Fighting over chores is one of the most common causes of divorce -- but there's an easy way to neutralise the threat

Elnur/ShutterstockDon’t let dishes lead to disaster.
  • A marriage often suffers because a couple is fighting over housework, one survey found.
  • A new paper suggests outsourcing that housework can lead to greater relationship satisfaction.
  • Another option is just not to do some chores at all.

A new working paper from Harvard Business School and the University of British Columbia casually drops this bombshell in its introduction:

“In one nationally representative study of new divorcees in the US, 25% of respondents cited ‘disagreements about housework’ as the number one reason for their divorce; a close third after ‘infidelity’ (40%) and ‘drifting apart’ (35%).”

Um, wow.

The paper goes on to offer a simple solution for any couple on the verge of a permanent split – or even just on the verge of tearing their hair out – because of housework-related conflict: Pay somebody else to do it.

The paper, which was highlighted recently in The New York Times, describes a series of studies, encompassing a total of 3,000 participants who were either married or living with their partner in a serious relationship.

The key finding is that couples who spend money to save time – think hiring a house cleaner or sending out the laundry – are more satisfied with their relationships than couples who don’t spend money this way.

One study suggests this link is causal – that outsourcing chores can make a relationship happier.

Interestingly, it’s not the freedom from doing chores per se that causes the bump in relationship satisfaction. Instead, the research suggests that couples who outsource chores wind up spending more quality time together. Spending money to save time also appeared to protect couples from the negative impact of relationship conflict.

The researchers found that spending money to save time works best when your life stressors are controllable – like if you have a lot of dirty clothes and not a lot of time to wash them. If your stressors are out of your control – like if a friend is ill – you’d do better to spend money on an experience, say, tickets to a play.

This new paper builds on previous research, which I covered last year, that found individuals who spend time to save money are happier than those who don’t. That’s true even though most people, given money to spend, would opt to use it on a material purchase.

Indeed, the new research found that the majority of participants surveyed didn’t report spending money to save time.

This research also calls to mind the words of couples therapist Lori Gottlieb, who told Jo Piazza, author of “How to Be Married,” that too many couples try to divide chores perfectly evenly – and that it’s stressful when they can’t do it so easily.

An alternative to outsourcing chores is to leave them undone

To be sure, outsourcing housework – even if that means ordering takeout or hiring a Task Rabbit to assemble furniture – requires being in a financial position to do so.

And if you can’t afford to outsource every chore on the list? Maybe you just shouldn’t do some of them.

In “Drop the Ball,” Tiffany Dufu writes that she and her husband use the MEL, or the Management Excel List. One of the most important categories on the list was things that wouldn’t get done for a period of time – like cleaning the car or putting the laundry away. (Both partners were OK with that.)

Ideally, you’d be able to spend time with your partner in a pristine home, while cooking dinner together from scratch and laughing because it’s all so fun. But that isn’t always reality.

It all comes down to what makes you most comfortable. Can you tolerate a mildly rusty bathtub? Can you deal with someone cleaning your mildly rusty bathtub for you while you take a walk in the park with your partner?

Your inclination might be to answer “no,” and that’s ok, but remember you might not know your future self as well as you think you do.

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