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Marriage advice: Consider abilities, likes and family needs when dividing up chores

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 29, 2012 12:01 am
If you want a good marriage, all you need is love, … and friendship, … and good communication skills, … and problem solving skills, … and, scheduling time together.These are all important, but we still often overlook the obvious. Sooner or later, someone has to cook meals, wash dishes, mop floors, do laundry and pay bills. In other words, every marriage must deal with housework.

This is an important matter. In “Spousonomics,” authors Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson explain that in 2007 researchers asked couples: “What makes marriages work?” Faithfulness and sex led the list, but third was sharing household chores. A 2009 study found household chores was the second most common subject couples argue about, right after money.

A typical error for couples is dividing household chores 50-50. It sounds “fair.” You both take turns doing the laundry, cooking and all the rest.

But when applying the economic principles of specialization and comparative advantage, Szuchman and Anderson explain this system is highly inefficient and likely to cause marital strife.

Comparative advantage recognizes that, even if you're better at everything than your spouse, it's inefficient (and exhausting) for you to do everything. The tasks you're only marginally better at are the ones your spouse has a comparative advantage and should do even if it takes him or her longer than you. You'll both save time because you're both doing things you're relatively good at.

The 50-50 system ignores comparative advantage by not taking into account that some people are good at some things and terrible at others (you're a great cook, your spouse can't boil water); that some enjoy certain tasks and dislike others (you enjoy walking the dog, your spouse hates it); and that some have strong preferences about how a particular task is done (i.e., not separating the whites from the darks in the laundry drives you nuts, and your spouse doesn't care).

Worse, yet, a 50-50 system can easily lead to score keeping: “I did that last night. It doesn't matter how tired you are, and I had the day off! It's your turn tonight!”

A “traditional” division of chores (the husband works outside the home and the wife stays home with the kids) can also lead to inefficiencies and strife. Szuchman and Anderson explain this system assumes, without actually discussing it, the value of the wife's child care and homemaking is equal in value to the husband's paycheck, along with him doing the “manly” jobs such as mowing the lawn.

But this system ignores the fact children need time with their fathers; that many fathers are very good with children; and that mothers need breaks from the day-to-day work of dealing with infants. Moreover, some wives are better at mowing the lawn while some husbands are better at housecleaning.

Economic efficiency also means experimenting. The wife may be intimidated by the lawnmower and the husband may feel overwhelmed by the huge stack of bills. But perhaps the only reason you don't like a task or aren't good at it is because you've never tried.

Still, there may be tasks that you both dislike, for example, cleaning the toilets. This raises the economic issue of absolute advantage: Who can get it done to the satisfaction of both of you in the shortest time?

Dividing up chores is a necessary part of marriage. By taking into consideration your relative abilities, which tasks you enjoy (or, at least, dislike less) and the basic needs of your family and your marriage, you'll have fewer arguments and more time for things you both enjoy, whether that's extra time for TV or for cuddling.


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