Equal Partnership in Marriage

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The Family: A Proclamation to the World teaches that fathers and mothers have specific, God-ordained responsibilities within an equal partnership, with neither husband nor wife seeking to dominate the other.

When partners in a marriage value equality, they see each other as equals, treat each other with respect, consider each other’s needs, and support one another. Equal partners agree on goals together and work as a team to achieve these goals. They show equal commitment to the relationship and provide mutual support and nurturing. Each values the other’s work life as highly as his or her own, even if that work life doesn’t include employment outside the home.

Most couples say they prefer an equal partnership, but studies show that few couples live up to their rhetoric. In most marriages, women do an unfair share of household tasks and the majority of child care, regardless of whether they work outside the home or not. Specifically, women do two or three times as much housework as men. Mothers spend 3 to 5 hours actively involved with their children for every hour that fathers spend. Men, on the other hand, have traditionally had more power in decision making.

Is it worth working toward an equal partnership? Research suggests the answer is yes.

Benefits of Equal Partnership

An equal partnership benefits marriages as a whole and benefits husbands and wives individually.

Happier marriages. Equal partnership fosters closeness between husband and wife, resulting in a stronger and happier marriage. Spouses feel better about themselves and each other, which makes them more likely to share their thoughts and feelings. This greater emotional intimacy leads to greater physical intimacy, an important element of a happy marriage. Couples with an equal partnership also report more stability in their marriage, less conflict, less dependency, and less resentment. Researcher John Gottman found that husbands who accept their wives' influence are  four times less likely to divorce or have an unhappy marriage. 

Benefits to men. Men benefit emotionally from equal partnership because there is greater openness and they feel better about their marriage. They also benefit from the greater physical intimacy that comes with equal partnership. Physical intimacy improves physical health and reduces stress. Men in happy marriages also are more productive at work because they are less distracted by concerns at home.

Benefits to women. The closer communication and emotional intimacy in an equal partnership greatly benefit women. Research shows that having an equal say in decision making is the most important contributor to wives’ perception of their marriages as happy and satisfying. Wives are happier when their husbands appreciate them for the work they do in the home and when their husbands are copartners in home matters. They feel better about themselves, are less angry or depressed, feel their relationship is more fair, and are more happy with their marriage.

Ideas for Creating an Equal Partnership

All couples can do more to work toward creating an equal partnership. The following suggestions center on housekeeping, child care, and decision making.

  • Share more routine household tasks. There are two different kinds of housework, "occasional" and "routine." Occasional jobs, like household repairs, yard work, and paying bills, don’t have to be done every day and can be done just about anytime. Routine housework, on the other hand, like cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and washing dishes, is more time consuming and must be done regularly and repeatedly. Most people, male or female, find these routine jobs dull and tedious. In general, women do more than their share of routine housework. When men are willing to pick up more of these routine tasks rather than relegating most of them to women, they help create a more equal partnership.
  • Work as a team. Wives who are dissatisfied with the division of labor in the home often say they feel lonely and lack companionship. When wives and husbands work together as a team, without hierarchy or a "me helping you do your work" attitude, marital happiness increases. Do dishes together. Attack the front room together with one person dusting while the other vacuums. Wash the car together and throw in a sudsy water fight. Set aside time once a month to do a special job as a family, such as planting a garden, cleaning out the garage, or washing windows. Working as a team makes the job go faster, and it’s more fun.
  • Avoid "gatekeeping." Researchers have coined the term "gatekeeping" for behavior that prevents men and women from working as team on household tasks and child care. For example, some husbands insist that only they know how to mow and trim the lawn properly, closing the gate on wives or children who might enjoy that chore. For women, gatekeeping can be especially complex because management of the home is so central to their identity. A woman who believes housekeeping is primarily "women’s work," for example, might be hesitant to share that role. She bases her identity largely on how she thinks others view her housekeeping and mothering, so if her husband tries to contribute she might feel a threat to her self-respect and identity. A woman with these beliefs who then shares the housekeeping role equally with her husband may feel she is neglecting her family role and may experience guilt, regret and ambivalence. She might not voice her feelings but instead will close the gate in subtle ways, such as holding to rigid housekeeping standards. If her husband tries to do his share of household chores, she may redo what he’s done or criticize and demean his efforts. He then gives up, giving her back her exclusive domain.
  • To reduce gatekeeping, meet together as a couple (include children where appropriate), make a detailed list of all the household chores, and decide on an arrangement for sharing housework that works for everyone. Make assignments, demonstrate and train as necessary, and set up a time to review how things are going. Have reasonable standards and give every family member the freedom to live up to those standards in his or her own way.
  • Talk about how you divide up housework. Take the time to talk about how chores are divided up and how each feels about the equality of the division. Express appreciation, listen sympathetically, and make decisions together. These actions will build a sense of fairness in your marriage, which in turn will make your marriage stronger and happier.
  • Typically wives are much more personally invested in care of home and family. They also are more affected if the arrangement is not equal. Research suggests men are relatively unaffected by the division of household labor. Thus it’s usually up to wives to initiate discussion about rearrangement of housework if they feel it’s unfairly divided. A husband committed to an equal partnership will look for signals of increased stress in his wife that could be a result of her taking on more than her share of home and family management.
  • Express appreciation. Everyone needs to feel appreciated for the things they do. Family scholars note that when couples argue about domestic work, it is seldom over who does what. More often it is over feeling unappreciated for one’s efforts. Most spouses disagree about who does what and how much. Typically wives think they do more than their husbands say they do, and husbands think they do more than their wives give them credit for. To help ease these differences, express appreciation for what your spouse does do.
  • Avoid making important decisions independently. Marriages are happier for both husbands and wives when each has an equal say in important decisions, such as where the family lives, how to rear the children, and how money is spent. Don’t make these important decisions without fully discussing them with your spouse. In the financial area, some couples set an amount of money above which they won’t spend without first consulting the other.
  • Share child care responsibilities. Children benefit when both fathers and mothers are actively involved in their lives. Research shows that mothers and fathers have independent effects on their children, so when only one parent is actively involved the child misses out. For instance, mothers are more likely than fathers to act as a child’s social coach, helping them learn how to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Fathers more than mothers tend to play rough-and-tumble with their children. Children need both of their parents—let them have you.

Written by Adrian Selle, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.


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