How Valuable is Housework in Divorce?

According to an extensive study by Alexandra Killewald of the University of Michigan, for couples who married before 1975, the leading factor that led to divorce was a wife who was burdened with too much housework. Since 1975, however, the leading factor has been a downward shift in the husband’s earning ability. The leads to an interesting question: how exactly do we value housework in a modern two-income-standard culture?

The Shift in Housework Burden
In the couples married before 1975, wives typically performed the significant majority of the housework — 75% or more. However, they also typically brought in less than 25% of the household income. As two-income households became the norm, however, a problem developed: wives were paid noticeably less than husbands for the work they did, so the image of husband-as-breadwinner was maintained even if the two worked equally hard. This meant that the image of wife-has-homemaker has also kept clinging on despite it’s being dramatically less true than it was two generations ago.

Modern couples are more balanced than they were when the Baby Boomers were in their primes — but wives still shoulder 60-66% of the housework burden, while often working as many or more hours than their husbands (and often for less money).

The Double-Standard of Unemployment
The study also revealed that a woman who lost her job but maintained financial security (either by working under the table or by having some alternative form of financial security available) has little to no effect on a modern couple’s chance of divorce. A man who becomes unemployed, even if they maintain the same level of financial security, is a much bigger threat to the marriage. The author believes that this is because we still maintain a double-standard: it’s perfectly legitimate for a wife to work at home or at a job, but a husband who dares to hang around at home all day is lazy, a failure, or both.

This of course leads to a further double-standard in divorce: the courts tend to look much more favorably on housework performed by a wife than housework performed by a husband. She can make the argument that an unequal housework burden should result in a shift in spousal support consideration — if he does the same thing with a straight face, he’ll get laughed out of court.

The Motherhood Angle
Many people will pipe up somewhere about here and remind everyone that only women can be mothers, believing for some reason that this justifies some or all of the above. It doesn’t. Not only are fewer women becoming mothers today than they have in previous decades, but modern fathers are also significantly more likely to take a more assertive role in child care.

But that doesn’t keep many courts from automatically assuming that a mother — especially a mother of a younger child — should be assigned most of the child care, and that in general she doesn’t deserve ‘credit’ for the care she performs, at least not in terms of the division of assets.

The upshot of all of this is simple: if you expect to have your housework treated as valuable by the court, come prepared to fight for it — and bring evidence that your burden of housework is significantly different enough that the court should treat it as such.

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