His Marriage / Her Marriage

Sharing emotional tasks

With modern times have come modern households; it's not uncommon for a man to wash dishes, fix dinner, or stay at home with children while his wife becomes the breadwinner. But is the modern relationship really all that modern?

Alicia Cook, professor of human development and family studies, isn't convinced that the roles between males and females have become as flexible as they appear to be at home or at work. Although traditional domestic chores might be shared, the emotional chores aren't.

"Although it's not traditionally thought of as work, providing emotional support in the home or even on the job takes effort," says Cook. "And sharing that type of work – offering solutions to a problem, encouraging your spouse, lifting spirits, maintaining optimism – is just as important to a marriage as physical tasks such as cleaning, mowing the lawn, preparing meals, and paying the bills. It's that type of effort that sets the tone for the rest of the family."

In fact, Cook and her colleague, Peggy Berger, professor of design and merchandising, found in several different studies that couples who share equally in emotional tasks are more satisfied with their marriages. This is especially so for husbands; those who say they take more responsibility for the emotional climate of their home are more satisfied with their marriage. On the other hand, women also are more satisfied in their marriages when their husbands take on as much responsibility for emotional tasks as they do.

And this type of task is work – it requires effort, time, and energy, although most people don't think of it as such. An imbalance in this kind of task in a marriage or on the job tends to negatively affect women more than men, Cook adds. That could be because, in general, women tend to do more emotional tasks than men.

In fact, when Cook and Berger looked at work and family role spillover of people in careers primarily occupied by the opposite gender – for example, female engineers or male nurses or in occupations that required extensive emotional support for either gender, such as therapists – they found that women, regardless of occupation, still tend to provide more emotional support at home than do males.

Females also provide more emotional support on the job. Female leaders and managers who were investigated by Cook and Berger tend to be more in tune with and supportive of their co-workers' and employees' emotional needs. For example, female bosses tend to praise, support, and encourage their employees more. They're also more attuned to building teams, reconciling internal disputes, and solving work satisfaction and personality problems at work.

"We started to wonder if there's only a certain amount of emotional energy people can give," says Cook. "If someone uses all of his or her energy at work, does he or she have any to give to family members? Or if they use it all to support their families, do they have any support left to give on the job? What we found is that it's reciprocal. It's not just what someone does, it's the response they get from it. If one's spouse or co-worker appreciates the emotional efforts one gives them and shows appreciation, the more energy the first person has to give more support."