Love, marriage and housework: navigating the minefield

PROFESSOR Ken Dempsey recalls interviewing married couples about how they shared the domestic load. One husband said with pride: “I always do the Sunday night dinner.” Says Dempsey, “When we came to interview the wife, she just laughed and said, `On the way home from golf, he buys a pizza’.”

This couple is not necessarily destined for the Family Court, although Dempsey points out that American research found that the more housework a man did, the less often his wife thought of divorce.

But he believes women’s resentment about housework is a key barometer of a marriage’s health, and his latest research suggests that even women who see themselves as happily married are more dissatisfied with many aspects of their relationships, including the emotional ones, than are men.

It is mainly female unhappiness that fuels divorce, with up to 75per cent of divorces now initiated by women. This makes the issue as much a matter for community inquiry as bedroom argument.

Is it that men are reluctant to give up male privilege? Or is it that women are trying to force female standards of housekeeping and emotional response on their men?
The research by Dempsey, associate professor of sociology at La Trobe University, is published in the latest issue of Family Matters, the journal of the Australian Institute of Family Studies. It confirms earlier findings that the number of women racing to work clutching briefcases still far exceeds the number of men willing to race about the house brandishing dunny brushes.

Some households with working wives continue to run on 1950s norms: “Many men demanded explanations from wives for not having carried out household or personal care tasks for them, such as having a meal ready the moment they walked in the door from work.”
But women’s response to this is complex. How they feel about the division of labor is not determined solely by how the division works, Dempsey says: “When women say the division is fair, what they are really telling you is how they feel about the marriage generally.

“If a husband is great with the children, which is a high priority for the wife, she tends not to mind doing more of the work. There’s almost no chance she will say the division of labor is unfair even if she’s doing 99per cent of it. If he delivers in other ways that are important to her, she will make rationalisations such as, `Oh, I’m better at this than him anyway’.”

Which throws into some gloom Dempsey’s finding that more women than men thought the following the following areas were unfairly divided: housework (71per cent, 10per cent); child care (64per cent, 4per cent); and leisure opportunities (40per cent and
5per cent).

Both men and women believed that men got the better deal from marriage, with many women describing their husbands as being like another child they had to pick up after. It might be this resentment as much as exhaustion that explains the lower libidos of working mothers reported in a different study last week.

Dempsey’s sample of 85 was small, so it was not representative. But Professor Pat Noller, director of the University of Queensland’s Family Centre, says it is a common finding that women have more complaints, and that many of them revolve around men’s distance from housework and child care.

“Men’s lack of involvement is seen as a lack of equality, because even women who are working full-time are still carrying the major burden at home. But the fact that women are more dissatisfied than men doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of women who are satisfied.” The problem is that those who are unhappy often find their husbands don’t take their concerns seriously. “Typically, he doesn’t see her unhappiness and doesn’t hear her saying she wants change. A study done in Sydney interviewed former couples about why they were divorced. The men all said it had surprised them, but the women all said, `We told him and told him and told him’.”

Noller has sympathy for men’s emotional style, which she says defines intimacy as sharing sex and companionship. “The classic story is where the women tells the therapist that her husband never shows her he loves her, and he says, `But I wash her car for her every week’.”

She says this century has seen a “feminisation of love”, with the female preference for emotional openness and deep talk becoming the yardstick for intimacy. “Men don’t always have the emotional awareness to be involved in this. You ask them how they feel and they don’t know. I think there is a certain degree of unfairness (in that expectation).”

On the other hand, a man’s “not hearing” a woman’s distress in a relationship can be a power play. “If you like the way things are but your spouse wants change and that change centres on you, chances are you’re not going to want to talk about it. That maintains the status quo but it leaves the partner helpless and can destroy the relationship, but men seem willing to take that risk.”

Quinn Pawson, director of counselling education with Relationships Australia, says many couples arrive in therapy stuck in a pattern where he withdraws every time she makes a demand.

“I am confident that men do engage emotionally – we see it week in and week out. But the question is how to engage them … (while) not leaving the woman with all the responsibility for maintaining the relationship, including the emotional housework.”

Another researcher has suggested that the unspoken expectations of wifehood influence the labor sharing in a relationship. Janeen Baxter, associate professor of sociology at the University of Queensland, has found that de facto women do 3.5hours less housework a week than wives.

“For women, it is not just the presence of a man that leads to spending more time on housework and having greater responsibility for more of the household tasks, but it is the presence of a husband.

“It appears that the institution of marriage exerts influence on men and women to behave in particular kinds of ways, independently of the social and economic differences between married and cohabiting women, which we know lead to women doing more housework (for example, having young children in the household, women spending less time in paid work and women contributing less of the family income).”

Her study of 179 people in cohabiting relationships and 1231 married people found that even women who lived with their partner before marriage did less housework after marriage than women who had not lived with their partners beforehand.

But marriages overall have changed from the rigid gender role division of work that used to exist. Baxter says American research found that women had cut their housework almost in half since the 1960s (although they now spent more time on shopping and child care), and that men’s share of housework had almost doubled in that time. It’s just that the figure for men started from a low base.

“Basically, what it comes down to is that in another 100 years things might be equal,” she says.
Table: Perceived problems in marriage

Females % Males %

Partner does not provide enough emotional support 53 15

Communication a problem 38 18

Partner makes too many demands 25 15

Insufficient time with partner 51 23

Insufficient interest in physical love making 2 33

Too busy with work or outside interests 71 30

Insufficient initiative in planning joint activities 76 48

One or more facets of the marriage reportedas unfair to respondent 76 15

Making three or more complaints about partner 67 28

Wanting to change one or more aspects of marriage 58 30

Source: The Melbourne marriage survey, 2001