-Written by Katie Little ’18
When couples become parents, relationship satisfaction often declines. One proposed reason for this decline is perceived unfairness in the division of household and parenting-related tasks. Perceived fairness is critical during this period because of the increase in household and childcare tasks and the fact that mothers are often expected to bear most of the additional responsibilities. Perceived fairness does not necessarily require that mothers and fathers split household and parenting tasks equally; rather, it means that both spouses believe that the division that they agree upon is fair. For example, if one parent works full-time and the other does not, both parents might think it is fair for the parent who works fewer hours to spend more time taking care of the new baby.
Chong and Mickelson (2016) sought to examine what factors might influence the relationship between perceived fairness and relationship satisfaction. The researchers proposed that one factor that might help predict relationship satisfaction in relation to perceived fairness could be emotional spousal support. The researchers chose this variable because of previous findings that women reported lower levels of emotional spousal support when they performed greater amounts of household labor than their spouses. Additionally, the researchers examined negative spousal interactions. Negative spousal interactions could play a role in the relationship between perceived fairness and relationship satisfaction because when division of household labor is perceived to be unfair, spouses may feel negative emotions such as anger or frustration and take these emotions out on their partners.
In order to investigate these variables, the researchers recruited 104 married or cohabitating couples. Both partners were asked to fill out a series of surveys, including measures of the following:
- Perceived fairness of childcare
- Example Question: “How fair do you perceive the division of childcare tasks to be to yourself during the past month?”
- Perceived emotional spousal support
- Example Question: “How much did your spouse understand the way you felt about things?”
- Perceived negative spousal interactions
- Example Question: “How much did you feel that your partner did not understand what you were going through?”
- Relationship satisfaction
- Example Question: “How well does your partner meet your needs?”
From the couples’ responses, the researchers found several patterns. First, for mothers, emotional spousal support explained the link between perceived fairness and relationship satisfaction. Additionally, to a lesser extent, negative spousal interactions helped explain this link.
Interestingly, perceived fairness was far more important to women’s levels of happiness in their relationships than men’s levels of happiness. Additionally, women’s degrees of perceived fairness helped predict men’s levels of happiness. The researchers propose that this is because of gender role expectations. Women are expected to shoulder the majority of parenting related tasks, so the transition to parenthood may present with more pressure for women than men. Additionally, men often become more traditional in their beliefs regarding gender roles after the births of their first babies, so women may also face these expectations from their own spouses.
Better understanding of how gender expectations affect both men and women during the transition to parenthood has the possibility to alleviate some of the stress associated with this period and provide better outcomes for both the parents and the child.
Chong, A. & Mickelson, K.D. (2016). Perceived fairness and relationship satisfaction during the transition to parenthood: The mediating role of spousal support. Journal of Family Issues, 37(1), 3-28.