Stay-at-home dads have gotten a lot of airtime in the last few years, making it easy to assume that when straight women become breadwinners, their male partners pick up the slack at home. But new research shows that at least for working-class couples, that isn’t really the case — even when women make more money, men still leave the majority of housework to them.
Researchers Amanda J. Miller of the University of Indianapolis and Sharon Sassler of Cornell conducted in-depth interviews with 30 cohabiting but unmarried couples who were working class as defined by their education and income (in most cases, one or both partners had not finished college). They divided the couples into three broad groups: Conventional, where the man was the main breadwinner, even if the woman also worked; Contesting, where at least one of the partners wanted the relationship to be more equal than it was; and Counter-Conventional, where women were the primary earners.
In Conventional relationships, the women tended to do the majority of housework — said one female partner, “I try to take responsibility for a lot of stuff around the house. I even do his laundry…. Sometimes I feel bad because he spends a lot more on us than I do.”
In Contesting couples, it was almost always the woman who was pushing for more equality. And ivision of housework was somewhat more equal than among Conventional couples, regardless of who made more. But men didn’t always respond well to the push to do more around the house — said one, “I just don’t see the dirt usually. I don’t see that it needs to be done.”
But women in Counter-Conventional couples ended up doing just as much housework as women in Conventional ones, even though they were also the breadwinners. Said one woman, “the division of labor is I clean, sometimes he’ll clean if he sees that I’m just really mad or frustrated at him but I basically do all of it to avoid arguments now.”
Why weren’t men in Counter-Conventional relationships stepping up? Miller told BuzzFeed Shift that as men lose economic power, as many unemployed or underemployed men in the study had, “sometimes as a way of keeping a little bit of that masculine privilege, they’ll hold on even stronger at home.” She pointed to research showing that men tend to do less housework after a layoff, not more.
College-educated, middle-class men are changing, she added, and many of them now see equal participation in housework as part of their responsibility as a partner. But she said working-class men, who tend to have more traditional attitudes about gender roles, have yet to follow suit.
Of all the couples in the study, the Conventional ones had the lowest levels of conflict, but that doesn’t mean such a setup is best for everyone. Rather, said Miller, “the best kind of model is one in which people’s beliefs match their behaviors” — and since the Conventional couples generally believed in male breadwinners and female homemakers, they were relatively content. Contesting couples were still struggling to get behavior to match up with beliefs; and in Counter-Conventional couples, while there may have been conflict at the beginning, “the women had essentially given up.”
What the research ultimately shows, said Miller, is “how important it is to talk to your partner before you move in together.” Of the couples she studied, “very few sat down and had a conversation about who was going to do what and when.” And a conversation beforehand can help couples make sure their beliefs and behaviors stay aligned.