Couples who split the dishes are happier and have better sex

Same goes for other household chores, according to new research.

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Here's a reason to share chores.iStock

Consult any parenting forum and you will find a familiar refrain: women lamenting that their husbands let the dishes pile up in the sink until the only glassware left in the cabinets are Señor Frog shot glasses from 2006.

If you have wheedled and begged and cajoled your husband to do the damn dishes, researchers have just discovered something that may finally motivate him: Heterosexual women with partners who help wash the dishes have more satisfying sex, less relationship discord and are happier in their relationship overall.

You heard that right, fellas. Want to really please your wife? Get scrubbing.

And it's not just splitting the dishes that will spruce up your sex life, according to a brief released Tuesday by the Council of Contemporary Families (CCF), a nonprofit that studies family dynamics. Couples who share all chores have the highest marital and sexual satisfaction (and have more sex to boot).

Previous research, using data from 1992 to 1994, had shown that couples who had the most conventional divisions of labor—i.e. she cleans, he doesn’t—had the most and best quality sex. But that’s not true anymore. “When we used 2006 data, we found that if you have an egalitarian division of labor, you have more sex and better sex,” says Amanda Miller, PhD, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Indianapolis and the co-author of a forthcoming paper on the topic to be published later this month, along with Daniel Carlson at the University of Utah and Sharon Sassler of Cornell University.

As for what changed from the early 90s to the early 2000s, Dr. Miller and her colleagues have a couple theories.

First, having a partner who pulls his weight may now be a way to “keep up with the Joneses,” she posits, in much the same way that moms feel the need to pull off Pinterest-worthy birthday parties for their kids. “There’s this increasing pressure on moms to do what we call ‘intensive parenting.’ There’s an expectation now that if you’re not making Mandarin flashcards for your 6-month-old, you’re ‘mom-ing’ wrong. We think the same thing is happening here in terms of relationships,” she explains. “Before there was the expectation that the second shift sucks, but that’s just what you do. When all the other women were doing that too, it didn’t feel so strange. Now, as your friends and neighbors have taken on more egalitarian relationships, it’s especially deleterious when you don’t.”

And it holds true even for couples who aren’t well-off. Miller and her colleagues examined 932 married and cohabitating parents with low and moderate incomes and found a significant increase from 1992 to 2006 in the proportion of couples who share routine housework. The proportion of couples sharing the laundry rose 9 to 21 percent, cooking from 13 to 21 percent, dishwashing from 16 to 29 percent and house-cleaning from 12 to 22 percent. (Editor’s note: That’s still less than a third of couples who split chores evenly, so we’ve got a long ways to go toward equality at home.)

Another reason for the increase? It’s likely that today’s generation of working moms learned a thing or two from watching their own working moms struggle with the second shift. (Raises hand!) “Research shows daughters who had moms who 'did it all' have more liberal gender ideas,” Dr. Miller says.

Interestingly, the impact of sharing a chore also depends on the chore itself. When couples share laundry equally, for example, women reported greater sexual satisfaction, but not greater relationship satisfaction. No other task, however, seemed to have as big an impact as splitting dishes. So just what is it about men doing dishes that make women so happy and, apparently, horny—more so than any other task?

Chores that can be done together, like dishes, meal prep, shopping and cleaning—also seen as the most onerous tasks—may foster a greater sense of teamwork. “Just spending the time together and having a chance to chat and catch up on the day may be leading to the satisfaction,” Dr. Miller says. “I could see where that would make you relationship more satisfying, but I could also see how that makes your sex life more satisfying.”