Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the gender disparity in romantic relationships has grown even wider, driven by the changing household needs that came with school cancellations, disrupted child care, lockdowns and the transition to working from home. Trends in family dynamics can be hard to track, but this tectonic shift was obvious: American women have exited the workforce at a disturbing rate, with approximately 493,000 more women than men quitting their jobs.
Now many households find their routines changing again, as some people return to the office and as schools stabilize into a “new normal.” If there were ever a time to buck historical precedent around relationship roles, it’s now.
Americans can catch up to their own values: Pew Research Center found in a survey last year that 91 percent of Americans say gender equality is important. And yet the average American mom spends six more hours each week on child care and eight more hours on housework than the average dad. And when it comes to carrying the “mental load” of running a life together, one partner in a heterosexual couple, generally the woman, often does far more.
Outdated gender norms and subtle biases dictated for too long who will fix the leaky faucet and who will coordinate playdates, who will keep track of oil changes and who will schedule dental appointments.
With lockdowns in spring 2020, we saw that the entire structure of our daily lives can change. Now, as we adapt to the COVID-19 era, couples should seize this chance to create a division of labor deliberately, to structure roles around what they each enjoy, are good at and care more about.
Science can’t tell us who should take out the garbage, but one key finding from decades of research is that successful couples do make decisions about who does what, rather than just stumbling along.
In interviewing more than a hundred people about their relationships – a diverse sample of men and women in heterosexual and same-sex relationships – we asked: “How did you decide who does what in your relationship?”
To our surprise, most people, especially those in heterosexual marriages, didn’t have much of an answer. Many would eventually stammer out something like, “I guess we just sort of fell into these roles by accident.”
We started to call this the “wing it” approach. Even when the outcome varied from 1950s gender roles, it seemed to be a fluke. As one man we interviewed put it: “I’m the toothbrush guy with our daughter. I have no idea why that happened. But 90 percent of the time, I’m the guy.”
The appeal of winging it is obvious: It’s easy. You get to skip over a lot of introspection and difficult conversations. But this leaves modern couples in a state of role confusion, where it’s often unclear who’s supposed to do the dishes or plan out the social calendar or make sure that each kid has two clean masks in their backpack for school.
That confusion entrenches the gender gap. It tends to create a vacuum of domestic responsibility, in which someone has to jump in to make sure the insurance bill gets paid or the auto registration gets renewed to keep the car street legal. The more uncertain roles become, the more the disparity grows. That’s why, when schools and day cares closed because of COVID-19, it was largely women who quit their jobs to deal with the chaos.
Role confusion also creates drama and conflict, fueling a perennial battle over fairness. When you’re not sure who’s doing what, you might find yourself keeping a mental tally of all your energy-draining contributions. Social scientists have found that you would also tend to underestimate much of what your partner is doing. The result is resentment, conflict and the constant feeling that things aren’t fair. That’s what happens when we “wing it.”
To follow the other path – to intentionally divide up responsibilities – will take work. Having the conversations might not be sexy. But it might bring you greater clarity, equality and connection, which sounds way more romantic than fighting constantly or keeping a begrudging mental tally.
Nate Klemp and Kaley Klemp are the authors of “The 80/80 Marriage: A New Model for a Happier, Stronger Relationship.”