Dishwashing Is the Chore That's Hardest on Your Marriage

CC BY 2.0. Roxanne Ready

No other household task challenges couples as much as figuring out who's going to do the dishes.

Washing the dishes is the most contentious household task, according to a new report from the Council of Contemporary Families (CCF). The way in which couples share -- or do not share -- dishwashing duty "can have a significant impact on the health and longevity of a relationship," and women whose partners do not help with dishwashing report more conflict and less satisfaction with the relationship and even sex.

This is a curious fact, considering how many other household tasks must be performed in order to keep a home running smoothly. From laundry and toilet-scrubbing to dealing with smelly trash and dirty diapers, why are dishes so bad?

Well, first of all, it is gross, especially if those dishes have been sitting all day and there are soggy bread pieces, encrusted egg yolk, and curdled milk to contend with. Second, washing dishes rarely elicits the kinds of compliments that people receive after doing chores like mowing the lawn, cooking a meal, or weeding the garden. Having clean dishes is an expectation, not an achievement. Finally, doing the dishes is an act of cleaning up after other people, and this adds to the yuck factor.

Caroline Kitchener elaborates in The Atlantic:

"Traditionally, women have shouldered full responsibility for chores that involve cleaning up after someone else: doing the laundry, cleaning the toilet, washing dishes. Men, on the other hand, are often associated with mowing the lawn, taking out the trash, washing the car -- tasks that don’t require getting up close and personal with somebody else’s daily grime. Today, women who have to shoulder those traditionally female chores alone 'see themselves as relegated to the tasks that people don’t find desirable,' [lead study author Dan] Carlson said. That breeds resentment."

Men now spend an average of four hours a week doing housework, compared to two hours in 1965; women spend six. Kitchener writes that, fortunately, dishwashing is one of the tasks that is most likely to be shared: "Between 1999 and 2006, the share of couples who divvy up dishwashing responsibilities rose from 16 to 29 percent."

My husband and I have established the rule that whoever cooks doesn't clean up; it feels like a fair division of labor that works well for us. But the good thing about dishwashing is that it's easy to share, with tasks that can be divided up: You wash and rinse, I'll dry and put away. It can be a good time for couples to hang out together, talk, listen to music or a podcast, and get the worst job done, one dish at a time.