By Daniel L. Carlson, Sarah A. Hanson, & Andrea Fitzroy
Today, both mothers and fathers are expected to play an equal role in child rearing and most couples want this for themselves. Yet, couples’ abilities to achieve equality in childcare remains elusive for numerous reasons, including difficulty arranging and paying for childcare, the absence of supportive families policies like paid parental leave and powerful gender conventions that push mothers into being primary caregivers and relegate fathers to the sidelines of their children’s care. Although couples want to share childcare, this may have negative consequences as numerous studies over the past 30 years have shown that couples who share breadwinning and housework in their relationships face numerous problems, including more relationship conflict, higher risks of divorce, and problematic sex lives. These findings, though, may have become dated as most of this research was conducted in the 1980s and 1990s. Moreover, few studies have examined how childcare arrangements affect couples’ relationships.
To address these issues, we use data from interviews conducted with nearly 500 middle-to-low income couples in 2006. We examine how couples’ childcare arrangements – in other words, how care is split – is related to their relationship satisfaction and conflict, frequency of sexual intercourse, satisfaction with sexual frequency, and quality of sex life. We find that compared to couples where the female partner did the majority of childcare, couples who split it equally reported greater relationship satisfaction, less couple conflict, higher quality sex, and greater satisfaction with the amount of sex they were having although the amount of sex didn’t’ vary. Interestingly, we find that couples where the male partner did the majority of care were very similar to egalitarian couples. They too have higher quality relationships, fought less, and were happier with their sex lives than couples where the women were responsible for the majority of childcare. These differences in relationship outcomes are explained largely by differences in couples’ satisfaction with their childcare arrangements. Satisfaction with childcare is a strong predictor of couples’ relationship quality and sexual intimacy, and overwhelmingly, respondents in couples where the female partner is doing the majority of childcare are least satisfied with their arrangements. Very importantly, all of these patterns applied to both men and women. Indeed, we find few gender differences in the consequences of childcare arrangements. The only difference we observed is that for men, being responsible for childcare led to feelings of lower sexual relationship quality compared to sharing it with their partners. For women, having a male partner who is largely responsible for childcare lead to feelings of higher sexual relationship quality compared to egalitarian arrangements.
Today, the vast majority of individuals desire to share paid and unpaid labor with their partners. Yet, past research has shown that equal shares of paid work threaten relationship quality and stability and that equal shares of unpaid housework undermine sexual intimacy. Recent research suggests this may no longer be the case. For example, a high profile study out of the University of Wisconsin showed that although having a more educated female partner increased the odds of divorce in the past, this is no longer the case, while having the same education level as one’s partner now lowers the risk of divorce.
New research also shows that sexual frequency has been increasing among egalitarian couples and decreasing among couples where women do the majority of household tasks. This study supports and contributes to this emerging narrative about the positive qualities of gender equality in relationships. Moreover, it shows that the positives of gender equality apply to both men and women. It would seem that sharing certain aspects of childcare appears now to be acceptably masculine. Although couples still face unresponsive workplaces and unwilling political structures that had stalled the gender revolution, these results suggest that the promise of the revolution for gender equality may be reinvigorated in the twenty-first century.
Daniel L. Carlson, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University whose research focuses on the causes and consequences of variation in individuals’ family experiences. In addition to the gendered division of labor in couples he also studies family formation processes and life course transitions. Sarah A. Hanson, M.A. is a Ph.D. student in Sociology at Georgia State University. Their main research interests focus on gender, sex, and sexuality and various topics include the intersection of these with pornography, BDSM, relationship satisfaction, and queer social movements. Andrea Fitzroy, M.S. is a Ph.D. student in Sociology at Georgia State University. Her research focus is in gender and sexuality with a specific emphasis in gerontology. Their article “The Division of Child Care, Sexual Intimacy, and Relationship Quality in Couples” can be found in the June 2016 30 (3) issue of Gender & Society here.