Key to Successful Marriage: Say 'Thank You'

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A successful relationship depends not just on how partners divvy up the household chores, but also on how they express gratitude.

A new study sheds light on why one partner often gets stuck with certain household chores while the other is oblivious to the piled-up laundry or overflowing garbage. The trick to harmony could be a simple “thank you,” the research indicates.

Chore calamity

Household chores rank up there with money (and shoot way past sex) when it comes to sources of marital rancor.

“The division of labor at home is probably one of the most frequent causes of conflict between couples,” said Benjamin Caldwell of Alliant International University in California, who was not involved in the new study.

In a 2007 World Values Survey by the Pew Research Center, sharing household chores ranked number three, behind faithfulness and a happy sexual relationship, on a list of what makes a marriage work.

But conservative estimates, the scientists say, indicate women take on the lion’s share (about two-thirds) of household chores.

How chores work

The preliminary results of the new study are based on focus groups of college students, as well as interviews with married couples and survey results. For the focus sessions, the scientists split a total of 33 undergraduate students into five groups and video recorded them discussing domestic-labor issues.

When asked about chore duties that they had as kids, “the females remember that they did more domestic labor than did their brothers,” said co-researcher Jess Alberts of the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University. “The males remember it as being very equally divided.”

Several past studies also show “what is perceived as equality among men usually is not equality,” Caldwell told LiveScience. “Even in couples who perceive that they are distributing household chores evenly, usually women do more than men.”

The students didn’t envision a brighter future, either. “A lot of the women in the focus groups talked about wanting to have an equitable division of household labor,” co-researcher Angela Trethewey, also of the Hugh Downs School, but “anticipated that they weren’t going to have that when they got married.”

This view of a lopsided future could stem from the labor imbalance seen under their parents’ roofs.

“With no exceptions, they revealed that their mothers did all the household labor even if they worked full-time; the fathers did the outside work,” Alberts said.

Division of labor

Whether one partner or the other takes on dish-cleaning, for instance, is partly based on that person’s threshold for messiness.

For instance, if “Ted” is irked as soon as the trash in the wastebasket approaches the rim, while it takes a mass outpouring of garbage to move “Jenny,” Ted will get trash duty.

Over time, the person who completes the chore will become expert, and the other partner will see that chore as “hers” or “his.” Even more, no “thank you’s” or other expressions of gratitude get exchanged since that person is just doing his or her job.

Simple thank you

Alberts and Trethewey also asked subjects, including married partners and students living in roommate situations, whether they appreciated the chores done by those with whom they lived. While most said they felt gratitude, they didn’t relay these feelings to their partners, assuming “he or she just knows.”

Results also showed individuals who felt appreciated by their partners had less resentment over any imbalance in labor and more satisfaction with their relationships than other study participants did.

“One of the things that can destroy a relationship is when you have small resentments that build up over time,” Caldwell said. “And even small expressions of gratitude can make a significant difference.”

Tipping the scales

Finding a way to balance the home-duty scales is especially critical, the scientists say, in contemporary relationships where both partners tend to work outside the home, often for long hours. Husbands and wives who burn the oil all day at work are exhausted when they get home, and housework is the last thing they want to do.

The researchers found that simple actions can increase fairness and gratitude in households.

For individuals who do the “lion’s share” of housework, they suggest these strategies:

  • Avoid repeatedly performing a task you don’t want to “own.”
  • Communicate to your partner when you feel a task should be performed, rather than waiting for your partner to notice, for instance, the mounting laundry pile.
  • Express appreciation for work your partner does, even if the work doesn’t meet your standards.

For individuals who are doing less than their fair share of chores, the researchers suggest:

  • Perform tasks before they become necessary.
  • Stick to a schedule for specific chores.
  • Be mindful of the work your partner does and remember to express gratitude.

Both partners can:

  • Write down a list of your tasks. Then, switch lists (and tasks) for a week or month to better understand your partner’s contributions.
  • Understand that each partner has a different threshold for household chores so you can address your partner in a calmer, less accusing way.
Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.