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Secret To A Happy Marriage? Don’t Talk Trash, Take It Out

Published: February 3, 2014

The difference between a happy marriage and an unhappy one is not so much talking trash as taking it out, and Wendy Klein of Anthropology/Linguistics can explain why.

Klein, a member of the university since 2009, was the lead author on a study highlighted in the March 2013 issue of Atlantic Monthly in an article headlined “The Difference between a Happy Marriage and a Miserable One: Chores.” This work also appeared in one of two chapters she authored in Elinor Ochs and Tamar Kremer-Sadik’s book, Fast Forward Family: Home, Work and Relationships in Middle-Class America (UC Press), published earlier this year.

Her conclusions from an in-depth ethnographic study she began as a graduate student researcher for UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families found that women do about two-thirds of the household work.

“Men are doing more child care than ever before,” said Klein. “Their contribution to child care has more than doubled. Fathering has become a more valued activity for men, yet the same cannot be said for housework.”

Klein, a linguistic anthropologist, looked at spousal interaction. “When husbands took on tasks without being asked—that is, when the tasks were self-initiated, wives had a higher level of marital satisfaction—even when husbands did not do as much housework as their wives,” she explained. “This is in contrast to couples where the husband took on a number of tasks but always had to be asked. That creates a dynamic described by the colloquial term ‘nagging.’ Psychologists have identified what they call a ‘demand-withdraw pattern’ in which a spouse becomes disengaged after repeated demands are made.”

One of Klein’s most important conclusions was that emotional support and taking on tasks together were correlated with higher satisfaction for both spouses.

“Spouses tend to feel less resentment when picking up the slack for a partner who is unable to do a household task on one occasion if they know their spouse will do the same for them,” she said. “This element of trust that says ‘We’re in this together.’ Teamwork versus scorekeeping.”

Another critical ingredient is a sense of humor.

“Couples who could joke about the stress and situations they have to handle also seemed to be more satisfied in their marriage,“ she said. “Humor is such an important element in family well-being. Children pick up on all these cues.

“It is not just about equity. It is about support. It is about love,” she added. “You step in and handle a task that your spouse was meant to handle. That’s an expression of love. It represents an enactment of teamwork. Part of that equation has to be thinking about the other person and what they need.”

Secret To A Happy Marriage? Take Out The Trash
PHOTO BY DAVID J. NELSON
Wendy Klein

Klein earned her B.A. in religious studies with a focus on Japanese Buddhism from Vermont’s Middlebury College. She acquired her master’s in Japanese studies from Stanford and her Ph.D. in anthropology in 2007 from UCLA.

While Klein’s first book chapter in the Fast Forward Family volume examined the well-being of couples, the second described children’s socialization into helping in the home. Her conclusion was that in general, children in middle-class American families do very little work around the home.

“In the majority of the participating families, the children’s task was to do their homework and attend school,” she said. “Many of these kids are over-scheduled and are exhausted when they get home. Their parents would like them to do chores but find that it is often easier to take on the tasks themselves rather than initiate a potential conflict or extended negotiation.” Klein and her colleagues also found that allowance is not correlated with higher participation in household chores. The families in which children helped the most around the house “were those that cultivated an ethos of contributing to the household at a very early age,” she said.

Most of the marital tension Klein saw emerged when one spouse monitored the other who was already undertaking a task. “We all have different standards, which is one of the biggest challenges,” she said. “We might think we could do something better, but once we articulate this to our partner, ultimately, this is a form of disrespect. It implies that your spouse is not necessarily competent. When there is continuous monitoring and criticism, the collaborative process is undermined. The goal is mutual understanding and a lack of interference.”

Klein’s research changed the researcher.

“One of the effects on my own life has been my growing awareness of how I treat my husband when it comes to household work,” she laughed. “I sometimes still struggle with the temptation to critique the way he’s doing something when I should simply express my appreciation. Thanking one’s spouse, even for routine tasks, means acknowledging his or her effort rather than disregarding it. I think we’ve both learned something about that.”