may have become gender-neutered.”
Outdated thinking, Carlson told me.
“That was based on data that are more than a quarter-century old,” he said. “Things have changed. That’s why we wanted to re-examine this.”
Indeed, that New York Times story was based on a study whose information was collected in the 1990s, which, Carlson points out, was a wholly different era for marriage.
“Couples embrace egalitarianism now, especially younger couples,” he said. “That being their desire, couples who are in more traditional marriages are finding them less satisfying, less fair and unhappier than they did in the past, and those feelings translate into negative consequences for the relationship. That trickles into their sexual relations.”
Egalitarian marriages are, in many ways, more difficult for both partners than traditional marriages, Carlson said. But those extra challenges can bring couples closer.
“We don’t have a workplace culture that supports egalitarianism,” he said. “We don’t have public policy that supports it. Couples who are doing this are doing it on their own and against the odds.
“But the fact is, egalitarianism is something that couples have to work at together,” he continued. “This isn’t, ‘You do your thing, and I’ll do my thing.’ It requires cooperation, good communication and good coordination. And that builds strong bonds.”
Makes the ’90s (“Friends” aside) seem pretty lame.
“I don’t think it’s surprising at all that couples who are listening to each other and talking to each other have more intimacy and higher quality sex lives,” Carlson said. “Everything about egalitarianism suggests closer, higher-quality relationships.”