Helping Dual-Earner Couples
Balance Work & Family Responsibilities

Dr. Gary Kiger and Dr. Pam Riley
Department of Sociology, Social Work, and Anthropology
Utah State University
April, 2000

Emerging socioeconomic changes shape family dynamics. Today, dual-earner families represent nearly 50% of families in the labor force. The traditional breadwinner/homemaker family accounts for less than 20% of families. Seventy percent of mothers with children work at least part time. The dramatic increase in the percentage of women in the labor force means that couples are reexamining traditional divisions of labor around paid work, house work, child care/elder care, and community service.

Dual-earner couples, negotiate house work, child care, and emotion work to support their partners and to maintain and develop their relationships. Dual-earner couples also engage in status-enhancement work to support their partner in their employment. How dual-earner couples do these things affect marital satisfaction.

Dual-earner couples face special challenges as they try to balance work and family responsibilities. Long work hours, inflexible work hours, an unsupportive supervisor, and a less than positive work environment are some of the factors that can contribute to work-family conflict. In other words, work conditions can have a negative impact on family life. Similarly, family problems can lead to unsatisfactory work experiences. An unsupportive spouse, inequities in the division of housework and child care, significant health problems in family members, and changing child-care arrangements are some of the family problems that can contribute to work-family conflict.

Some employers are recognizing that employees experience this work-family spill over, leading to creation of "family friendly" benefits to enhance family well being and lessen the effects of family responsibilities on work productivity. These workplace benefits however, are not uniformly available to employees.

To examine some of these trends in work and family life and to explore how dual-earner couples might more effectively balance work and family responsibilities, we surveyed 156 dual-earner couples about their work experiences and family life.

Our first objective was to determine how family factors (time, support, control) enhanced or impeded work performance and well being. For men, a perceived lack of cohesion in the family, dissatisfaction with the emotion-work division of labor in the relationship, and the presence of children in the household increased family-to-work conflict. For women, dissatisfaction with the division of emotion work in their marriages and with flexibility in their work schedules increased their reports of family-to-work spill over.

Our second objective was to determine how work factors (time, support, control) enhanced or impeded family performance and well being. Among working mothers in our sample, a partner's work-family spill over and dissatisfaction with child-care arrangements were associated with stress. For women, stress was related to not having a sense of control. Child-care arrangements were pressing concerns for couples and could not be put off. The responsibility for these arrangements and even worrying about these arrangements fell principally to mothers, not fathers.

Also, women experienced stress over their partners' work-family spill over, even more than their own work-family spill over. To the extent that women are the primary caretakers of the emotional life of the relationship, they felt they need to take care of their partners' work-family spill over. But, because it is the husband's spill over, she cannot directly influence it and this creates stress because the spill over is beyond her immediate control.

For male respondents, the more positive their work environment and the more flexibility they had in their work schedules, the less likely they were to report work-to-family conflicts. However, the more emotion work men did relative to their partners, the more work-to-family conflicts they reported. For female respondents, satisfaction with their work environment and flexible work schedules reduce work-to-family conflict. Work to family spill over was also associated with dissatisfaction with the emotion-work division of labor in their marriages.

Our third objective was to define the consequences of family/work interaction for family members and the work place. Performing multiple roles, in itself, does not necessarily lead to stress in marital relationships. We used data from couples in dual-earner relationships to assess their division of domestic labor and it's relationship to marital satisfaction. Although emotion work was an important factor in marital satisfaction for both men and women, the division of household labor and status-enhancement activities (helping a spouse "look good" in his or her job) were powerful indicators for marital satisfaction for women but not for men. For example, the more hours per week of housework a woman did, the less likely she was to be satisfied with the marital relationship. The amount of housework done by men was not related at all to their marital satisfaction.

Our findings suggest marital satisfaction is affected more by immediate family-related variables (e.g., emotion-work satisfaction) than by the availability of work-related benefits. For men, a perception of family cohesion and satisfaction with the emotion-work arrangement in the marriage had the most significant effect on marital satisfaction. For women, the more satisfied she was with her job and the more hours per week she spends on housework, the less marital satisfaction she reported. The more satisfaction a woman reported with the emotion-work and with the household-task arrangements in the relationship,the more marital satisfaction she reported.