Male and female spouses’ recovery from the burdens of work may be influenced by how they balance their housework and leisure activity time, researchers from the University of Southern California report in the Journal of Family Psychology. 52% of households with married couples have both spouses out in full time jobs, the authors explain. Is the winner simply the one who gets the most help with housework? Yes, but it is not as simple as that.

In this study the researchers tracked 30 double-income households around their homes – their every move and where they were, was logged every ten minutes. The couples were aged (median) 41 years and had at least one child in the household aged between eight and ten.

For the females, their activities were listed in order of frequency:

  • Housework
  • Communication
  • Leisure

For the males, their activities were also listed in order of frequency:

  • Leisure activities
  • Communications
  • Housework

Put simply, husbands spent more time on their leisure activities while their female spouses dedicated more of their time to housework.

The authors found that whichever spouse spent more time on housework tended to have higher evening cortisol levels, as well as poorer afternoon-to-evening recovery.

Cortisol is the primary stress hormone. It flows through our bodies everyday, helping us prepare for mental and physical demands. As evening approaches and our rate of activity slows down, cortisol levels typically starts to drop. When cortisol levels drop we can then unwind.

If your evening cortisol levels remain high you will continue feeling stressed, and also have a higher risk of eventually developing mental and physical illnesses. Studies have linked chronically high evening cortisol levels to reduced life expectancy.

Wives whose husbands helped out a lot with housework had faster recovery in the evening from higher cortisol levels.

Leisure appeared to have the biggest impact on lowering male evening cortisol levels. They also found that husbands whose wives spent less time on leisure activities had better after-work recovery times.

This could easily be seen as a Catch 22 situation. Lots of time spent on housework helps keep cortisone levels high. However, all the female requires is some help with the housework for levels to drop. Unfortunately, a male’s drop in evening cortisol levels responds best when his wife is doing the housework and he is spending more time relaxing.

In short, it appears that what is good for the male is bad for the female, and what is good for the female does not have enough of an impact on the male.

The researchers believe that the division of labor between couples really does have an impact on either person’s physical health.

“Time spent in housework and leisure: Links with parents’ physiological recovery from work.”
Saxbe, Darby E.; Repetti, Rena L.; Graesch, Anthony P.
Journal of Family Psychology, Vol 25(2), Apr 2011, 271-281. doi: 10.1037/a0023048

Written by Christian Nordqvist