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The pressure cooker of housework

Whether you spend thousands or opt for a cut-price affair, weddings can be great fun. But after the confetti, champagne and congratulations from friends comes the day-to-day reality of living with your new spouse.

As the weeks turn into months and those turn into years, your blissful union may start to develop a few cracks: long hours in stressful jobs may mean you don’t see that much of each other, or his irritating habits and discarded socks may simply start to grate. Marriages end for different reasons – sometimes couples realise they just aren’t as compatible as they thought they were or just grow tired of each other  and decide to go their separate ways.

Just as often only one person comes to this conclusion and when that happens the other is in for a rude awakening.

But in my experience as a divorce lawyer, the number one biggest fuel for divorce is failure to share the load. Time after time I have seen couples fall out over who does what in the home. Almost every woman now works and only a few opt to become to become full time mothers after children arrive on the scene. When working mothers return home after a long day at the office they expect to have to do their fair share of childcare and household chores, but they do not expect to have to do it all, or even most of it.

Social attitudes have changed enormously over recent decades and the old sexist status quo – epitomised by the figures of Don and Betty Draper from popular TV drama Mad Men – now seems a historical curio, but somehow many women are still  expected to do it all. The resulting resentment can kill a marriage. I have seen this happen more than once.

Women who work regularly at night – for example policewoman – are in my experience particularly vulnerable to such pressures.

This is a tricky area. Every couple will come to their own arrangements as to who does what. In my own case, for example, my husband hates the way I shop for food – he says I don’t buy enough basics – and so ends up doing a lot of it himself. The brother and sister-in-law of our web editor came to an arrangement in which, while both were working, she did all the cooking while he tackled other chores around the house. Every couple is different but the fundamentals of fairness are universal.

So I could not help but take a sharp intake of breath when I saw the following headline on the Telegraph website. “Couples who share the housework are more likely to divorce, study finds”. The story below  turned out to be a report of a survey conducted in Norway. The headline-generating key finding? That divorce rates are supposedly 50 per cent higher amongst couples where housework is shared equally than amongst more old-fashioned families where women still do most of the chores.

On the face of it, this appears be completely counter-intuitive. Why on earth would women burdened with the majority of the housework be less rather than more likely to divorce their husbands? Is this, as the journalist suggests, a possible “slap in the face for gender equality”?

As it happens, no. Dig a little deeper and the real issue quickly becomes clear.

Thomas Hansen, co-author of the study, makes a few cautious suggestions as to what lies behind the 50 per cent figure.

“Maybe it’s sometimes seen as a good thing to have very clear roles with lots of clarity … where one person is not stepping on the other’s toes. There could be less quarrels, since you can easily get into squabbles if both have the same roles and one has the feeling that the other is not pulling his or her own weight.”

Hmmm, perhaps. But I suspect tired career women arguing with their husbands about whose turn it is to do the washing up might not feel the same.

Mr Hansen quickly hits the bullseye however:

“Modern couples are just that, both in the way they divide up the chores and in their perception of marriage…In these modern couples, women also have a high level of education and a well-paid job, which makes them less dependent on their spouse financially.”

In other words – couples who share the housework are more likely to see marriage as provisional and feel free to divorce if they are unhappy. That’s more like it.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known family law solicitors and divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. Family Solicitors says:

    I don’t understand this archaic nature that forces people to pair off and suffer under the same roof for years. I understand the meaning and benefits of a relationship, it’s just this, pair off, live under the same roof for life rule that bothers me.

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