Do Chore Lists Actually Help Couples Share Housework Equally?

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Young woman doing housework and looking after plants

For many couples who live together, figuring out how to equally share household and family-related responsibilities is an ongoing challenge. This is especially true for relationships between men and women, who are up against centuries-old gender norms and expectations about who's in charge of homemaking and childcare.

One common strategy for couples trying to have a more egalitarian relationship is to divvy up the domestic tasks so that each person is responsible for half of them. For example, one person does laundry and dishes, while the other does cooking and carpool.

But does this method actually work? Does splitting the chores in half and assigning each person their own set of tasks to be in charge of actually result in a truly equal division of labor?

We posed the question to Dan Carlson, Ph.D., a sociologist and University of Utah professor who studies family relationships, gender, and work.

His answer, point-blank: "No. It's not effective."

The problem with dividing tasks in half.

In a new study currently under review, Carlson analyzed survey data on over 1,000 U.S. heterosexual couples who were either married or living together and had kids. The couples answered questions about their division of housework, relationship satisfaction, and perceived equity in the relationship.

The results showed that couples who entirely divvied up the tasks between them, with each responsible for their own set, didn't tend to be any happier with the relationship than conventional couples where the woman does most or all of the housework. Among generally egalitarian couples, Carlson says just half of the couples who used the "divide up the tasks" method actually found their arrangement to be fair.

"The issue with divvying tasks is that tasks vary in their qualities. Some are more time-consuming, less pleasant, and more isolating than others. Divvying tasks is rarely a fair process," Carlson explains. "When tasks are divvied, chances are that one partner will get the short end of the stick somehow."

In a draft of the study shared with mindbodygreen, Carlson offers some examples: Grocery shopping, for instance, might actually be pretty pleasant because it gives a person time outside the house and the opportunity to interact with other people. Cleaning the toilet or stovetop, on the other hand, is a pretty solitary task—you do it all by yourself, it's dirty and kind of gross, and it's possible that nobody will even notice you did it.

There are also routine tasks (daily things like cooking, doing the dishes, and laundry) and non-routine tasks (less regular things like yard work, taking care of the car, and paying bills). If one person is saddled with more of the routine tasks, which tend to make up the majority of the time spent doing housework, it can lead to some contention and frustration over time. Even though on paper it may look like the tasks are split down the middle, one person may feel like they're working on chores constantly while the other is only needing to tackle household tasks every now and then.

"There are a lot of reasons tasks get divvied unfairly, but one is gender," Carlson says. "Gender power in relationships means that women may be deferential to their male partners' desires and preferences. Men may use that power to take on tasks that are more 'enjoyable' or less onerous."

In other words, if a man's assigned tasks are all things that he's more likely to enjoy (say, car maintenance and yard work), while his wife's assigned tasks are the daily slog of life (cooking and laundry), then it's likely the woman may not actually feel better about the division of labor even if her husband is technically doing half the tasks.

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What to do instead.

Dividing tasks in half didn't tend to make couples any happier in Carlson's study. But relationship quality did increase the more couples shared tasks—that is, each partner does half of each task. Couples would feel like the division of labor was more fair and satisfying when they were both equally involved in each and every household chore rather than assigning a set of chores to each person.

"Ninety-eight percent of those who share in the completion of all the tasks find their relationships fair," Carlson says. "The reason sharing in the completion of all the tasks works is that it affects each partner the same."

In the paper, he points out that sharing tasks (rather than dividing them up) likely makes partners feel closer to each other because they must communicate more, engage in mutual decision-making and teamwork, and spend more time together—leading to a stronger relationship overall. Sharing tasks also removes the possibility of one person getting saddled with all the undesirable chores and makes sure the couples is equally sharing all the ups and downs of keeping a household running. It just feels more equal and mutual.

"Couples can still create a chore list, but the aim is not to divvy tasks," Carlson says. "Create a list where you decide which days each partner will wash the dishes or do the laundry or take out the trash. Alternate days or weeks. Or maybe even do them together."

In other words, both people should be doing the laundry equally often. Both people should be taking out the trash equally often. "It is OK if there are one or two tasks that you decide to divvy," he adds, "but try to share the load on most things."

That also includes finding ways to share the mental load—i.e., the responsibility of managing and overseeing all the tasks to make sure they get done. If one person is always asking or reminding the other to get their chores done, that's a good sign that the mental load is not being shared equally.

The bottom line.

Although it might seem like the most straightforward solution, the "divide and conquer" strategy likely won't work if your goal is to share the housework equally as a couple. Instead, a system where you're both equally involved in completing each and every task might be more likely to produce an arrangement that feels fair and mutually satisfying.

Of course, if a system where each person is assigned their own set of tasks to be responsible for is working for your relationship, great! There's no need to change something that's working.

But if the chore lists have not been helping, mutually sharing your tasks—instead of dividing them up between you two—might be the secret to creating the egalitarian relationship you crave. 

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