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Should women be grateful for help at home?
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Woman in the kitchen drinking coffee as man does the laundry
Should women show gratitude for help, even if the division of housework and childcare mostly fall on them? Actually, yes – because they'll reap benefits.
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On a recent Saturday morning, my husband suggested I stay home while he took the kids out. Immediately, I felt an immense sense of gratitude, even though, because of working patterns, I have often done slightly more childcare overall. I knew he wanted me to enjoy some time to myself – but I felt that I had to express my gratitude by giving something back while he was out, so I prepared food and tidied.

Gratitude exists for a good reason: it’s tied to the very essence of what binds people together, and helps to keep relationships positive. Yet it becomes more nuanced in an arena like the child-rearing household, which we know to be unequal. After I wrote about the mental load (the hidden thinking and planning work done mainly by women that makes a household function) dozens of women sent responses – and the word ‘grateful’ kept coming up. Some felt grateful to have supportive partners, given the lack of equality many experience; others felt deeply frustrated by the idea that they should feel grateful when their partners helped out.   

So, what role should gratitude play in the home, given we know that tasks disproportionately fall to women in heterosexual relationships? Why exactly do we applaud our partners for performing tasks that should be shared, and is there value in doing so? After all, should we be grateful at all for little bits of ‘help’ if the division of housework and childcare remains unequal? 

How gratitude forges relationships 

Gratitude is a universal human experience; the feeling of being thankful and appreciative of something or someone. It has multiple benefits, both for the person experiencing it and the person receiving it.  

When people perceive that they received a benefit from another person, it actually changes their perception of that relationship – Shelly Gable

Early work in the psychology of gratitude, for instance, showed that when participants simply noted what they were grateful for in diary entries, they showed improved wellbeing later. Researchers have found that gratitude binds people together in relationships, creating more commitment and higher relationship satisfaction. “When people perceive that they received a benefit from another person, it actually changes their perception of that relationship and that person,” says psychologist Shelly Gable of the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

Gratitude is useful for both new and ongoing relationships – it can create intimacy among those who have just met as well as maintain it. Generating gratitude is also not necessarily linked to the size of the gift or the favour given. In one study, the experience of feeling understood and valued had a greater effect on the expression of gratitude than the monetary value of a gift participants received. “In many ways, it's really about whether or not the benefit that you're given is something that you need and appreciate,” says Gable. 

Gratitude therefore acts as a signal that another person cares and is making an effort to understand us. It’s not enough to feel silently grateful when someone has done something for us, however. Gable, working with gratitude researcher Sara Algoe, has shown that we have to express what we are feeling in order for relationships to benefit. When gratitude is not expressed equally, it can cause a relationship to break down.

Gratitude becomes a little more nuanced at home, where we know that chores and responsibilities tend not to be split evenly (Credit: Getty)

Gratitude becomes a little more nuanced at home, where we know that chores and responsibilities tend not to be split evenly (Credit: Getty)

Expressing gratitude can be gendered; studies suggest that women express more gratitude than men, and that it’s more intense and longer lasting. Jeffrey Froh, associate professor of psychology at Hofstra University, US, says that a reason for this could be that “women are more socialised for softer, interpersonal emotions”. Indeed, studies show women are more likely to express more positive emotions than men and also share emotions more intensively (apart from anger). Other research proposes that those with more power (often in the form of higher earnings) express less gratitude – and men are the higher earner in just over two-thirds of US heterosexual couples, the Pew Research Centre found (using data from 2017). 

The unequal household arena 

Gratitude in relationships becomes a little more complex in the home, where tasks are not evenly split. It’s clear that women carry most of the mental load around organising a household, but there remains an uneven division in in the domestic load, too.

If one person does most of the laundry, expressing gratitude when the other partner does it may actually help them do it more often

In heterosexual couples with children, gender roles and “ideal mother norms” – stereotypes around who does what and what a ‘good mother’ looks like – easily become entrenched, whether either partner intends this or not. That can mean certain household tasks being deemed, consciously or otherwise, a woman’s domain. It then follows that a man may not thank his partner for tasks she has consistently done more of – or she may feel compelled to thank him for tasks he has consistently done less of. 

This can naturally cause resentment, and even cause relationships to break down, especially if the woman is consistently thought of as the default carer, and she perceives the labour split to be unfair. Research shows that how we define fairness is important: if we expect full equality and don’t get it, we will be less happy, but if we don’t expect equality and see that our partner does more than a friends’ spouse, we are more likely to experience gratitude. 

While resentment can be a justified response to overall inequality, it’s important to understand that structural forces – like workplace expectations that demand long hours- can contribute to an unequal division of care at home. And even if structural forces don’t explain why your partner never unloads the dishwasher, there’s a surprising upside to expressing gratitude irrespective of whether equality has been reached.  

One key benefit of gratitude is that expressing it can inspire your partner to do more (Credit: Getty)

One key benefit of gratitude is that expressing it can inspire your partner to do more (Credit: Getty)

Expressing gratitude, it turns out, can motivate more of the behaviour we are grateful for. Doing so “reminds the under-performing partner that the division of labour is not fair”, according to researchers Jess Alberts and Angela Trethewey, writing in the University of California, Berkley’s Greater Good Magazine. So, if one person in a couple does most of the laundry, expressing gratitude when the other partner does it may actually help them do it more often. 

And if each person in a relationship experiences gratitude from what the other is doing to help out, it increases overall relationship satisfaction, which feeds into wellbeing – even if the labour split isn’t 50:50. 

Todd Kashdan, director of The Well-Being Lab at George Mason University, US, says that being grateful even if the situation isn’t perfect is “an adaptive mechanism for the health of the relationship and the health of a society that has not yet reached the utopian ideal, where men and women treat each other equally”. Knowing we cannot change society quickly, the emotion gratitude steps in to help us to cope, while at the same time strengthening important social connections. 

“Social change in terms of the structure of family units and the structure of households is slow. So because of that, if you don't appreciate the small incremental changes, you're not going to be a happy character,” says Kashdan.   

So while sometimes our thankfulness might be tinged with resentment, it clearly pays to be grateful, even if it’s for something we feel we deserve like a lie-in or help with the laundry. If we can relax and enjoy the help we are given, we will be happier for it, too. 

Melissa Hogenboom is the editor of BBC Reel. Her book, The Motherhood Complex, is out now. She is @melissasuzanneh on Twitter.

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