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Married men do less housework than live-in boyfriends

Want your man to help out around the house?

Don't marry him.

A study of more than 17,000 people in 28 countries confirms what weary wives have long suspected: Married men do less housework than live-in boyfriends.

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Even among couples who profess egalitarian views, says researcher Shannon Davis, a sociologist at George Mason University in Virginia, married men are less likely to clean a toilet or fold laundry - and their spouses are picking up the slack.

"We find it's not that easy to turn egalitarian beliefs into egalitarian behaviour in marriage," Dr. Davis said.

On average, married men do one hour less of housework each week than live-in boyfriends, according to the study published in September's issue of the Journal of Family Issues.

Over all, men do about nine hours of housework a week and women do 21 hours. The study relies on data collected in 2002 by the International Social Survey Program.

Dr. Davis theorizes that the chore gap stems from deeply ingrained traditional notions about gender roles in marriage - namely, the idea that housekeeping is woman's work.

"We suspect this is really about marriage having a different meaning than cohabitating," Dr. Davis says. "There may be a traditionalizing effect."

Polly, a florist in Southern Ontario who asked that her full name be withheld to preserve marital harmony, knows what that traditionalizing effect feels like. She nicknamed her husband Shrek and Old Silverback for his resistance to the domestic arts.

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"He really doesn't know what housework is," Polly says. "He was on his best behaviour prior to moving in [after the wedding]and a short interlude after. Something just got lost after about five years; it was like an earthquake shift."

She knows he's capable of cleaning - his garage is neatly organized and spotless. And sometimes she plots revenge and curses June Cleaver while scrubbing the tub. But mostly she accepts the housework imbalance.

"I do love him, but he is high-maintenance for sure," Polly says, noting he grew up in the 1950s. "I hope the younger generation starts with a fighting chance. Moms, teach your boys to cook, clean and be gentlemen!"

Men are increasingly shouldering more of the housework, at least in Canada. Men spent 2.5 hours a day on housework in 2005, according to Statistics Canada, up from 2.1 hours in 1986, while women's housework load shrank to 4.3 hours from 4.8 hours over the same period.

That's good news, because fair division of household labour matters a lot, according to a survey released last month by Washington-based Pew Research Center. People rank "sharing of household chores" third on a list of ingredients for a happy marriage, right after good sex and before adequate income.

Housework is a top cause of marital tension, according to Toronto couples counsellor Karen Hirscheimer.

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"They often feel silly bringing it up, but it is a big deal," Ms. Hirscheimer says. Dirty dishes or towels on the bathroom floor may spark a fight, she says, but the real issues are what those dishes and towels represent: fairness, respect and the balance of power in a relationship.

"Nobody wants to be taken advantage of or be made to feel their time is less important," Ms. Hirscheimer says.

Of course, she notes, "fair" and "equal" division of housework are not the same thing. A husband who skimps on the housework, she says, "may feel he's contributing in other ways: He's coaching the kids' sports team or putting in extra time at the office.

"I'm not siding with him," she adds hastily. "It's just a possible explanation."

Another explanation, she speculates, is that live-in boyfriends are on their best behaviour. After marriage, the housecleaning honeymoon is over.

Ms. Hirscheimer says women can't ignore their own role in the division of household labour.

"Perhaps women are doing a much better job requiring it with their boyfriends than with their husbands," she says. "There's a saying: People do what they can get away with."

Cleaning house

Dividing up housework duties is a common source of marital tension, according to couples counsellor Karen Hirscheimer. She offers some tactics for bridging the chore gap:

Schedule a time to talk. Don't negotiate who should scrub the toilet as you're running out the door or in the midst of a fight; sit down and talk calmly.

Acknowledge your own part in the current setup. Whether you like it or not, you participated.

Try to understand your partner's perspective. Maybe he grew up in a household where his mother expressed her love by picking up everyone's dirty socks. You don't have to do the same, but it helps to understand.

Make a plan, the more explicit the better. Draw up a schedule and a contract - make it clear.

Try to stick to your agreement, but cut your partner some slack if he's having a bad week.

"There is a difference between being equal and being fair." Aim for fair.

Rebecca Dube

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