Meet Nate and Angelica. Nate and Angelica are getting married. They’ve planned every detail of the ceremony, and checked all their reservations twice. The vows are written; the honeymoon getaway is booked. Maybe Nate daydreams about surprising Angelica on special occasions; maybe Angelica has her eye on a good preschool for their future children. Their future is set — or is it? What about the more mundane details of married life that are often overlooked?
Will Angelica be the one on kitchen duty, cleaning up after dinner? Will Nate be the one who picks up the kids when Angelica is working late? Will the person who earns less income contribute to the household in other ways, even if they both work 40 hours a week? Often, couples decide these matters based on convenience or preference, not according to a marital master-plan of equal give-and-take. But precisely because the average couple doesn’t analyze the costs and benefits of every chore undertaken, an unfair division of labor may create resentment over time. For example, Angelica may realize Nate only takes their cats for shots once a year, whereas she has to change their kitty litter every day.
Equity theory suggests that that people wish to profit (or break even) in their relationship exchanges (e.g., working a job in exchange for money). When they aren’t getting the benefits they expect, they become upset and end the relationship. But does equity work the same way in romantic partnerships, especially when people are committed to staying long-term? To answer this question, researcher Alfred DeMaris examined the data of approximately 700 married individuals who were interviewed six times between 1980 and 2000.1 These data were selected from a larger longitudinal study on marital quality.2 Longitudinal studies of this sort allow researchers to see how any given person’s answers change over time, as well as how one person responds compared to how another person responds. That is, researchers could learn how Angelica’s marriage changed (or didn’t change) from her newlywed days to her “old married couple” days, as well as how her marriage compares to other couples’ marriages.
The researcher selected individuals for the interview using a random phone-dialing technique, then chose either the husband or the wife at random to respond for the duration of the study. For the current study, the researcher examined only the individuals who had remained married to the same spouse for the full 20-year period or longer.
DeMaris was especially interested in the marital quality of individuals who perceived that they “gave more” to the marriage than their spouses did (subjective underbenefit). Individuals also answered questions about their quantifiable contributions to the household income, hours spent on paid labor and household chores, and their health (objective underbenefit). Finally, the researchers measured marital quality by asking about satisfaction with aspects of the marriage, such as spousal understanding and the sexual relationship.
For both husbands and wives, perceiving they “gave more” to the marriage lowered marriage quality. In contrast, reporting greater objective contributions increased men’s marital quality. Women were far more likely to think they “gave more” than their spouses did, and looking at their objective contributions, it appears that they did indeed contribute more (be it through income, hours worked, or housework completed).
Equity remained important to relationship quality throughout the 20-year study, regardless of how long the couples had been married. We might expect that in long-term relationships, romantic partners take turns making sacrifices, with these personal costs evening out over the years. However, this is not what DeMaris found. Angelica may be the one to make sacrifices every time, without Nate sacrificing in return, and such underbenefit leads to frustration and dissatisfaction.
Unlike business partners, couples might not “keep count” in a ledger or on a scoreboard, but feeling underbenefited over time could leave a spouse wondering: “What am I getting out of this marriage? Is there something better out there?” If they hope to reach their golden anniversary, Nate and Angelica may want to reevaluate and adjust their household contributions periodically as their lives together change. For instance, if Angelica always handled dinner preparation but must begin working overtime, the couple can agree to eat out more often, do the cooking ahead of time on weekends, or delegate the chore to a babysitter.
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1DeMaris, A. (2010). The 20-year trajectory of marital quality in enduring marriages: Does equity matter? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27(4), 449-471. doi:10.1177/0265407510363428
2Amato, P. R., Johnson, D. R., Booth, A., & Rogers, S. J. (2003). Continuity and change in marital quality between 1980 and 2000. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 1-22. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2003.00001.x
Dr. Helen Lee Lin – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Helen’s past research has focused on potential problems in relationships, such as keeping secrets from a significant other. She is also interested in communication as well as the use and consumption of media in relationships, and is planning to work in applied contexts for her future projects.