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Published: Jan 11, 2017 8 min read
A wedding ring and broken heart representing divorce
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Counter to stereotypes, it is men married to women who find the most happiness in matrimony.

In fact, according to research, the average married woman is less happy than the average married man, less happy than single women, less convinced that married people are happier than single people, and more likely to file for divorce. Once returned to single life, women’s happiness recovers, whereas men’s declines, and divorced women are less eager to remarry than divorced men.

The response to my recent essay on Money.com is a hint as to why. In The Invisible Workload that Drags Women Down, I describe the thinking work that goes into marriage, household maintenance, and childcare—work best described as intellectual, mental, and emotional—and reviewed some of the research that shows that women (married to men) do substantially more of this work than men (married to women).

The result is an occupied mind and I mean this in both senses of the word: women’s minds are busy, distracted by the essential work of attending to the needs of others and, because of this, they can feel like their minds are not truly their own. In comments across the internet, women responded to my conclusion that women are denied a “lightness of mind” with a resounding “yes!” “amen!” “thank you!” and “exactly!

Readers also had questions. Why is it that these unequal family relationships still persist? Don’t men have thinking jobs of their own? Do we see similar divisions of labor between same-sex couples? And what is there to do about it? At Money’s invitation, and as the author of a textbook about the sociology of gender, I’m happy to offer some answers and give one powerful piece of divorce-deterring advice.

Don’t men think all the time, too?

While there are exceptions, it remains true that an asymmetrical division of labor in the family is still typical. Among dual-earner couples, men and women are working about the same number of hours per week in paid and unpaid work combined—54 hours a week to 53, respectively—but women do about two-thirds of the unpaid work and one-third of the paid work; men do the inverse.

Men also do thinking work, especially the thinking work that’s culturally masculine. One friendly reader commented, for example, that her husband is responsible for making sure the lawn gets mowed, the cars get serviced, and the gutters get cleaned. Another less friendly one made a point to remind me that he was responsible for “fixing the furnace, fixing the toilet… changing the oil in the car, rotating the tires, [and] putting the snow tires on in winter…”

Granted, but those household chores—like the ones that are usually delegated to men—are weekly at best, and often monthly, seasonal, and even annual. They aren’t comparable in frequency to the chores that many women feel responsible for: dinner, laundry, carpool, practices, lessons. So women’s minds tend to be more relentlessly and unceasingly occupied than men’s.

The challenge of equal sharing

Most couples today don’t plan for this asymmetry. In The Unfinished Revolution sociologist Kathleen Gerson found that 80 percent of women and 70 percent of men say that they want a relationship with “flexible gender boundaries” and prefer sharing over specialization.

That’s nice, but it’s not usually how things turn out. That’s because there are forces external to couples that push them into asymmetrical arrangements, ones that impact same-sex as well as different-sex couples. Three-quarters of gay and lesbian couples with two working parents specialize, and that can’t be explained by gender stereotypes, ideologies, or human nature.

Most workplaces, for example, still operate according to a 1950s housewife/breadwinner model, what Josh Levs, the author of All In, calls “Mad Men-era work structures.” These assume workers have a wife at home and, therefore, no spousal, parental, or household responsibilities. Succeeding at work means being able to compete and, combined with the masculine imperative and obligation to do so, work has a way of pulling men out of the family, an observation Levs emphasized in response to my original essay. It’s true.

Yet joint retreat from work is usually a non-starter. Most spouses can’t afford to each work a part-time job. They may, though, be able to afford one income, a choice made more economically feasible by employer-provided health care plans and tax breaks for breadwinner/housewife families. Meanwhile, the cost of child care presses some families leave one person at home because it actually saves them money. All things being equal, that person is more likely to be female than male, given the gender pay gap.

The best laid plans often go awry. For her book, Gender Vertigo, sociologist Barbara Risman asked almost 7,000 high school juniors and seniors whether they planned to be career- or home-oriented in the future. Thirteen years later, she re-inquired. Almost half of the career-oriented girls were housewives and nearly as many of the home-oriented girls were in the labor force. Other research confirms the trend: there is little relationship between what we want and what we get.

The lurking crisis

As a result of these dynamics, couples often find themselves at a crossroads: they planned for a shared division of labor, but they have a hard time making that idea into reality. Some persevere; the majority make a compromise. But which one?

Here’s where things get ugly. Gerson, discussed above, didn’t just ask people what kind of division of labor people wanted, she also asked about their Plan B. Plan A, if you recall, was sharing, with 70% of men and 80% of women preferring it. But on Plan B, men and women diverge in catastrophic ways: almost 70% of men want to revert to traditional gender roles. Faced with that option, nearly 75% of women want a divorce.

There are a powerful lesson in this literature and one really important piece of advice. The lesson is this: there are forces bigger than each of us, bigger than our partnerships, and bigger than marriage itself. They shape how our lives turn out whether we like it or not.

And the advice is clear: we need to talk to our spouses and potential spouses about our ideal plans and our backup plans. If we only talk about what we want, we miss a dangerous point of conflict. All marriages will face struggles—because it’s a genuine challenge to juggle work, housework, and childcare (when necessary)—but we can ensure that the struggles we face don’t create a sudden and surprising degree of conflict if we know what we’re up against and plan ahead.