A new study from the University of Southern California finds that among dual wage earners, the spouse who does the most housework has elevated levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone.
USC researchers looked at how male and female spouses recover from the burdens of work and how the couples balance their housework and leisure activity time.
The report is found in the Journal of Family Psychology.
In the study, researchers followed 30 double-income households. The couples were a median age of 41 and the families had at least one child between the ages of eight and ten.
The results paint a pessimistic picture of marriage, said lead author Dr. Darby Saxbe, a postdoctoral fellow in the USC Dornsife College Psychology Department.
“Your biological adaptation to stress looks healthier when your partner has to suffer the consequences – more housework for husbands, less leisure for wives,” Saxbe said.
For both husbands and wives, doing more housework kept cortisol levels higher at the end of the day. In other words, doing chores seemed to limit a spouse’s ability to recover from a day of work.
For wives, cortisol profiles were healthier if husbands spent more time doing housework. For husbands, in contrast, having more leisure time was linked with healthier cortisol level – but only if their wives also spent less time in leisure.
“The result shows that the way couples spend time at home – not just the way you spend time, but the way your partner spends time as well – has real implications for long-term health,” Saxbe said.
Cortisol levels can affect sleep, weight gain, burnout and weakened immune resistance.
One of Saxbe’s earlier studies focused on marital relationships, stress and work. Her research found that more happily married women showed healthier cortisol patterns, while women who reported marital dissatisfaction had flatter cortisol profiles, which have been associated with chronic stress.
Men’s marital satisfaction ratings, on the other hand, weren’t connected to their cortisol patterns.
“The quality of relationships makes a big difference in a person’s health,” Saxbe said. “Dividing up your housework fairly with your partner may be as important as eating your vegetables.”