Irreconcilable differences at the end of the day: Men, women and housework

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Men, it’s your health and happiness or hers. Women, it’s your health and happiness or his. At the end of the day, if there’s housework to be done (and there’s always housework to be done) and you’re both employed (as almost 52% of married couples with children younger than 6 are), there’s only one winner.

Grim, yes. But that is the finding of a study published recently in the Journal of Family Psychology, and conducted by researchers from the University of Southern California. For a week, the study authors intensively tracked levels of the stress hormone cortisol and the daily activities of 30 dual-earner couples in Los Angeles. With a median age of 41, all couples had least one child between 8 and 10 years old living at home.

Cortisol courses through our bodies daily, helping us gather ourselves for physical and mental challenges. It peaks throughout the day, but toward day’s end, it typically begins dropping — reflecting both our decline in activity as we ready for restorative sleep and the process of mentally “ unwinding.”


Those with chronically high cortisol levels — or whose cortisol levels fail to float downward in the evening — not only feel stressed, they also are vulnerable to a wide range of illnesses, both mental and physical. They even tend to die earlier, studies have shown. So linking cortisol levels with married parents’ end-of-day activities, the authors surmise, should tell us a lot about how our home lives influence our health and happiness.

Their findings: Lots of time spent in household chores at the end of the day keep both husbands’ and wives’ cortisol levels high—no surprise here. But on closer inspection, the researchers observed that a married mother’s cortisol levels will decline most steeply at the end of the day when her husband pitches in with the housework. Unfortunately, a working man’s end-of-day cortisol levels won’t likely dip to recovery levels unless he spends more of his end-of-the-day time relaxing and his female partner spends less time relaxing.

“The second shift is alive and well and it has a cost for women,” said Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, an Ohio State University psychologist who studies the effect of relationship on immune function. The second shift, she added is “certainly not” the same for men, much as things have changed in American society. “Women are still picking up the load,” she added, with possible longterm effects on their health.

With an observer in the home and recording activity of men and women at 10-minute intervals, women appeared to spend about 30% of their time engaged in after-work housework, 18.5% in communication and about 10.6% in leisure activity. Mens’ time was apportioned differently, with about 19% of their home-time spent in leisure activity, 20% spent doing housework and 18.8% communicating.

“Husbands’ greater involvement in leisure and less involvement in housework relative to their wives may benefit husbands’ recovery and detract from wives’ recovery after work,” write the authors. And not just marital happiness, but personal health is at stake here.

“The repercussions of couples’ engagement in everyday household tasks may extend beyond arguments about who’s doing the dishes and who’s flipping through channels,” write USC’s Darby E. Saxbe, UCLA psychologist Rena L. Repetti, and Connecticut College anthropologist Anthony P. Graesch.