Cohabitation and Housework: The Effects of Marital Intentions

By Ciabattari, Teresa | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 2004 | Go to article overview

Cohabitation and Housework: The Effects of Marital Intentions


Ciabattari, Teresa, Journal of Marriage and Family


This study asks how cohabiters' housework patterns vary by their marital intentions. I draw on interactionist theories that view housework as an activity that produces gender and family to hypothesize that cohabiters who are more invested in their relationships will spend more time on housework. Analyzing the 1987-1988 National Survey of Families and Households (N = 348), I find that, controlling for sociodemographic and household differences, men who are least committed to their relationships spend the least time on homework, whereas women's housework time is not affected by marital intentions.

Key Words: cohabitation, division of household labor, gender inequality, housework.

Cohabitation has become an increasingly common living arrangement in the United States. The 2000 Census (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001) counted 5.5 million unmarried heterosexual couples sharing a household; in 1990, there were only 2.9 million (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000). In addition to couples who are currently cohabiting, many have cohabited sometime in the past. In fact, the majority of marriages in the United States, both first marriages and remarriages, now begin with cohabitation (Smock, 2000). For most couples, cohabitation is a relatively short-term arrangement, with about 55% of cohabiting couples marrying and 40% dissolving within 5 years (Bumpass & Lu, 2000). These dissolution rates, however, vary by race; African Americans are more likely than Whites to cohabit as a long-term alternative to marriage (Brown, 2000).

Most research on cohabitation tends to study its patterns and characteristics primarily in relationship to marriage, and much of this research fails to acknowledge differences among cohabiters. For example, Nock (1995) finds that compared to married couples, cohabiters tend to express lower levels of relationship commitment, less relationship satisfaction, and poor quality relations with kin. Brown and Booth (1996), however, find that these differences exist only among cohabiting couples who do not plan to marry their partners. Those who do plan to marry their partners have relationships that look very similar to those of married couples.

Similar to the research on relationship quality, research on housework patterns in cohabitation tends to compare cohabiters with married couples without considering differences among cohabiters (Bianchi, Milkie, Sayer, & Robinson, 2000; Shelton & John, 1993; South & Spitze, 1994). In this article, I revisit the research on cohabitation and housework and ask how cohabiters' marital intentions affect the division of household labor. I find preliminary evidence that cohabiting men who are less invested in their relationships spend less time on housework than men who are more invested, while marital intentions have no effect on cohabiting women's housework time.

COHABITATION AND HOUSEWORK

The research on housework among cohabiters has found two consistent patterns. First, cohabiting women tend to spend less time on housework than married women, about 5 to 6 fewer hours per week (Bianchi et al., 2000; Shelton & John, 1993). This difference persists even after compositional differences, such as the presence of children and employment hours, have been controlled. The second pattern is that even though cohabiting women are spending less time on housework than married women are, they are spending more time than cohabiting men (Gupta, 1999; Shelton & John; South & Spitze, 1994). Gupta finds that in transitioning to and from coresidential unions (cohabitation or marriage), women increase their housework hours when they move in with men and decrease them when they move out, whereas the opposite pattern holds for men. Thus, although the gender gap in housework is smaller in cohabitation than in marriage, it does persist.

Several explanations for these patterns have been offered, some of which may account for differences in housework patterns within cohabitation across marital intentions. …

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