Why "who's doing the dishes" is a measure
of how happy your relationship is

An act as simple as washing the dishes is a window into the overarching domestic obligations women experience in the home. Elisabeth Shaw CEO Relationships Australia NSW reveals more about the ‘mental load’.

This article was originally written for Body & Soul.

Housework inequality costs us a lot more than we realise. A US study found that for women in heterosexual relationships, sharing dishes responsibility is more important than any other chore. In those relationships where women take on the lion’s share, there’s more relationship conflict, less satisfaction and worse sex, than for those with partners who share the load. If you think it’s easier to let gender equality fade into the background, then it’s time to think again.

“Who’s doing the dishes?” may appear to be a straightforward question, but many studies show the answer has a significant impact on the quality of time you share as a family, to say nothing of the health and longevity of your couple relationship. Whether you identify as a feminist or not, it doesn’t take much imagination to recognise that inequity in domestic roles can cause stress, resentment and erode family wellbeing and relationship satisfaction.

When we think about addressing gender equality, we tend to focus on work – a place where, in recent years, some change in men’s attitudes towards women can be noted. Men are now far more inclined to support women to pursue careers, be accepted into political office or company boards, or set up their own businesses. But when it comes to the home front, traditional values continue to dominate, and major change is slow.

Gender roles and stereotypes

It must not be overlooked that gender inequity is at the heart of domestic violence, coercive control and sexual assault through gender stereotypes that assign unequal value to men and women, along with an unequal distribution of power, resources, and opportunity. You may have witnessed the impacts of gender inequity on your “liberated” Mum who, as she has become older, may be divorced, and struggling with low income, low superannuation savings and gaining secure employment.

According to the 2018 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey of Australian households, even when both partners work full time, Australian women still take on most household chores. This remains the case even when the woman is the primary breadwinner. While men do more housework than they once did, from 12.4 hours a week in 2002 to 13.3 hours in 2016, the greater share of housework and childcare still falls to women, in particular, mothers. A recent OECD study found that Australian women do two hours and 19 minutes of housework each day more than men. While Australian men do more housework in comparison to most of the world’s men, there is a long way to go to achieve gender equity in Australian homes.

Carrying the “mental load”

There is also the “mental load” that women carry disproportionately. This involves the intangible burden of keeping in mind the never-ending details, logistics and schedules of family life and making sure everyone gets their needs met. It is no surprise women feel exhausted and demoralised when this work is not valued or recognised.

We expect younger generations to be more challenging of traditional roles, but a recent survey found that, although younger couples are more egalitarian when it comes to most things related to gender roles, they are no more likely to divide home chores equitably than older couples.

Thoughts on transforming work-family conflict into work-family co-operation

Consider past influences

The gendered division of housework will only be made equal when men do more, and this requires both women and men to become conscious of how their behaviour prevents change. Name the outdated assumptions you grew up with about who does what – e.g. women should leave work to care for sick children, men are not good at caring for small children – and challenge and change them.

Challenge current habits

Why do women buy into taking on the domestic load? Our beliefs about gender are so engrained and direct us in unconscious ways through fears of being judged and not loved. Step away from the negative stereotypes around the word “feminist” and recognise that a feminist is simply a woman or a man who believes more gender equity is for the benefit of us all.

Parenting goals

Do you perpetuate traditional roles and expectations of your sons and daughters through how you raise them? Do your children do chores that are not divided down gender lines? Teach your children that housework is a team effort.

Start as you mean to go on

Think about what kind of family life you want, and how a fair division of household responsibilities will make life happier and healthier for everyone. Moving in together or having a baby are critical moments where a shared approach to housework needs to be established.

Be accountable For Women:

Are you trapped into the homemaker and “competent parent” role because you want things done a certain way? Can you accept your partner might do things differently? Can you let go, or agree on what is acceptable to both of you? For Men: Are you continuing to justify non-participation by saying you already “gave at the office”? Own your own reluctance to take on more and consider what you also lose by being marginal in the household.

Communicate and renegotiate.

Heterosexual couples can learn from the more equitable domestic arrangements of same-sex couples. While the same decisions about how to combine work and family need to be made, the absence of assumptions based on traditional gender roles in same-sex couples calls for more communication, resulting in less stress and conflict. Consider listing all chores involved in running a household including the “mental load” and agree on an even division. There are now apps for this purpose, and you could consider using a whiteboard for reminders and extra tasks that arise along the way.

Become a team.

Sharing tasks such as dishwashing or gardening involves teamwork that can not only make you feel more connected but provides positive role modelling for children.

Sometimes couples get so stuck in roles and habits that it is hard to break free. This can also be part of a pattern far more destructive. Professional help might be part of the solution to more lasting change. The more we can work to break down traditional gender roles, the more society can aspire to equality and respect for everyone, regardless of gender.

Elisabeth Shaw is CEO of Relationships Australia NSW and a clinical and counselling psychologist specialising in couple and family work.

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