Equality in Relationships
Over the past few decades, we’ve made some huge strides toward building equality in relationships at a societal level. It’s no longer rare for a woman to be her family’s primary breadwinner, or to see a dad perusing the produce aisle with a Baby Bjorn strapped to his chest.
Yet, for many couples who arrive in couples counseling or relationship coaching, the division of household labor is still a perennial source of conflict and resentment. Many couples still fall into traditional gender roles when it comes to who’s doing the cleaning, the cooking, and the shopping for their families, even though it’s now the norm for both partners to work full-time.
Furthermore, tasks or roles associated with “women’s work” are often viewed as being less valuable and important than activities associated with traditional male roles. Even relationships between career-focused women and stay-at-home dads can have issues with power imbalances and inequality because we value these types of work differently based on our attitudes about gender.
Relationships that feel imbalanced and unfair are not only bad for the partner who’s doing most of the daily household tasks. They’re bad for the relationship itself, and for both partners inside of it. Becoming truly equal partners is often the path to creating a happier, more connected, and more fulfilling relationship (and, interestingly, a better sex life), and that’s what we’re discussing in this article.
I also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. My guest is Kate Mangino, a gender expert, speaker, and the author of “Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality at Home.” Kate is sharing wisdom from her extensive social science research, as well her own life and relationship, to help you find ways to create a truly equal partnership that feels fair, balanced, and fulfilling. You can find the episode on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
Equality in Relationships
Relationships thrive when they’re balanced. When you can find a rhythm of give and take that feels good for you both, it’s easy to appreciate your partner and to trust they have your back.
And yet, it’s very common for couples to fall into unbalanced dynamics, where one partner takes on more than their share of the cleaning, planning, and household management that daily life requires, in addition to working a full-time job. These imbalances often have a gendered basis, even for couples with progressive values who have no desire to live out a “Leave It to Beaver” episode.
We all have deeply ingrained cultural scripts operating outside of our awareness. These come from our families, our communities, pop culture, and more. It’s easy to slip into these scripts with your partner, especially if you’re not proactively trying to create balance and equality in your relationship. And this isn’t just true for relationships between men and women — it’s not uncommon for same-sex or queer couples to have one partner who takes on the “female role” and the other who takes on the “male role” and to divide labor along those lines.
In this podcast, we explored the consequences of unequal relationships, and what you can do to break free from gendered expectations and find a healthy balance together.
Gender Roles in Relationships
In relationships between men and women, it’s increasingly common for the woman to earn more money, and for the man to take on a greater share of the parenting and household responsibilities. Even in relationships like these, gender roles can be an issue.
For example, the man who’s staying home with the kids and handling all the household chores might feel unappreciated, disempowered, and overburdened. That’s because the work he’s performing tends to be undervalued, whether it’s being performed by a man or by a woman.
Sexist programming has taught many of us that “women’s work” is less important and less valuable, both within the home and outside of it. It’s one of the reasons that, when more men enter female-dominated fields like teaching or nursing, wages tend to increase for both men and women working in those fields (and as women enter more male-dominated fields, the pay drops). The work is valued more when it’s perceived as masculine.
What does this mean for your relationship? It means that what matters is the role you’re filling, not necessarily your gender. Even couples who are reversing the traditional gender script can have problems with power imbalances and inequality.
Gender Roles at Home
We’ve come a long way since the 1950s, but research shows that the majority of the cleaning, cooking, and caring for children often falls on one partner. Unfortunately, these out-of-balance relationships are fertile breeding grounds for resentment. When couples arrive in marriage counseling with these issues, the partner carrying the majority of the household work often feels exhausted, overwhelmed, and frustrated. Their partner often feels misunderstood, criticized, and tired of walking on eggshells around a partner who’s always angry.
Men may feel pressure to perform the “male role” in a certain way, such as by earning more money, or by avoiding vulnerability in relationships, and they can feel that those burdens go unrecognized and unappreciated. These attitudes can keep men from participating fully in parenting, making it more difficult for them to form strong and fulfilling relationships with their children.
This isn’t anyone’s idea of a healthy relationship, and yet it is so common. Creating a truly egalitarian relationship requires open and ongoing conversations, not only about who is doing what, but about what’s important to you as a couple, and how you both feel about the way you’re working together.
Gender Roles and “Emotional Labor”
The term emotional labor has come to describe everything from a flight attendant smiling as they serve a rude customer, to a friend offering a sympathetic ear when you’re processing a breakup. But “emotional labor” has also been used to describe the invisible labor that happens in families and in couples, which tends to fall most heavily on people in the female role.
A better term might be cognitive labor, or “invisible labor” since emotional support isn’t always the point. Cognitive labor includes remembering that the kids stay after school for basketball on Tuesdays, or that you’re running low on laundry detergent and need to buy some next time you’re at the store. It can include planning family holidays a few months in advance, researching a dozen potential contractors, and even remembering to send a birthday card to your nieces and nephews.
This work is invisible, but it’s important. If no one is thinking about what needs to be done, planning tasks and delegating them, the laundry piles up and the kids get left at basketball practice. The flooring never gets installed, and connections with extended family and friends suffer.
In many couples, one partner feels like they have to shoulder this burden alone, and that if they don’t, nothing will be done. Staying on top of a neverending to-do list is mentally taxing and often thankless work. The partner doing most of the cognitive labor may even be labeled “naggy” for their frequent requests and reminders.
The first step in rebalancing the load is making the invisible visible. Communicate openly about the tasks you’re each taking care of, the full scope of what they entail, what it feels like to carry the cognitive load, and what it would look like to redistribute some of that labor in your relationship.
The Benefits of Equality in Relationships
When couples can find an equal balance, they can build thriving relationships. It’s easier to let go of resentment when you see your partner stepping up. When couples feel like they’re on the same team, they can stop having arguments about who is or isn’t doing what, and start having constructive conversations that help their relationships grow.
Research also shows that dividing household labor more equitably can lead to a better sex life. Unsurprisingly, feeling overburdened and under appreciated is not a recipe for vibrant sexual intimacy in marriage.
Creating Equality in Relationships
Creating more equal relationships starts with finding shared goals and values. It’s often the case that we’re doing things that don’t serve our larger life goals and that we don’t really need to be doing, just because of messages we’ve picked up about what it means to be a good wife, husband, mom, or dad.
For example, if you have subconsciously internalized some messages about what it means to be a “good mother,” you might spend your Saturday trying to recreate the birthday cake you saw on Pinterest, and you might resent your partner for relaxing on the couch. Meanwhile, your partner may wonder why you’re driving yourself nuts when you could just pick up a cake at Costco (which your kid would enjoy just as much). He might say that you’re making a big deal out of nothing, which can feel invalidating for you.
Couples can lighten the load and avoid a lot of conflict by exploring where the pressure to do certain things is coming from. Together, you can identify the things that really matter for your family — having fun experiences, taking care of everyone’s health and well-being — then you can divide up the tasks that are actually necessary to make those things happen, and eliminate the rest. This is a continuous process that involves a lot of communication and compromise, and that ultimately makes you a stronger, more cohesive unit with a shared vision for your life together.
Equality in Relationships
It’s important to pay attention to how you’re dividing labor and to do so with intention — especially during big transitions, such as moving in together, getting married, or re-establishing your relationship after a baby arrives.
Creating equality in your relationship will help you and your partner feel more connected, appreciated, and understood. Even more importantly, it will model a healthy partnership for your children and prepare them to have a balanced relationship of their own someday.
P.S. If you enjoy this episode, please check out our Growing Together collection for more podcasts and articles that can help you make positive, concrete changes in the day-to-day of your shared life together.
[02:22] Gender Inequality in Household Work
- Kate Mangino wrote “Equal Partners” after her own difficult experience with falling into a gender-roled relationship so that other people can avoid the mistakes she and her husband made.
[08:00] Origins of Traditional Gender Roles
- The expectation that men generate income and women take care of the home is less prevalent than it used to be, but it’s still surprisingly common.
- These coded gender roles are behavior patterns. Growing up, society instills certain behavior and values in children to prepare them for these roles. Even same-sex and queer couples can fall into these patterns.
- It’s vital to have conversations about these roles to help you and your partner make intentional decisions about your relationship.
[15:59] The Impact of Gender Inequality in Relationships
- Equality is better for everyone, not just women.
- Research shows that people in the female role have twice as much household work per week than people in the male role.
- When you’re doing more work at home, you have fewer choices and less free time. Anyone performing female-coded work may feel overburdened and exhausted.
- It affects women’s professional lives and has long-term ramifications on their emotional and physical health.
- For those with male-coded work, inequality affects their emotional bonds with the family and may cause further emotional and physical health repercussions.
[22:31] The Burden of Cognitive Labor
- Cognitive labor is all the planning, researching, remembering, and delegating that happens in our homes every day.
- Female-coded roles usually carry the cognitive labor. They are constantly thinking about what needs to be done in the house.
- Male-coded cognitive labor often involves outdoor work, finances, and investments.
- This is one way to delegate tasks, but it’s not always equal.
[28:19] Make the Invisible Labor Visible
- Talk to each other and list what each of you are doing to contribute at home.
- A lot of what we do comes from what we value.
- Those in female-coded roles are raised to keep family bonds. It may not feel like a choice; they are simply working to achieve a standard set by others.
- On the other hand, those in men-coded roles are often not raised to have the same values.
- You and your partner need to compromise and find a balance for your respective values to create a fair relationship.
[40:18] Vulnerable Stages in Relationships
- The most vulnerable stage in a relationship is the birth of a first child or any kind of dependent care.
- Moving in together or marriage is also a significant vulnerability.
[45:00] Changing Gender Roles: Working Toward Equality in a Relationship
- You need to set expectations. If possible, have this conversation as you’re becoming a couple.
- Talk about broad patterns and determine if your relationship is falling into those roles.
- Discuss how you can help with each other’s burdens.
- The messages that parents send their children around societal expectations are important.
- There has been a significant improvement for young girls, but boys need to have more opportunities to embrace care work and articulate their emotions better.
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Equality in Relationships
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Music in this episode is by Crass with their song “Walls: Fun in the Oven.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://crass.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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