Cross Country Checkup

What straight couples can learn from same-sex couples when it comes to chores

Studies suggest that gay and lesbian couples tend to be more egalitarian about who scrubs the tub and who buys the groceries — and it often comes down to openness and 'active negotiation'.

Better communication means a more equal division of labour, says psychology professor

When gender is 'neutralized,' says psychologist Melanie Brewster, people split tasks based what they're comfortable with. (Shutterstock)

During her research in sexuality and gender studies, Melanie Brewster has encountered plenty of frustrated couples.

And if there's one thing many same-sex couples could teach straight ones, she says, it's how to divvy up the seemingly mundane tasks of housework.

"When gender is neutralized as a factor in relationships, people tend to divide household chores either by interest or by who's better at a certain task," said Brewster, a psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Columbia University in New York City.

The increased participation of women in the workforce has been one of the main social revolutions in Canada over the past 40 years.

But it has resulted in increasingly heated battles over who does what around the home, with women left picking up the slack.

Melanie Brewster is licensed psychologist and a psychology professor at Columbia University in New York City. (Submitted by Melanie Brewster)

Studies by Statistics Canada suggest modern men tend to be far more involved in the domestic sphere than previous generations of fathers and husbands, but mothers still account for nearly two-thirds of all the hours of household work done by Canadian parents.

"Repeatedly, one of the things that makes people very unhappy in their partnerships is feeling like there's a disproportionate burden of domestic labour," said Brewster.

"In working with queer people, it was not a concern that came up quite as much."

Who takes out the trash?

Having surveyed dozens of studies of gay and lesbian couples, Brewster has concluded same-sex couples divide unpaid labour in a more egalitarian way.

Not only do same-sex couples tend to be more committed to equality, she explains, they're better at discussing openly who performs household tasks — and which tasks each partner prefers.

"The fact that you could actually discuss with your partner, 'I would much rather you take out the trash because I'm really sensitive to smells.' Something as simple as that leads to a lot less resentment."

One recent study finds that while same-sex couples are typically egalitarian in splitting household tasks, that shifts when the couple has a child. (Shutterstock)

According to Brewster, there's a more "active negotiation process" between same-sex partners when it comes to household duties. By contrast, she says many straight relationships suffer from persistent, stereotypical assumptions that women are more adept at cleaning and childcare.

"Oftentimes, for patriarchal, sexist reasons, the woman is assumed to be the default person who will take on most of the chores," she said.

"It creates this kind of toxic ecosystem, where nothing really changes."

Closing the chore gap

If the chore gap is to be closed, Brewster suggests both men and women need to understand the powerful effects of socialization around household labour, which can be altered by improving lines of communication.

"Even very feminist, liberal men who really would like to be good, equal partners in their straight relationships are not very good at this," she said.

Brewster says women often express concerns about "nagging," a fear that if they continually ask their partner to do chores, it will create resentment and strain the relationship.

Brewster admits it's difficult for any couple to achieve a perfect split on domestic duties. (Shutterstock)

Another common refrain is that women have more rigid expectations about cleanliness or child rearing.

"Women are socialized to not express their needs and ask for what they want ... and a lot of women also say, 'It's easier for me to just do it myself'," said Brewster.

Brewster notes it's important to be practical about domestic chores. Recent research indicates that when gay and lesbian couples have a child, one partner often has higher earnings, and one a greater share of household chores and child care.

In the end, Brewster says it's "not realistic" to expect a 50-50 split of household labour in every relationship.

"If one person works really late, they probably should not be the one that has to make dinner every night," she said.

It leads to all parties being a little bit happier, when it works out well."

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this story stated that Melanie Brewster counselled couples. In fact, she has primarily worked with couples for research purposes.
    May 13, 2019 4:31 PM ET

About the Author

Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of CBC Radio One's Cross Country Checkup and a correspondent for CBC's The National. He reported from Vancouver for over 15 years, and is now based in Toronto. During a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 2011, he created a guide for journalists called Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.

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