The Marital Dynamics of Conflict over the Division of Labor

By Kluwer, Esther S.; Heesink, Jose A. M. et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, August 1997 | Go to article overview

The Marital Dynamics of Conflict over the Division of Labor


Kluwer, Esther S., Heesink, Jose A. M., Van de Vliert, Evert, Journal of Marriage and Family


The division of labor as a source of conflict is a concern for many couples. This study goes beyond the mere prediction of the amount of marital conflict by scrutinizing the relationship between spouses' discontent with the division of labor, their conflict interaction patterns, and subsequent outcomes. In addition, it aims to explain the relationship between wives' discontent with the division of labor and their conflict avoidance by looking at the moderating effect of spouses' gender role ideology. A survey of 494 Dutch couples showed that constructive and destructive conflict outcomes were predicted by spouses' discontent with the division of labor via marital interaction. The wife's discontent with housework was positively related to wife-demand/husband-withdraw interaction, which, in turn, predicted destructive conflict outcomes. Constructive conflict outcomes were predicted by mutually integrative interaction, which was, in turn, predicted by lower levels of discontent with the division of labor. Finally, traditional wives and wives with traditional husbands were more inclined to avoid conflict about the division of labor-despite their discontent than egalitarian wives and wives with egalitarian husbands.

Key Words: conflict avoidance, conflict outcomes, division of labor, gender role ideology, interaction patterns, marital conflict.

In the past decades, an overwhelming amount of research has addressed the division of labor between men and women, in general, and between husbands and wives, in particular. (See Ferree, 1991; Kalleberg & Rosenfeld, 1990; Menaghan & Parcel, 1990; Spitze, 1988; Thompson & Walker, 1989, for reviews.) In their attempt to explain task allocation, researchers have taken various theoretical perspectives. A resource approach argues that resources such as income, occupational status, education, and time are exchanged for domestic labor (e.g., Blood & Wolfe, 1960; Coverman, 1985; see also Deutsch, Lussier, & Servis, 1993). The effects of structural factors-personal and family characteristics-have been addressed extensively in the literature on the labor distribution (e.g., Barnett & Baruch, 1987; Biernat & Wortman, 1991; Cowan & Cowan, 1987). In addition, a model of gender role ideology asserts that beliefs about and attitudes toward gender roles are responsible for the division of domestic work (e.g., Baruch & Barnett, 1981; Deutsch et al., 1993; Greenstein, 1996; Huber & Spitze, 1981). Recently, a life course perspective has focused on the implications of the timing, sequencing, and duration of life events such as marriage and childbearing for task allocation (e.g., Avioli & Kaplan, 1992; Pittman & Blanchard, 1996).

All of these perspectives conceptualize the division of labor as an outcome rather than an interpersonal process of dividing labor. The implicit assumption seems to be that the division of labor is based on a static agreement between spouses (Pittman, Solheim, & Blanchard, 1996). Pittman et al. accurately note that prior research has failed to recognize that housework is actively negotiated between spouses on a continuous basis (cf. Greenstein, 1996). They state that "the time is ripe for focusing specifically on the 'how' of the negotiation of housework" (p. 467).

We propose a perspective that concentrates on marital dynamics in order to understand couples' construction of gender roles. Gender theory argues that interpersonal interaction is how gender roles are produced and maintained in everyday life (Potuchek, 1992; Thompson & Walker, 1995; West & Zimmerman, 1987). Changes in gender roles go hand in hand with interpersonal conflict over appropriate role expectations (cf. Ferree, 1990; Gerson & Peiss, 1985; Scanzoni, 1978). Indeed, the division of labor as a manifestation of gender roles appears to be a source of marital distress and conflict (Kluwer, Heesink, & Van de Vliert, 1996). …

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