Live-in couples follow traditional roles in housework chores
Working-class couples that buck convention and live together rather than marry take on traditional roles when it comes to housework, researchers say.
According to co-author Sharon Sassler from Cornell University, cohabiting women do a disproportionate share of the housework, even when the women work and the men don't - and even when the women want to share the housework more equally.
"When men aren't working, they don't see domestic labour as a means of contributing. In fact, they double down and do less of it, since it challenges their masculinity," Sassler said.
"But when men earn more, women - who are almost all working, too - feel obliged to contribute in some way to maintaining the household, generally by cooking and cleaning," she said.
Even where housework was shared somewhat equally, the women tended to supervise the men's chores; as a result, women retained accountability for its performance.
However, the researchers found that not all gender roles go unquestioned among these couples.
Most of the women came to their relationships expecting more equal partnerships. Most men preferred to have a partner who also worked for pay, and about one-third of the couples were actively trying to share equally the burden of making money.
Nonetheless, the men seemed content to reap the benefits of partners who brought in an income without challenging their dominant domestic power positions. In fact, none of the couples equally shared household and financial responsibilities, Sassler said.
"The connection between masculinity and privileges is maintained for many of these men. Almost none of the women who paid the majority of the household bills were awarded the privileges that male providers have traditionally received," she said.
For the study, the researchers interviewed 30 working-class cohabiting couples between ages 19 and 35.
They found the couples fell into three groups: conventional, in which each partner accepts the traditional gender role; contesting, in which one partner (generally the woman) tries to forge a more balanced arrangement, though often unsuccessfully; and counter-conventional, in which the female partner often provides financially and still must perform most household labour.
The research shows that it's tough to change traditional gender roles even among people living together, who ostensibly might be trying to undo the conventional roles of a male breadwinner and female homemaker, Sassler said.
Given that the majority of marriages are preceded by a period of cohabitation, the study suggests that living together sets the stage for re-creating unequal gender roles. The institutionalization of gender roles that disadvantage women is evident even in informal relationships, Sassler said.
"What's the final frontier of gender equality? Who cleans up," she added.
The study has been published in Qualitative Sociology.