It’s Time to Reset Your Relationship’s Power Dynamics
The pandemic threatens to set gender equality back a generation. Here’s how to temper that in your own home.
All happy couples are alike — or at least, the happiest couples tend to have something in common, which is that they’re either fairly egalitarian or they’re seeking to be.
Relationships with fairer divisions of labor aren’t just happier; they’re also more stable and healthy, more fun, and more intimate. And research has shown that most people would prefer to equally share the labor of work and home — even though, as the past year has laid bare, that’s rarely how things shake out in practice. Women are currently being forced out of the workforce at shockingly high rates, and mothers in particular are now nearing their breaking point after shouldering the brunt of the child care and home schooling responsibilities.
“Prior to Covid, there was stress and resentment between couples about the work at home, but it’s just become untenable now,” says B. Janet Hibbs, a family psychologist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “I’m seeing this all over the place. We’ve dialed things up to 10 then broken off the knob.”
Of course, this unfair division of labor at home isn’t new: Research shows that pre-Covid, women in partnerships with men spent about twice as much time as their male partners doing the unpaid housework, child care, and invisible labor of household management, even when working full time. That dynamic nearly put an end to my own marriage and helped spark Better Life Lab Experiments, an initiative I now run to help couples rethink their divisions of labor.
The good news: Right now, even as gender equity is at such a low ebb, can actually be a prime opportunity for just that. The pandemic may have exacerbated the problem, but with everyone stuck at home much more than they used to be, it’s also the perfect context for figuring out a solution. I talked to psychologists, family therapists, and sociologists who study the gendered division of labor about how couples can use this crisis to reset to a fairer balance of power.
A note to men: It starts with you
Dan Carlson, a sociologist at the University of Utah who studies the gendered division of labor, has advice specifically for men in heterosexual partnerships. “You need to take stock of what is needed in your home — what your children need, what your partner needs — and you need to step in,” Carlson says. “That’s not you being a helper. This is you taking ownership of domestic needs and not waiting to be told to do things.”
Carlson, who spoke to me while caring for his own children as his wife worked, explains that his research has found negative communication — that is, nagging — to be more effective in getting men to pitch in at home than partners asking nicely. But it comes at a cost: Over time, negative communication can wear on both the nagging partner and the relationship quality itself.
To prevent (or reverse) that dynamic, Carlson advises men to take proactive ownership of their share of domestic duties. “Women shouldn’t be responsible for getting men to do more,” Carlson says. “That’s just more emotional labor for women to do. It’s society’s responsibility to get men to do more.”
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Notice and name
Most couples have a (sometimes unspoken) “deal,” Hibbs explains — an understanding of what one partner does and what they can count on the other to do. For most people, that’s broken right now. You can start to mend it by first noticing how the deal has changed and how that’s affecting your relationship.
“We all want to feel understood and cared about. If one partner has made a sacrifice, acknowledge the loss,” Hibbs says. “Name it. Care about it. Tell them how much you appreciate what they’ve done because you know they’ve taken a hit. Then help them figure out how to change it moving forward.” For instance, one of Hibbs’ clients wrote down 50 things she had lost as a result of the pandemic, like time to herself and her ability to focus on work, and then shared it with her family. Having those sacrifices known, named, and cared about builds goodwill and trust, Hibbs says.
Then, to make your new pandemic “deal” explicit, begin by asking, “What do you need?” and “What could I do that would help you?”
The key, Hibbs said, is for both people to be reasonable with their answers and clear with their expectations. Another client of Hibbs’ had asked her husband to make dinner a few times a week but then got angry when he ordered pizza on those nights. If, in your mind, “making dinner” means “making a healthy dinner” or “making dinner out of the groceries in the fridge,” communicate that to your partner as part of the ask and be willing to compromise.
Create a check-in ritual
Feeling like you have a fair division of labor is part of what creates connection and intimacy, say Don and Carrie Cole, therapists and master trainers with the Gottman Institute, a relationship-focused research organization.
To that end, the Coles suggest slowing things down and creating a regular ritual of connection to make sure you’re both on the same page. This can be as simple as setting aside a few minutes every day to check in about what’s bothering each of you.
And when your partner talks, your job is to listen. Carrie says, “When you try to fix the problem, it communicates a sense of disinterest or that you were too stupid to have figured it out on your own.” Instead, partners need to give each other space to think out loud and come up with their own solution or realize there isn’t one and let it go.
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See the bigger picture
Surveys show that men and women would prefer egalitarian relationships. So why are so few heterosexual relationships truly equal? In part, it’s because egalitarianism is not just about what individuals choose. As the pandemic has made even more painfully apparent, structural forces tend to bend men and women toward traditional breadwinner/homemaker gender roles and shape power dynamics in men’s favor.
When couples are aware of these forces, they can make a more conscious effort to counteract them in their own households, says Jessica Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University who has been studying the gendered division of labor during Covid-19.
“Men, too, can be more demanding of support from work,” Calarco notes, “and shifting the culture that penalizes them for taking on care work or household labor.”
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It’s worth noting that some couples have actually become more egalitarian in the crisis. Carlson’s research has found that couples who already strove to be equal are becoming more so, he says, while 10–15% of couples who had a more traditional division of labor at home have moved toward equal sharing. “In some respects, the crisis led couples to band together,” he said.
And many companies and managers who once staunchly resisted remote work are now beginning to plan for permanent flexible work options — a move that could make it easier for both men and women to combine work and family duties during the pandemic and beyond.
These are hopeful signs. Even in the disruption and tragedy of the pandemic, it’s possible for couples to become aware, slow down, create space for communication, and steer a course toward equal partnership.