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How Housework Can Hurt a Relationship

Study: For Women, More Housework Can Mean More Psychological Distress
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 13, 2012 -- If a couple doesn't split household chores fairly, it can add strain -- especially for women, a Swedish study shows.

But the problem goes beyond the list of chores. It's not so much about who does what, as it is about equality within the relationship.

The researchers, based at Sweden's Umea University, studied questionnaires filled out by 723 residents of a mid-sized Swedish industrial town from 1981 to 2007. The questionnaires covered school, work, socioeconomic conditions, and health at ages 21 and 42.

At age 21, both men and women reported roughly the same level of psychological distress (which included restlessness, concentration problems, and anxiety). By age 42, however, women's levels of distress had gone up while the men's had stayed the same.

Feeling Undervalued Leads to Feeling Distressed

For women, a key contributor to that rise in distress was the uneven distribution of domestic work. But there was more to it than that. It all came down to whether the women felt they and their partners were equals.

If women felt a sense of gender inequality in the relationship, they were highly likely to be distressed. But if they reported that they were on an equal footing with their spouse or partner, the risk of distress disappeared, even if they did more than their fair share of the housework.

"The results of this study indicate that it is not only a matter of whether the responsibility for domestic work is equal or not, but also the relational context in which the responsibilities are divided within the couple relationship," the authors write.

Psychologist Jill Weber, PhD, was not involved in the study -- and she's not surprised by the findings.

"It is not the work per se," says Weber, who has a private practice in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. "It's the feeling that the woman is not getting support from her partner. Inequality often translates as a lack of emotional support."

Men in the study were less likely than women to report that gender equality was an issue in their relationships. For them, the notable cause of distress was being in a lower socioeconomic position than their partners. To Weber, this too makes sense.

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