If you're married or living with a partner, how do you decide which of you does household chores and child care? While some people try to divvy up the work with as much fairness as possible, others simply try to make their spouse or partner happy. The approach you and your partner take can have a profound effect on the health of your relationship and on your career.

In a post at Psychology Today, State University of New York psychology professor Genn Geher, Ph.D., explores the concept of an "exchange" versus a "communal" approach to domestic responsibilities. In an exchange approach, partners aim for a fair division of labor. People who take a communal approach don't focus on fairness. Instead, they try to make their partners happy and work for the greater good.

Geher illustrates the two styles with the story of a fictitious accountant named Jack who returns home after a long day at work to find his wife pulling a lasagna out of the oven. The couple and their two kids share a pleasant meal and when it's over the kids run off to play video games and the wife goes off to call her sister. This leaves Jack alone with a lot of dirty dishes. 

The exchange version of Jack gets very angry. After all, he's worked hard all day, he shoveled the walk that morning, the wife only works part-time. He should not be abandoned with the dishes. The communal version of Jack is grateful for the nice meal and happy that his wife is talking to her sister, which he knows she enjoys. He feels lucky to have a great family, and he cheerfully rolls up his sleeves and washes the dishes, whistling a happy tune.

I suspect no husband in the world would really behave like the communal version of Jack, but never mind. Geher's main point is this: whether your approach to chores is communal or exchange, your relationship will work best if your partner approaches them the same way. Two exchange spouses can negotiate a fair arrangement, and two communal spouses will naturally focus on each others' welfare. But an exchange spouse and a communal spouse are liable to have misunderstandings and conflicts because they are not pursuing the same goals, and their understanding of domestic work and its division are mismatched.

An hour and a half a day.

That makes lots of sense as far as it goes, but let's take it a step further. Let's think about how this exchange-versus-communal business affects spouses who also have careers. Geher cites research that indicates women are likelier to take a communal approach than men. That suggests that in many heterosexual couples, women are in communal mode while men are in exchange mode. And so you might expect that these women perform more domestic tasks than their male partners.

You'd be right. Study after study has shown that domestic labor is not fairly divided between heterosexual partners, not even in households with a female breadwinner. Worldwide, according to an International Monetary Fund report last fall, women do an average two hours more of domestic chores per day than men do. That ranges from an extra 4 hours and 48 minutes in Egypt to an extra 35 minutes in Norway, which comes the closest to parity. In the United States, women do an average hour and a half more domestic work per day than their male partners.

Now, consider your job for a moment. Imagine that you had to do an extra ten and a half hours of work every week. This would be very boring, physically tiring work, and you would not be paid extra for it. What impact would this have on your job performance and your career? Conversely, imagine being assigned an assistant for ten and a half hours a week, and that the assistant would take on the most tiring and menial parts of your job. Wouldn't that give your career a boost?

Look at it this way, and that extra hour and a half per day could go a long way toward explaining why, 56 years after Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, we still earned 79 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2019. In fact, CNBC.com did some really interesting math. The site noted that if both men and women were paid for their domestic labor at the national average earnings rate of $26.82 per hour, women would earn $292.34 more per week, or $15,201.68 more per year than their male partners. That difference would be more than enough to erase the gender pay gap. [Disclosure: I'm a CNBC.com contributor.]

It really does matter who does more housework and child care or elder care, and who does less. An exchange relationship acknowledges that fact and tries to distribute unpaid labor fairly, so that neither partner is unduly burdened. A communal approach may sound friendlier, more like romance and less like negotiation. But negotiation is an important part of every long-term partnership. And if you choose to focus instead on the greater good and making your partner happy, you could be holding back your own career in the process.

Published on: Feb 29, 2020
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