Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Great Expectations? Working- and Middle-Class Cohabitors' Expected and Actual Divisions of Housework

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Great Expectations? Working- and Middle-Class Cohabitors' Expected and Actual Divisions of Housework

Article excerpt

Expectations for intimate relationships have changed over the past few decades. Not only are individuals more likely to prefer equal partnerships in which they share responsibilities for both paid and unpaid labor (Gerson, 2010; Pedulla & Thébaud, 2015), but they are also more likely to live together outside of marriage (Kennedy & Bumpass, 2008; Schoen, Landale, & Daniels, 2007). Today, nearly 60% of young women have cohabited with a romantic partner (Schoen et al., 2007).

Despite these changes, some norms remain deeply entrenched. Although they desire egalitarian unions, young people note that achieving such relationships is difficult, if not impossible, especially as it relates to sharing domestic labor (Gerson, 2010). Not only do young adults fail to find institutional supports for achieving equality (Risman, 2004), but they must also contend with a cultural milieu that reinforces the essentialism of gender differences tied to the division of labor (Brines, 1994; Gager, 1998; Komter, 1989; Tichenor, 2005). A growing body of literature is examining how gender inequality in housework is maintained, focusing on how gender organizes couples' behaviors, interactions, identities, and expectations in ways that reinforce gender conventions and male power and privilege (Ferree, 2010; Komter, 1989; Risman, 2004; Tichenor, 2005) as well as the ways this differs by social class (e.g., Miller & Sassler, 2012; Shows & Gerstel, 2009; Usdansky, 2011).

Most of these studies, nonetheless, focus only on the outcomes of gendered power (e.g., what percentage of the housework each partner does) rather than the process of establishing the division of labor or individuals' feelings about their arrangements. Furthermore, they often examine married couples only. Cohabitation is often discussed as a relationship form that allows couples more freedom to create domestic arrangements with fewer gendered social constraints than those experienced by their married peers (Cherlin, 2004). But it is uncertain how contemporary cohabitors expect to divide domestic labor with their partners, whether their actual arrangements conform to those expectations, and how they react to their divisions.

In this study we expand on the canon of research on gender and domestic labor by using qualitative interview data from 122 working-class and middle-class cohabitors to examine gender and class differences in how power shapes the division of housework. Specifically, we used Komter's (1989) concepts of manifest, latent, and hidden power to examine how individuals reinforce and modify gender norms related to housework. Our findings reveal meaningful and differential experiences by both gender and social class in the ways that power is exercised within intimate unions.


Household divisions of labor have become more egalitarian over time, with women decreasing and men increasing their time spent on housework (Bianchi, Sayer, Milkie, & Robinson, 2012). Nonetheless, research has generally found that married women continue to do more hours of housework than married men, even when they devote similar amounts of time to paid labor and earn as much or more than their partners (Lincoln, 2008). Indeed, even among today's young adults with preferences for egalitarian couplings, progress on the home front has stalled (England, 2010).

A great deal of research on the division of housework in couples has focused on gender ideology, time availability, and relative earnings to account for couples' domestic arrangements (e.g., Domínguez-Folgueras, 2013; Davis, Greenstein, & Marks, 2007). Although all are important factors that contribute to couples' housework divisions, they cannot fully explain women's persistent responsibility for housework. To this end, scholars have drawn attention to gender as an organizing feature of couples. As Ferree (2010) noted, gender is "a social relation characterized by power inequalities that hierarchically produce, organize, and evaluate masculinities and femininities through the contested but controlling practices of individuals, organizations, and societies" (p. …

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