Study: Boyfriends Outdo Husbands on Housework

Women longing for that white dress and gold ring may want to take some new research into consideration. A study published in the September Journal of Family Issues found that live-in boyfriends spend more time scrubbing and scouring than their married counterparts. And according to related research, those couples who divide household chores most equally may also have better sex lives.

The new study comes from sociologist Shannon Davis at George Mason University and her colleagues at North Carolina State University, who looked at the hours spent on housework reported by more than 17,000 individuals in 28 developed, Western countries. Across the board live-in boyfriends reported performing more household labor than married men. Also, live-in girlfriends took on fewer chores than married women. Still, women overall still spent more time than men on household labor whether they were married or not. It may be that women have more free time—about 66 percent of men surveyed reported working full-time, compared to 40 percent of women.

Explaining why live-in boyfriends are better than husbands at picking up a broom or toilet brush is a bit trickier. Self-selection may play a role: those with more liberal, egalitarian views about housework may be more liable to live unmarried with their significant others. But Davis thinks there's more to it than that: cultural influences may be at work.

The study examined respondents' views on gender roles by asking whether or not they agreed with statements like "a man's job is to earn money; a woman's job is to look after the home and family." Davis found that many of the married men who participated in the study believed that spouses should split chores and disagreed with statements about the home as the wife's job. However, she says that holding liberal views on gender doesn't make men more likely to actually do more laundry. Unmarried men living with a female partner were much more likely to act on their egalitarian beliefs than married men. Those beliefs are less likely "to come across in marriage," says Davis. "The way that marriage has historically been constructed prohibits and reduces the ability of men to turn their beliefs about equality into an equal division of labor."

Why don't some well-meaning men keep to their best cleaning intentions after they tie the knot? The answer may lie in the way they were raised. Despite rapidly changing gender roles, many men haven't had much exposure to households where chores are equally divided between husband and wife. "Just one or two generations ago, marriage was set up with the man working and the woman staying home," says Neil Chethik, author of "VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think About Their Marriages, Their Wives, Sex, Housework and Commitment" (Simon & Schuster).

That may mean that modern couples who venture into marriage may have fuzzy ideas about the division of labor. "Men who have not seen their fathers acting as a model are going against their own upbringings." Chethik says that his research with 300 American husbands shows that "household tasks have a huge impact on the quality of a marriage." He found that when married men reported that their wives were unhappy with the division of household labor, the men were more than twice as likely to report also being cheated on or having considered divorce.

So, does the new research mean marriage automatically translates into dirty dishes? Davis's study did not follow unmarried couples through marriage; she only looked at unmarried and married individuals separately. But in a separate study, Sunjiv Gupta, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts, did follow that progression in a longitudinal study. He did not find much of a change between pre-married and married life. "Not much happens," says Gupta.

Instead of avoiding vows, Chethik suggests that couples should create a clear list of each spouse's household responsibilities. The payoff can be big for both partners; Chethik found that when women are happier with the division of household labors, the couple has a more active sex life. "If men are interested in keeping their sex life vibrant, they may help to wash the dishes and vacuum every now and then," he says. (For those who want to get technical: Chethik's research with 300 American husbands found that when their spouses were satisfied with their housework contribution, the couple averaged one more sexual encounter per month.) Clean and happy: what more could a loving couple want?