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Want To Improve Your Sex Life? Grab a sponge!

Couples who split chores evenly have more sex, finds a large-scale study.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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Not long ago, I was emptying the dishwasher and hurriedly throwing together a spaghetti dinner for the family when my husband ambled into the kitchen.

I smiled at him, thinking he was there to help. But no: He was just weaving his way through the storm to grab a bag of tortilla chips before heading to the couch to chill.

“How about helping me out?” I barked, handing him some plates to put away.

Later, in a calmer moment, I explained to him that if he would just pitch in when it was clear that I needed a hand, I would not be, as he put it, “so crabby.” When he jumps in and cleans the dishes or sweeps the floor unasked, I feel a rush of genuine warmth as I think, “This is incredibly boring, but at least we’re in it together.”

As it turns out, new research published in Socius, the journal of the American Sociological Association, finds that those warm feelings even extend to the bedroom. Researchers pored over data gathered over three decades from low-to-middle-income couples, and found that heterosexual couples who share tasks like laundry, house cleaning and shopping equally not only have happier relationships, they’re actually having more sex, too. Call it choreplay.

It seems like a small thing, but the impact of divvying up chores in a marriage can’t be underestimated—especially if the couple starts a family. A 2015 Ohio State study of working couples found that men did a fairly equal share of housework—until, that is, they became dads. By the time their baby had reached 9 months, the women had picked up 13 extra hours of childcare and housework per week—even as both parents clocked in the same number of hours at their jobs. This inequality can breed long-term resentment that spills into other areas of the relationship.

In an often-quoted 2007 survey from the Pew Research Center, respondents ranked “faithfulness” as the most important factor for a successful marriage. A happy sexual relationship was number two. But sharing household chores came in at number three.

It’s not a surprise to Amy Kirschenblatt, a social worker at Northwell Health, that dividing housework more-or-less equally can result in more action in the bedroom. “In all the couples work I’ve ever done, the second the woman says her husband vacuums, the second after that she says, ‘…and I was turned on,’” she says.

When you see your partner picking up the slack by picking up the Swiffer, she says, “It makes you feel like you’re in a partnership, that you’re looking out for each other. It says, ‘you’re valued.’ And when you feel like you matter, it makes you feel more sexual.”

Attention shoppers

But not all chores are created equal. Researchers in the Socius study found that for men, the household job that had the most impact on their sex lives was … food shopping. “For contemporary men, sharing shopping with their partner seems to be a turn-on,” says lead study author Dan Carlson, an assistant professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah. “Sexual satisfaction was highest for men when shopping was a shared experience compared to having oneself or one's partner do most of it.”

Why does shopping a deux act as a male aphrodisiac? “It’s an open question,” he says. “It might be that of all the routine housework tasks, it’s the one that’s the most pleasurable to do and offers couples a chance to spend quality time together.”

On the flipside, the researchers found that one chore above all else was the biggest source of relationship tension: washing dirty dishes. Women who were stuck scrubbing pots and loading the dishwasher themselves reported more conflict and lower satisfaction within the relationship—and worse sex—than women with partners who help out.

When this task wasn’t divvied up, says the report, it was “the single biggest source of discontent.” Oh, I get it. For years, Tom and I squabbled about his habit of putting the dishes in the sink, rather than in the dishwasher. Yes, this is the most minor of issues, but every time I had to put one of his used coffee mugs in the dishwasher, it took a job off of his (dirty) plate and added it on to mine. This issue grew to the point where we brought it up to a marriage counselor. Thankfully, he was unfazed, and said it wasn’t the first time he’d heard that (“In my twenty years of doing this,” he told us, “I have yet to see a couple who fights about world peace.”)

“When you see your partner picking up the slack by picking up the Swiffer, it makes you feel valued.”
Amy Kirschenblatt, social worker

Passion project

Why is dishwashing such a hot button? “That’s hard to say,” says Carlson. “Although opinions vary, it’s often seen as an undesirable, dirty, and thankless task, and one that is in constant need of attention.” Unlike gassing up the car or doing the laundry, dishes have to be done multiple times a day. And because washing the dishes is very easily a two-person job—as in, you wash, I’ll dry—it can be even more galling when you’re doing both.

Whereas when you’re working together, you feel more connected—an important component of your sex life. A more G-rated benefit for Tom and me is that when our 9-year-old daughter sees Dad busily washing pans at the kitchen sink, he is modeling good behavior for her. As author James A. Baldwin once said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” Tom’s actions help our daughter form expectations of how her partner will treat her when she grows up.

When I showed Tom the sex study, it turned out to be a much better motivating tool for helping around the house than snapping at him (surprise, surprise). He promptly tackled our overflowing laundry bag, which had grown to the size of a Mini Cooper. I had to admit that he did look appealing with his sleeves rolled up, whistling jauntily as he folded the laundry. Who knew that getting things clean could make you feel a little dirty?

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Published October 16th, 2018

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