11/17/2010 09:01 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Can Marital Bliss Be Found in a Mop and Bucket?

In one of my Marriage Enrichment Seminars, the subject of domestic chores came up. The room suddenly became animated. One woman complained that her husband, an electrical engineer, didn't know how to use the dishwasher. He shot back with, "Really, honey? Like the way you don't know how to use the lawnmower, yet you can drive your sporty six-speed stick?"

I've observed that the division of household tasks is a topic that creates considerable strife between partners. The seminar couple above is a perfect example. Oftentimes, though, the issue isn't about who does the dishes or the laundry. Those are external symptoms. The underlying issues -- which can be costly from a happiness perspective -- are about fairness, equity, respect, and appreciation. Both partners want to feel like a team, and both want kudos for their hard work. But, how do we measure equity and fairness when it comes to home labor? If both partners participate in the upkeep of the home, but in different ways, shouldn't they both be appreciated? And yet, is doing the dishes every day equal to a once-a-week lawn mowing job? For the wife in the above scenario, the answer was apparently no.

In my long-term study of married couples, those couples who feel as though they are working together for the management of the house and that the division of tasks is fair are the happiest couples over time. This is especially important for wives and how they see the marriage. In a very telling finding from my marriage study, when wives perceive equity and fairness in tasks around the home, they report being happier and more content in their marriages.

Housework Means More Sex.
You've no doubt read one of the many articles lately about the fact that men enjoy more frequent sex when they do more housework. There have been a number of studies that reconfirm this. The gist is this: Seeing her man work around the home is a powerful aphrodisiac for a woman. And it makes sense. After all, a man who invests time and sweat equity in the kids and home is signaling to his mate, on a very primal level, that he cares about her, wants to help her, and that the home is important to him too.

Doing the Work Reduces Conflict. A study published in Social Science Quarterly found that when working spouses got outside help with household chores and caregiving to relieve stress, marital conflicts increased. The researchers theorized that participating in the upkeep of the home and caregiving of the children helps partners feel more committed to each other and to the family.

Sharing the Work Leads to Happiness. Sharing domestic chores and responsibilities, such as childcare, also reduces stress and is positively associated with relationship happiness. When the happiest wives in my study were asked, "How much does your husband help in childcare responsibilities?" more than three quarters of them (78 percent) said "a lot" compared with only 50 percent of the other wives.

Division of Labor Does Not Have to Be Equal. The housework doesn't have to be divided equally between you and your partner; it just has to be divided equitably, as seen by each spouse. In other words, each member should feel that their share of household responsibilities is fair. Maybe the wife does more of the shopping and cooking, but she is fine with that because he brings in more income, and that helps to pay for a weekly cleaning service. And of course, the meaning can differ from one couple to another about what that fair division might be. For one couple, it might be seen as fair for the wife to do the laundry, dishes, cooking, cleaning, and childcare, while the husband does all the grocery shopping, household repair, and yard work. For another couple, fairness is 50-50 in all household responsibilities.

Strategies for Her -- Don't judge; be specific.
If you're a woman and you want your partner to help around the house, let him do what he does, even if it isn't perfect. If you criticize him for not doing a task like you do it, he'll lose the motivation to help you and withdraw from you and the relationship. So he uses the wrong size baggie when he packs the cookies in their lunch bag. It's okay! So he puts the knives in the fork compartment in the drawer when he unloads the dishwasher. It's not the end of the world! Also, don't expect him to remember everything you want him to get at the grocery store without a list. Make a very specific list of the groceries you'd like him to buy at the store. Tell him the exact time he needs to pick up your daughter at soccer practice. Write down the specific cold remedy flavor the kids actually don't mind taking when he heads out to the drugstore.

Strategies for Him -- Offer often; find jobs. If you're a man, remember that you should continue to ask your partner if you can help with household chores, even if she consistently says "No, thanks." The problem arises when you stop asking if you can help, even if she tells you she doesn't need your help. Also, remember that there are many, many tasks around the house. If she's doing the laundry or the dishes, make sure you help and perform other tasks such as taking out the garbage, yard work, grocery shopping, or car repairs.

Since divvying up household chores is a hot button topic for so many couples, I encourage partners to discuss this issue with each other even before they get married or live together. Once you arrive at a division of household chores that feels fair, a new sense of harmony will settle over your relationship.