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Why are women still doing most of the housework?

Thirty years ago, sociologists said we would be dividing household chores fairly by now, but women are still doing far more than men. So how do we achieve equality and happiness at home, asks Rosie Ifould

by Psychologies

‘The crisis point was a bag of socks,’ says Anna, 37. ‘My husband has a blind spot about putting away his laundry; he used to leave it hanging on airers for weeks. I got so sick of asking him to clear it that I put all his clean socks in a carrier bag and dumped it on his side of the bedroom, thinking he’d be forced to put them away. Instead, he just started taking socks from the bag. And it took nearly three months for that bag to disappear from the room. It’s funny now, but that bag nearly broke our relationship.’

Anna realised that, although she and her husband had an equal partnership before they moved in together, slowly things had changed. She’d become the one who changed the sheets, cleaned and did the shopping. ‘I began to think, “why me?”’ she says. ‘We were both working full time, earning roughly the same, so why was I the one rushing home to shop or cook? What did it say about our relationship that he hadn’t even noticed?’

Thirty years ago, sociologists were predicting that by 2015, we’d have gender-equality at home. So why don’t we? Dr Jenny van Hooff, a sociologist from Manchester Metropolitan University, and author of Modern Couples? (Ashgate) studied the domestic arrangements of dual-earner couples without children – the kind you’d expect to have a more equal distribution of household chores. She found that in all but one pair, women were still doing most of it. ‘Even when men were doing housework, they were often acting as helpers,' she says.

But if you want to have a meaningful discussion about changing the balance of power, then recognise it’s a difficult subject that may bring up tricky emotions for both of you. Counselling psychologist Jacqui Marson, author of The Curse Of Lovely (Piatkus, £12.99), has created the BEAR acronym as a useful technique to start with:

B. Breathe first. If you’re tense when you launch into your conversation, the other person will pick up on it and get defensive.

E. Eulogise. Give the other person a genuine piece of praise before laying out what you’re not happy about.

A. Accept that you won’t always be in the right. Take on board what the other person says.

R. Respect each other. Use ‘I’ not ‘you’ statements and avoid blaming the other person.

Setting boundaries can help, experts agree, so each of you has responsibility for specific tasks, and stick to those. For example: you do the dishes, he cleans floors. The key is not to break your agreed rule. ‘When I had the chat with my husband, we decided he’d be in charge of cooking,’ Marson says. ‘Which meant that for a couple of years, I had to eat a lot of steaks and burgers – things I wouldn’t have chosen – but I was determined to stick to our agreement.’

When I heard that story, my first thought was ‘ergh, horrendous, I’d have to cook on some nights,’ and suddenly, my secondary gains were pretty obvious: I might complain about being the one who always cooks, or shops for food, but I get to eat what I want.

There’s an element of learning to let go, of pushing your boundaries a little. If you feel anxious about changing your habits (or have a partner who might take a bit of persuading), Marson is an advocate of the One Per Cent rule – ‘ask yourself, what behaviours could I change slightly – what could I do one per cent differently? Then if that goes OK, you could try doing things five per cent differently, or 20 per cent.’ Perhaps you start by making a pact with yourself not to clean up after anyone else at the weekend, and see how you feel (or if anyone else does the cleaning).

I’m trying my own five per cent experiment at the moment – I’m not vacuuming. As we have a scruffy dog and dark wood floors, this may be more like a 20 per cent experiment. A small rug of dog hairs is forming, I swear, before my very eyes.

But I remember Marson’s words – who is going to die if I don’t vacuum? Answer: no-one. Why does it matter to me? Answer: quite long and complicated, but basically, it comes down to my expectations of being shamed by a particular ‘friend’. What have I got to lose? Answer: so far, absolutely nothing.

More inspiration:

Watch Why we need to stop asking 'can women have it all?' on LifeLabs

Photograph: Corbis

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