UK: How to Avoid Divorce? Housework, Possibly

Last Updated: 14 June 2010
Article by Jeremy Abraham

For those of us marrieds who, instinctively, have always relished our share of the household chores as essential to a happy home, statistical support appeared recently to hand. Dr Wendy Sigle-Rushton of the London School of Economics and Political Science studied divorce outcomes in 3,540 married British couples and reported her findings in the catchily labelled "Men's Unpaid Work and Divorce: Reassessing Specialization and Trade In British Families".

"Respect" to LSE's marketing because somehow, despite the dull label, this caught the attention of the Press and we had the Dail Mirror tell us "Home help husbands stop splits" (14 May 2010), The Independent "Divorce less likely if fathers help out" (Ellen Branagh, 14 May 2010), The Daily Telegraph "Divorce twice as likely when husbands neglect housework" (Martin Beckford, 14 May 2010) and Timesonline "Husbands who help in house less likely to divorce" (13 May 2010). Significant and serious stuff then.

Seeking further detail, partly in the hope of having some of my better personal traits highlighted and partly of adding to my already significant battery of gratuitous after-the-event advice for clients, I found and read a copy of the 23 page report. Leaving aside some dodgy spelling this side of the Atlantic ("labor" in various manifestations) and quite a lot of jargon (try on "cross-sectional and time-series studies" for size), my first discovery was that the data related to heterosexual married families with small children ("The British Cohort Study"); no lessons there for the childless then. Secondly, the couples concerned had their first child (there were 16,000 such children just in case that thought crossed your mind) during one week in 1970, 40 years ago (the same year Mick Jagger, as he then was, was fined for cannabis possession and teenagers could vote for the first time) ; count out the under 60s then. Thirdly, the data relied on was gathered from the mid-1970s to early 1980s in 3 tranches 1975 (Microsoft was founded as was Jamie Oliver), 1980 (British Leyland launched the Metro and Mr and Mrs Button launched Jenson) and 1986 (witnessed the Chernobyl disaster and the birth of Lady Gaga); anybody included in the study was divorced over 25 years ago! Allowing for losses of various sorts along the way and excluding (or including) certain couples for reasons explained in the paper such as those couples not married at the birth of their first child, but which I confess I mostly didn't comprehend, the sample number of families used in reaching the study's final conclusion was cropped to 3,540; not, you might think, a large number from which to draw many or significant patterns.

What contribution did those qualifying husbands make? Turns out that was defined as the mother in the couple admitting that the father had carried out one or more of four mostly child-related tasks (I didn't say chores) in the week before the survey! The four tasks were helping with the housework (putting out the dustbin?) or shopping (buying the beer?), helping looking after the children when the mother was doing something else ("Have you finished your bath yet, this one's crying?"), helping with babysitting in the evening ("Sit down and watch this programme") and helping put the children to bed ("Go to bed!"). Significant input then.

For those of you still reading this, and if I was handy at statistical analysis I could probably drum up a prediction of a very small number, things get a little more exclusive yet. Turns out the remaining couples were subdivided into different categories, the "control" (that sample against which all the other categories are measured) being the couple with a mother who hasn't worked since the first child was born, who was aged 21 when she married (!), had a daughter for the first birth and subsequently gave birth to a boy ( 48% of the cases). The next category was couples where the mother worked full-time (4.5% of the cases), the third category a full-time working mother where the father was credited with doing three or four of the task types (25% 0f the cases) , and the last being a couple where the mother works full-time, the father does the four task types and he looks after the children whilst the mother works (14.5% of the cases). The control group had a predicted probability of divorce of 0.033, the group where the mother works full-time (and the father's employed) 0.065, the group where both parents work full-time and the father does all four tasks 0.045, and the group where the mother works full-time and the father's unemployed looking after the kids 0.032. That's it then, that's where the recommendation that housework saves marriages comes from!

Call me cynical perhaps, but that's some fairly over-extracted statistical interpretation, and only one of several possible conclusions, all of historical interest. You might just as well say that if you didn't want to get divorced in 1975 and you want to have children, don't let their mother return to work! I was more taken with the extrapolation that in 1975 a significant 51.39% of those wives questioned reported that their husbands did none or no more than one of the four tasks identified in the week before they were asked!

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