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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

How Couples Recover From the Day’s Stresses

So much scholarly attention focuses today on the work wives and husbands do and how it influences their marriages. But it is not only the work couples do outside the home that interests those concerned about marital well-being. Of equal interest is how couples manage the work of their home – the entire range of household responsibilities, including children’s care.

In our times, characterized so greatly by dual-earner couples, the question is not just how they balance their jobs with their home life, but how they balance home life itself. Who does what when it comes to household work?

The signs continue to increase that the way a wife and husband balance the work of their household, if indeed they do balance it, makes a big difference for them as individuals and as a couple.

There is “evidence that an unbalanced division of household labor appears to compromise women’s well-being,” according to a study published this spring in the Journal of Family Psychology by three researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles and Connecticut College.

Even in our times, when so many husbands fulfill much larger roles in household work, “gender still appears to play a determining role in the division of household labor,” the UCLA-based study reported.

When I read this study I was reminded of another not long ago that investigated the extent to which the risk of divorce diminishes for a couple when husbands help at home with child care and other household tasks.

In a May 2010 news story here, I discussed work by Wendy Sigle-Rushton, a senior lecturer at the London School of Economics. She found that a husband’s involvement in household work plays a role in stabilizing marriage. Marital happiness increases for wives when their husbands participate in the work that must be done at home, she said.

Then there was the 2007 report by the Washington-based Pew Research Center titled “Modern Marriage: ‘I Like Hugs. I Like Kisses. But What I Really Love Is Help With the Dishes.’”

The Pew center found that American adults ranked “sharing household chores” third in importance on a list of nine items often associated with successful marriages.

The researchers behind the new study out of UCLA wanted to learn how effectively couples wind down after returning home from long, stressful days at work. The study observed that recovering “from the stress of the day” represents one of two key goals for families when they “reunite after work or school.” The other goal is to “tackle the evening’s agenda.”

But for the contemporary family, these dual goals “often compete, as parents must unwind from increasingly longer workdays while continuing to coordinate the home-based demands of chores and child care,” the researchers said.

The researchers learned that after returning home from work, “women’s stress levels improve if their husbands chip in with housework.” Curiously, husbands’ stress levels were found to improve as they apportioned more time to leisure, even while their wives apportioned less time to leisure.

This was a scientific study of the stress hormone cortisol, which helps human beings cope with stress. Cortisol levels remained higher for both husbands and wives who spent time in the evening doing household tasks. However, the wives in this study did more housework than their husbands.

The study said that among the women it studied, “the most frequently pursued activities at home were housework, communication and leisure.” But for the husbands who were studied, the order of those activities reversed. “Husbands spent the most time in leisure activities, followed by communication and housework.”

The study may have physical health implications, the researchers said. It indicated that the actions of one spouse can affect the stress levels of the partner.

The clear suggestion, it appears, is that maintaining high stress levels throughout the day is not good for people and that recovering to some extent during the evening from the day’s stress is healthful.

Darbe Saxbe, one of the researchers, is now with the University of Southern California. In a USC release on the study, she said its results show “that the way couples spend time at home — not just the way you spend time, but the way your partner spends time as well — has real implications for long-term health.”

And she noted that “the quality of relationships makes a big difference in a person’s health.” In fact, Saxbe commented, “dividing up your housework fairly with your partner may be as important as eating your vegetables.”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.