Qualitative Sociology

, Volume 35, Issue 4, pp 427–446

The Construction of Gender Among Working-Class Cohabiting Couples


    • Department of Social SciencesUniversity of Indianapolis
  • Sharon Sassler
    • Department of Policy Analysis & ManagementCornell University

DOI: 10.1007/s11133-012-9234-4

Cite this article as:
Miller, A.J. & Sassler, S. Qual Sociol (2012) 35: 427. doi:10.1007/s11133-012-9234-4


Utilizing three typologies that emerged from the data, we examine how 30 working-class cohabiting couples construct gender through paid and domestic labor. Contesting couples contain at least one partner, usually the woman, who attempts to construct more egalitarian arrangements. In Conventional and Counter-Conventional couples, neither partner is actively contesting their gendered arrangements. Among Conventional couples each partner adheres to a traditional division of labor. Normative gender arrangements are upended in Contesting and Counter-Conventional couples when the female partner resists financial dependence on her male partner or if or the male partner does not earn enough income to provide even for himself. Nevertheless, institutionalized gender roles appear deeply entrenched among the working-class cohabitors in this study.


CohabitationGender rolesHouseworkPaid workWorking class

Changes in young adults’ patterns of union formation and labor force participation have transformed expectations for the division of household labor. As of 2002, over half of all adults over the age of twenty-five had ever cohabited, as had smaller (but sizeable) shares of adults in their early twenties (Chandra et al. 2005). Women now spend substantial amounts of their lives in the paid labor force, and cohabitation is often portrayed as one way women can devote attention to careers without the demands of being a wife (Clarkberg et al. 1995; Brines and Joyner 1999). Many young adults express strong preferences for egalitarian partnerships (Thornton and Young-DeMarco 2001). Cohabitation is often perceived as such an arrangement, as it provides the benefits of intimacy and economies of scale with fewer expectations for traditional gender specialization (Clarkberg et al. 1995; Sassler and Miller 2011a). Because cohabitation is “incompletely institutionalized” (Cherlin 2004), there are relatively few socially agreed upon norms regulating the roles expected of cohabitors. Cohabitors should be free to negotiate new ways of constructing the gendered division of labor within their unions. Still, because much research on cohabitors stems from quantitative data collected in the 1ate 1980s and early 1990s, whether or how gender is “done” (or “undone”) (Deutsch 2007) remains unclear.

Theorists have argued that gender itself is a social institution because it has distinct, recurring social patterns, legitimizes authority and ideologies, and is linked with other institutions (e.g., work and family) (Martin 2004). Individuals regularly enact gendered practices and identify with their gendered positions (West and Zimmerman 1987). The gender perspective argues that gender is “done” by individuals and through their interactions with one another and with other social institutions. Yet individuals can attempt to undo gender in their interactions through challenging essentialist notions of men’s and women’s “natural” roles (Deutsch 2007; Risman 2009). Whether cohabitors actively challenge the behaviors expected of men and women who live together provides a means of testing the resilience of the institution of gender.

In this paper, we use in-depth interviews to explore how 30 working-class cohabiting couples (60 individuals) negotiate their divisions of paid and domestic work. Cohabitors are a particularly important group to study as the majority of all couples who go on to marry first live together (Kennedy and Bumpass 2008). Here, we categorize couples into one of three types (Conventional, Contesting, and Counter-Conventional) based upon their gendered behaviors. We find that, overall, despite theoretical reasons and attitudinal differences suggesting a different outcome, traditionally gendered behaviors remain deeply entrenched among these working-class cohabiting couples.

The Construction of Gender in Romantic Relationships

Research on how gender is constructed in romantic relationships highlights that the institution is characterized in part by traditional role expectations for men and women. Gender scholars argue that male and female roles are constantly constructed within various institutions by continuous social interactions that afford men greater power than women (e.g., Ferree 1990; Lorber 1994). Despite women’s increased presence in the paid labor force, and men’s adoption of more supportive attitudes towards working women, many individuals continue to believe that men remain primarily responsible for providing for their families (Gerson 2009; Orrange 2002). This, in part, contributes to the “stalled revolution” discussed by Hochschild (1989) in her classic book, The Second Shift. The majority of couples in her study were what she termed “transitional,” in that the wives believed in equal (or more equitable) sharing of the housework, while husbands generally gave lip-service to their spouse’s desires but remained largely uninvolved in domestic labor. In the ensuing decades since her work was published, scholars have vigorously debated the extent of progress towards gender equality in reproductive and paid labor, or even whether disparities were ever as great as was initially believed (Coltrane 1996; Sullivan 2011).

More recent evidence finds that men do considerably more housework and childcare than did their counterparts of the 1980s (Bianchi et al. 2000; Cunningham 2007; Sullivan and Coltrane 2008). Nonetheless, women continue to perform the majority of the domestic work, particularly if they have children (Bianchi et al. 2000; Brines 1994; Tichenor 2005). Further, men generally assign precedence to their career goals over their partners’, which remains a concern to many professional women (Gerson 2009; Orrange 2002). As a result, men and women often act out and contest the meaning of gender when juggling paid work and domestic labor (e.g., Gerson 2009; Hochschild 1989). The “transitional” couples described by Hochshild in 1989 are still to be found in large proportions among more recent studies of married couples (Greenstein 1996; Lavee and Katz 2002), even as they have diversified to include cohabitors (Brines and Joyner 1999; Ciabattari 2004; Miller and Sassler 2010). Such work highlights the challenges inherent in maintaining relationships when both partners are not in agreement about their desired roles.

Cohabitation: How Egalitarian a Lifestyle?

In the United States cohabitation has become increasingly widespread and accepted (Kennedy and Bumpass 2008). Cohabitors differ from those who marry directly in that they express more egalitarian beliefs about gender roles (Clarkberg et al. 1995). They are more accepting of maternal employment and shared domestic responsibility when both partners work (Sassler and Goldscheider 2004) and have greater parity in earnings and housework performed than do their married counterparts (Brines and Joyner 1999; Shelton and John 1993). Furthermore, controlling for education, income, and hours of work, women who enter cohabiting unions express stronger work orientations than those who marry directly, though this relationship is reversed for men (Clarkberg et al. 1995; Sassler and Goldscheider 2004). Cohabiting relationships, then, may be founded on expectations of equality rather than specialization by sex.

Nonetheless, some gender inequality remains evident among cohabiting couples. Cohabiting men spend around half as much time on housework as cohabiting women (South and Spitze 1994; Shelton and John 1993). Furthermore, cohabiting men have more control over the tempo of relationship progression than do their female counterparts, particularly when it comes to engagement and marriage (Ciabattari 2004; Sassler and Miller 2011b). Cohabiting couples may therefore be “transitional.” Lavee and Katz (2002) assert that couples where at least one partner adheres to a gender identity that ranges between strongly conventional and strongly egalitarian are likely to experience a great deal of relationship strain, as failing to follow a clear social script leads to greater uncertainty (see also Hochschild 1989; Rubin 1994). But cohabitors, by virtue of inhabiting a less institutionalized arrangement (Cherlin 2004), may be well situated to challenge normative expectations.

Further, examinations of behaviors as egalitarian versus conventional often miss the nuances of how couples define equality and fairness. The definition of egalitarianism implies that couples are engaged in identical behaviors: Partners may take turns washing the dishes, for example. Some couples, however, may be more satisfied with their unions if each partner feels that his or her share is fair relative to the other (equity). How couples define “fair” varies along many dimensions, including gender ideology, emotional dependence, and marital status. Men who adhere more strongly to conventional gender role ideologies, for example, feel that more specialized divisions of household labor are equitable (John et al. 1995). Among women, those who are more emotionally dependent report higher levels of marital satisfaction with more specialized divisions (Sanchez and Kane 1996).

Working-class cohabiters, in particular, may provide insights about transitional families. Cohabitation has increased among all population segments, but the fastest growth has been among those whose educational attainment and job pursuits place them squarely in the working-class (Chandra et al. 2005; Kennedy and Bumpass 2008). Working-class couples differ from their middle-class peers in that working-class individuals, particularly men, have more gender traditional attitudes (Aronson 2003; McCabe 2005; Rubin 1976, 1994). These couples differ in behavior, as well. Middle-class women generally do a smaller share of the or outsource the household/or outsource the household labor to lower-class women to a greater extent than their working-class counterparts (de Ruijter et al. 2005; Hochschild 1989; Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001; Shelton and John 1993). Working-class women, furthermore, have traditionally been more likely to be employed in the paid labor force, in part due to financial necessity, though male partners often claimed the title of “provider” because of more traditional attitudes toward gender among the working class (Rubin 1976, 1994). As working-class men’s abilities to assume the “Good Provider” mantle have declined due to the decreasing availability of good jobs (Sum et al. 2011), it remains unclear as to whether the greater gender role traditionalism among the working class persists. Several decades have passed since the groundbreaking studies of Rubin (1976) and Hochschild (1989). The time has come to examine a new generation, one that has come of age during a period of great gender flux and more widely accepted roles for women (Gerson 2009).

This analysis explores how working-class cohabiting couples construct and negotiate gender through their paid work and domestic labor. We investigate couples’ orientations towards paid employment and relative household contributions, as well as housework divisions, couple concurrence about domestic pursuits, and justifications for the household organizational system. We then elucidate a typology with three categories of couples that emerged from our data. If cohabitation truly represents a new kind of relationship, we would expect these couples to be relatively egalitarian on multiple dimensions. Alternatively, even couples aspiring to egalitarian personal relationships may be unable to break out of deeply entrenched social norms, or individuals may be unwilling to cast aside a structure that works to their benefit. Nonetheless, cohabitation has become normative; those living together may therefore represent a group whose gendered behaviors run the gamut from very conventional to very egalitarian. The use of in-depth interviews with both members of cohabiting couples enables us to examine these cohabitors’ views of their divisions of labor and the partners’ negotiations in ways that quantitative studies cannot.


We utilized qualitative methods to expose social processes related to the financial and domestic division of labor (Charmaz 1983). This analysis was part of a larger study conducted to explore cohabitors’ relationships and family formation patterns. Data are from face-to-face interviews with 30 cohabiting couples (60 individuals). Both partners in each couple were interviewed simultaneously but in separate rooms. All respondents were between the ages of 18 to 36 (prime union formation years,) and had been cohabiting for at least three months.

Recruitment took place in a large metropolitan area (Columbus, Ohio). We recruited our sample at and around a community college by posting fliers on public message boards. Both education and income were used to screen couples’ eligibility, with occupation utilized when necessary. While definitions have varied over time and by researcher (see Hochschild 1989; Rubin 1994), “working-class” individuals have traditionally been defined as those in which each partner has a high school or some post-secondary training, a particular income level, and/or works in a blue collar or pink collar job. Because our respondents were relatively young, we focused primarily on educational attainment before turning to other markers of working-class status (income and occupation) if necessary. When both partners had less than a bachelor’s degree and earned at least a combined $15,000 per year, couples were eligible for the study. We also utilized occupation as a determinant of class status when a couple’s earned income was above the second quartile for Ohio (the highest earners in the sample are skilled laborers and a postal worker) and when one partner in a couple had a bachelor’s degree but was working in a field which did not require a college education (two men and two women in the sample).1 The majority of cohabitors in the United States have only moderate levels of education; 58 % of cohabiting women in the 2006–2008 National Survey of Family Growth who were between the ages of 18 and 35 reported having only a high school degree or some post-secondary schooling but not a college degree (author estimates). Although cohabitation has become more common among the most highly educated (Kennedy and Bumpass 2008), it still remains predominantly a living arrangement of the less advantaged.

Semi-structured, open-ended interviews were conducted by both authors and an additional graduate student in the summer of 2004 through the winter of 2005 and lasted between one and 2.5 hours with a mean time of just over 93 minutes. Couples were interviewed simultaneously, but in separate rooms in order to ensure confidentiality. Each couple was paid a total of $50 for their joint participation. Interview questions most relevant to this analysis focused on participants’ daily experiences. For example, along with questions about which chores each partner actually did, individuals were asked questions such as, “What did you think living together would be like?”, and then were asked to elaborate specifically on financial and housework expectations. Next, couples were asked, “Was it like what you thought it would be?” both in general and specifically in relation to fiscal and domestic divisions. In terms of financial control, individuals were asked questions such as, “Who controls the money in your home?” and “How do you know you/your partner controls it?” Interviews were digitally recorded and transcribed verbatim, with names altered to protect confidentiality.

Sample Information

Descriptive characteristics of respondents (overall and by group) are presented in Table 1. Couples had lived together for 2 years, on average. The sample was racially and ethnically diverse, and the modal level of education is some post-secondary schooling. Despite recruiting at a community college, fewer than half of respondents were students. Of those, very few were attending college full-time and all but one was also working. Most sample members were employed in office support, restaurant work, or technical assistance. The number of parents in the study approximates the national average for cohabiters: 40 % (Kennedy and Bumpass 2008). However, only six couples lived full-time with children.
Table 1

Demographic characteristics of cohabiting couples





Mean Age: Men

26.4 years

Mean Age: Women

24.4 years

Relative Age

Man >4 years older


Woman >4 years older


Both within 4 years


Educational Attainment

Both high school or less


1 <HS, 1 Some college


Both some college/Associates degree


1 HS, 1 BA


1 some college, 1 BA


Relative Schooling

Man has more education


Woman has more education


Equal levels of schooling



Both White


Both Hispanic


Both Black


Mixed-race couple


Couple-Level Incomea

Mean couple income


Earnings Ratio: Female/Male

79.10 %







$50,000 or more


Relative Earnings

Man earns 60 % or more


Woman earns 60 % or more


Each partner earns within 40–60 %


Marital Status

Both never married


One never married, one previously married


Parental Status

Both no children


Both share childrenb


Man has children (not woman)


Woman has children (not man)


Each has child from prior relationship


Duration of Cohabitationc

3–6 months


7–11 months


12–23 months


24–35 months


3 years or more





aCouple level income is determined by summing each partner’s reported individual income. In one case, the male partner refused to report his income. His female partner’s report of both of their income was used to determine their couple-level income. bIn two instances the couple shares a child and the male partner also has a child from a previous relationship. cFive couples have broken up and gotten back together. Their duration of living together is from the initial cohabitation to the present time

Analytic Approach

The primary method of analysis was the extended case method, which utilizes a guiding framework (in this case, the gender perspective) to deductively examine particular themes—such as housework strategies—that are present in other literature on the topic (Burawoy 1998). Additional themes, such as ways respondents mentioned reconciling expectations with reality, were coded inductively as they emerged from the data. Open coding was used initially to generate topical themes. Sections of narratives were next classified into sub-categories (Strauss and Corbin 1998). Transcripts were coded by both authors and all discrepancies discussed until agreement was reached. ATLAS.ti was used to organize the data and facilitate axial coding to enable us to examine linkages and variation within topics (Strauss and Corbin 1998). When couples disagreed about their experiences, neither individual’s narrative is privileged. Instead, it is assumed that each individual has presented the truth as he or she sees it (e.g., Hertz 1995).


We characterized the couples in our sample into one of three broad groups that emerged from questions about paid employment, unpaid domestic labor, and financial responsibilities. We first began by examining whether or not at least one member in each couple was actively contesting conventional gender roles. Conventional couples were replicating conventional gender roles. Men’s employment was considered most central to the couple, and both partners generally reported being satisfied with enacting traditional gender roles, even if the female partners were also working for pay. Two other groups were challenging conventionally gendered roles, though they did so in different ways. Contestors were characterized by the presence of at least one partner who was actively trying to create a more equal relationship. Counter-Conventionals were also considered to be in opposition to convention because the female partners were the primary supporters of their households (and often do most of the domestic labor as well.) However, most of these Counter-Conventional women took on these roles somewhat begrudgingly, by default rather than out of a desire to create more egalitarian unions.

Conventional Couples

Over one-third of the cohabiting couples in our sample (12) followed a conventional template of complementary roles. Though the female partner in this category generally worked for pay, employment was discussed by participants as much more central to the man’s self-concept, and/or the couple gave precedence to the importance of his job. Most Conventional women had assumed the corresponding domestic role. In those few couples in which the man did a larger share of domestic labor, one of the partners viewed this as unacceptable and the other as temporary, in contrast to the Conventional women who shouldered the lion’s share of the housework. Even though women in this group sometimes expressed surprise over the evolution of the domestic labor division, few expressed dissatisfaction with their current arrangements. The men were similarly accepting of the balance of paid and domestic work, though about half admitted that the current division of housework was unfair to their partners.

Among Conventional couples, paid work was far more central in the men’s discussions than among the women’s. Randy’s response typifies those of the men in this group. When asked, “What would you say is your number one priority right now?,” Randy, an airport mechanic, responded, “Mine is actually work cause I just started being a mechanic a little while ago…so my whole life is kind of organized around work.” Although his partner had almost completed her accounting degree, she was much more focused on obtaining the credential than on work, as was evident in her reply to a query on future work goals. Ming replied hesitantly, “I think I’m looking for full-time job, I guess. I don’t like to [work full time], cause, oh, just Monday through Friday and from morning to night, you know, it just feels like it’s going take your whole life.” In contrast to their male partners, none of these Conventional women mentioned work as their main priority.

How couples discussed their goals relative to their partners’ suggests where gender discrepancies may begin. Among this group, when one or both partners were in school, the man’s aspirations were given precedence by both women and men. This is not uncommon among couples (Potuchek 1997), and the gendered pay structure of working-class jobs (with skilled labor paying significantly more than pink collar work) may make privileging the man’s job (an ostensibly unequal benefit) a wise fiscal strategy for both partners. Anthony and Diana, parents of a two-year old daughter, were struggling to balance school and work. He planned to become an architect. When asked about her own future goals, Diana, a student who worked two part-time jobs, said, “I’m waiting for Anthony to graduate… he’s getting an architecture degree. So hopefully, he wants to open up his own firm. I mean, I plan on being at home, I think, for a while until our daughter starts going to school full-time.” She never mentioned any specifics regarding her own occupational goals. The men did not discuss their partners’ future occupations in the same way that the women discussed their male partners’ careers.

The conventional nature of this group is further demonstrated in how couples discussed their financial arrangements. The man was earning two-thirds or more of their combined income in the majority of the couples, and all couples asserted that the man was paying a larger share of the household costs. Couples often highlighted the men’s generosity while minimizing women’s contributions to the couples’ coffers (see Kroska 2008). Keisha’s statement demonstrates this: “Now, it’s like he works at the hospital, so, of course he makes the better money in the house,” she said. “He’ll take care of home and make sure I go to school and get my education. You know, he’s fine on that. It’s like, he’s taking the better chunk of the bills and taking care of everything and then my little paycheck goes towards maybe food and, you know, buy little things here that I possibly really don’t need.” Likewise, the men “do masculinity” by commenting on the diminutive nature of their partner’s financial contributions. Keisha’s partner, Stan, shared her sentiment that his paycheck covered the “big” expenses. He explained, “I usually take care of the bigger stuff, the rent, you know, bigger bills. She’ll pay like smaller bills ‘cause she’s not making as much, so she’ll just pay like little cable and telephone and things of that nature.” Although the two wrote the checks for household bills out of a joint account, therefore making it impossible to distinguish whose earnings went toward which bills, like other Conventional couples they shared a joint perception that Stan provides the income that is most essential, while Keisha’s earnings were welcome, but unnecessary.

Several couples in this Conventional group initially stated that they contributed equally to the household, though upon further discussion of financial contributions at least one respondent noted that the man paid for additional expenses, such as groceries or entertainment. The discrepancies in their narratives may result from the fact that the female partners viewed their own contributions as equivalent, if not equal. Stephanie, for example, justified her partner’s greater expenditure on groceries by asserting, “But I try to take responsibility for a lot of stuff around the house. I even do his laundry…. Sometimes I feel bad because he spends a lot more on us than I do.” When asked “So how much of the housework would you say you do?” she reported, “I guess I do most of it. I mean, percentage wise I’m probably doing 80 %, ‘cause he does dishes sometimes. But I’m the one who always ends up cleaning the bathroom, vacuuming, you know, cleaning up the living room, all that.” The language used by many of these couples evokes complementary gender roles, while also highlighting the domestic privileges accruing to primary providers and how women attempt to equalize their contributions.

For these Conventional couples, weighing the equity of the division of labor appears to be based on the sum of both financial and domestic contributions as well as their personal satisfaction with the divisions. For example, while most of these Conventional women did the vast majority of the housework, two other couples claimed equality, but also indicated that the woman had responsibility for more time-intensive and regular activities. Still, they viewed their arrangements as equal because each partner was satisfied with the division. Asked about the things his partner does for him, Ray included among his list, “There are times when she’ll clean the whole apartment so I don’t have to worry about it, and she’ll do the laundry, so I can just come home and I don’t have to. I can just sit and relax.” When asked, “What do you do for her?” Ray replied, “Well not as much as she does for me (laughs), not physically but, you know, I’m supporting her. I make a lot of money and so financially I support her and I guess I said occasionally you know, I’ll do laundry or I’ll vacuum, do some house chores. I’ll go to a play with her, and you know, something that she likes to do, a movie.”

What makes such comments surprising is that many of these couples did not anticipate such conventional arrangements when they began living together. Ray’s partner, Julie, was quite explicit about her expectations at the beginning of the relationship. “Honestly, at the beginning I thought I would only allow a fifty-fifty situation. I did exactly 50 % of the housework, as did he…I thought it was gonna be this very, like modern woman-man type relationship.” Despite their initially egalitarian expectations, however, few Conventional couples expressed dissatisfaction with their current arrangements of domestic work. Asked to reconcile her expectations with the outcome, Julie replied that she was not necessarily unhappy since he was working full time while she worked 20 hours a week and was a full time student.

Although she has assumed the main domestic work, her contributions have less weight for both of them. Asked what she does for him, Julie said:

Maintaining the apartment, maintaining the household, the stuff like that. I’m like the cruise director, I mean like I’m in charge of all of the Christmas cards right now and I’m like, “Ok, Ray, we have to get this and this and this, call your family, see what they want.” I kind of just keep things organized while he keeps... he keeps us afloat, because if it weren’t for his income I wouldn’t be able to afford to have the time to go to school full time. We totally we take care of each other but it’s just two different aspects of it. One is financially versus you know, sort of the extra stuff.

By labeling her work as “extra,” especially when compared to Ray’s primary financial work, Julie diminishes her contributions. While the Conventional couples may look at the sum of financial and domestic contributions to determine whether their divisions of labor are equitable, it is clear that for many, domestic contributions are not worth as much as financial ones.

Ray also devalued Julie’s domestic abilities. When asked, “What if your situation was reversed and you were home more?” Ray replied, “Well, if I was at home more, I’m kind of a stickler with cleanliness, so I think I would have the apartment a little more clean than what she does. I mean it’s not bad, but you know, I’d just be more on top of it.” Nonetheless, he added, “I’m happy, she seems to be happy.” Whether women in this sample like Julie, who initially advocated more egalitarian divisions of labor, come to see their arrangement as more advantageous, or if they realize that obtaining something approximating more equal is unlikely without much more effort or conflict, is unclear. What is apparent is their surprise that a more egalitarian arrangement did not naturally arise. Nonetheless, that these contemporary women expect more equality may be an indication that gender expectations have changed.

Conventional men in our sample often explained their lesser domestic contributions by asserting their paid work is more difficult, that they pay a larger proportion of the household bills, that they do the “outdoor” or “masculine” chores (despite the fact that most lived in apartments where such chores were very limited), or by discussing their female partners’ differing expectations or proclivities for household labor. Simon, for example, said:

Women have a certain way they want things folded, a certain amount of how they wash things … I think that’s one of the issues, you know. Garbage, of course, I think is a man’s job ‘cause lots of times it’s heavier. You’ve got to walk out in the cold and being a gentleman you take that on.

By framing their performance of fewer, but more “difficult” chores as gentlemanly, and naturalizing their partners’ performance of the majority of the housework, these Conventional men were able to explain their divisions of household labor as consistent with their attitudes toward gender. Their partners often viewed the situation in the same way. Here, too, neither men nor women viewed all domestic responsibilities in the same way; “men’s work” was often viewed as a greater contribution than “women’s work” despite being irregular and less time intensive. Conventional couples have been together longer, on average, than other types of couples. This, in addition to their greater homogamy, may help explain why Conventional couples tend to have more similar views about the division of labor than other groups.

Contesting Couples

The second largest group in our sample (11) consists of couples where one or both partners had a goal of actively challenging conventional gender roles. The strategies are far from uniform. Unlike those in the Conventional group, there is a fair amount of dissonance in the desires of the individual couple members and more expressed dissatisfaction with how things currently stand. In every case except one, only the female partner was struggling to change gendered norms and, as such, she often expressed greater discontent. No couples were actively working jointly to construct egalitarian ways of combining paid and domestic labor.

In contrast to the Conventional couples, the concept of work was not more central to men’s self-concept than for women’s in this group. Although several of the men were quite well remunerated, work was generally viewed by them as a means of bringing in an income, rather than being intrinsically rewarding or a priority. Women in the Contesting group were far more likely than their Conventional counterparts to discuss their occupational aspirations and plans for reaching those goals. Their partners’ work did not feature prominently in their narratives, and they were almost as likely as the men to share their adeptness in their jobs.

Another dimension differentiating these Contesting couples from their Conventional counterparts was their arrangement of financial responsibilities. These were far less uniform. Some couples follow the Conventional template, with the male covering a greater share of the household costs. The most common financial arrangement, however, was to share household finances relatively equally. When the man covered the bulk of the household costs, he also earned considerably more, but the women actively resisted becoming comfortable in their current dependent situation. By framing their economic arrangements as temporary, these women struggled to “undo” conventional ideas about female dependence within relationships. Beth justified her hurry to complete her Associate’s degree, saying

Right now I’m like [earning] $9,000 dollars a year and he’s in a $25,000–$30,000 dollar bracket, so it makes things much more unfair financially. And to me, I feel like I need to be making more money or whatever to be even on the same level. I feel like he’s got too much control over what we do with money kind of thing, because he’s got all of the money in our relationship, basically.

Of note is that Mitch, her partner, saw providing for Beth and taking care of the finances as a caring gesture that would reduce her level of stress, rather than add to it. Asked what types of things he did for her, one item he mentioned was, “I try to support her monetarily if she needs school supplies, if she is a little short on the rent I try to just make her life stress free as possible.”

Among couples who shared household finances relatively equally, most were earning similar amounts. Asked how they covered their bills, Sherry promptly responded, “Fifty-fifty, right down the middle,” then went on to say, “I mean it’s just like every other roommate situation, you know?” She added, “Even our groceries are like his and hers.” Most of the women in these five couples were actively working to flout the norm that men should earn (and spend) more money within relationships. These women emphasized their pursuit of egalitarian fiscal roles, and asserted that paying their way gave them a sense of accomplishment. Vickie described how she initiated their current arrangement from the beginning of her relationship with Howard:

I was the one who started that from day one, like the very first time we went out to eat, I was like, “I’m paying for my half, why should you pay for it?” It’s been like that ever since. So I think I kinda kicked myself in the butt by doing that, but, I mean sometimes it’s okay…this morning we went out to breakfast and I’m like, “I’m paying for my own” ‘cause he paid for everything yesterday. Sometimes he does pay for everything ‘cause he knows I’m broke. But, some days I’m just like, I don’t know, I wanted to pay for my own things and, I feel better when I do that.

Unlike their female partners, Contesting men did not discuss financial equality as an expression of egalitarianism; they were much more matter-of-fact about their arrangements. When asked, “After the last few months, how have you and Vickie covered your living costs?” Howard simply explained, “She pays her portion of the rent and I pay for my portion, ‘cause she works and I work and everything’s separate so she pays her portion of the rent.” The same is true for partners in those few Contesting couples where women outearn their male partners. Rather than describing themselves as modern families, both partners in these couples viewed their arrangements as simply being fair or rational.

Household work was divided up somewhat more equitably among these Contesting couples than for their Conventional counterparts, although most women generally continue to perform more of the household labor. The man did the bulk of the domestic labor in only one of these couples – and that is a recent development. More importantly, however, there was a fair amount of negotiation among these couples regarding domestic labor. Some of the women pushed their partners to do more, and quite a few of the men resisted these attempts or considered their increased labor provisional. Furthermore, there was no consistent relationship between fiscal contribution levels and housework.

Several couples discussed how domestic labor had been renegotiated, but this process rarely emerged as an active, cooperative way of turning established gender norms on their head. Rather, it resulted from irritation and anger over power imbalances, and was universally driven by the women. Chad and Jackie both agreed that when they first moved in together she did all of the housework. After a while she told her partner,

I just explain like “I’ve got a lot going on. I’m working, I’m going to school. I’m gonna pull my hair out if I have to do all this work” and that I need him to help me out. And he was very understanding about it and he helps, he does, but he just he doesn’t understand my my level of cleanliness, you know what I mean? It seems ridiculous to him. He thinks I’m crazy.

She had since begun assigning Chad jobs, such as taking out the trash or mopping, and claimed it has gotten better. While she would like him to do still more, Jackie explained why achieving that was difficult: “I don’t like to ask. That’s the thing. I don’t want to feel naggy so I just kind of wish he would you know, be more proactive and you know, do these things without me saying, ‘Hey, will you do this?’”

It seemed unlikely that Chad will begin doing more, given his orientation to cleaning. Admitting that Jackie still did almost two-thirds of the housework, he added, “I mean I know that kinda isn’t fair. It’s, I try to do more with that. I just don’t see the dirt usually. I don’t see that it needs to be done.” Rationalizations like Chad’s were not uncommon and appeared both among this group of working-class cohabiting men and in other literature. These women’s self-concepts as “co-providers” and their beliefs that their employment is just as important as their male partners’ likely impacted their feelings that the men should be more equal participants in domestic labor.

While most were straightforward in their demands for financial equality, the majority of Contesting women asked their partners to do more domestic labor in very circuitous ways, such as posting a chore chart on the refrigerator in the hopes their partners will recognize all of the work they do. That may enable their partners to take their requests less seriously. There may be other reasons, as well, behind why Contesting women mention difficulties in getting their male partners to take on a larger share of the household chores.

Several of these men seemed to define “equal housework participation” differently than their female partners. Eric, for example, explained, “I always take out the trash and like I do the dishes a lot. We probably do it pretty evenly.” He later noted that his partner, Dawn, often did those chores, too, because, “She’s not as patient…” He further added that many of the chores that Dawn did were more labor-intensive. When asked, “Who is it that normally cleans the bathrooms?” he replied, “Usually her when it comes to the gritty stuff, I guess, but when it comes to the stuff that’s easy to see I’ll do that.” Asked to provide an example, Eric said, “Like when I shave and I have hair everywhere.”

Gender differences in what constitutes “clean” also emerge among our Contesting couples. Dawn had a different point of view on their household chores than did Eric. When we asked, “How did you think your division of labor would be split up?” She replied, “You mean housework? It sucks, man. I do almost all of it.” Asked if that was what she had expected, she answered,

Well, I thought it would be a little bit better than what it is. Uh, he’s alright, he just doesn’t do the deep clean. Oh, it’s definitely an 80–20 split. He does dishwasher [sic] and takes out the trash. And he’ll do laundry. He’ll clean it, but he won’t fold it, put it away. I’m the organizer. I’m the one that gets the house looking nice. I’m the cleaner, the deep-cleaner. I clean the entire house. He’s pretty good about helping me though. If I ask him to help, he will help.

Eric did not seem to recognize that many of the chores he was doing (if Dawn did not get to them first) were less onerous (not as “gritty” in his words), or just constituted picking up after himself (such as after shaving.) Given this, it is not surprising that he described their division of household labor as being more equal than did Dawn.

Whereas women in our Conventional couples viewed their greater participation in domestic labor as natural and fair, given their partners’ assumptions of the provider role, such views were not expressed by men in Contesting couples with female providers (see also Brines 1994; Tichenor 2005). Mark, for example, a stay at home father, viewed doing half of the chores as strictly rational (given that he is at home while she is working), but did not express gratitude for her providing. Instead, he complained about how incapable she was on the domestic front. He lamented: “I finally trained her to do laundry right. How can a girl grow up and not know how to do anything domestic at all? It just blows my mind.” Though there are only two couples in this situation, that these women only attained parity in domestic work as the primary earners points toward the difficulty of rewriting institutionally gendered scripts within romantic relationships. Because the majority of these couples began living together within 6 months of dating, they may have moved in together prior to coming to a mutual agreement about the division of labor. This might help explain why at least one member of each couple tried to change their arrangements. These couples also were more likely to be heterogamous in various ways, with a greater number in interracial or age-discrepant relationships, factors that also could serve to destabilize their unions (Bratter and King 2008).

Counter-Conventional Couples

We designated the final seven couples in the sample Counter-Conventionals, as they were characterized by women who play the dominant economic, and often the dominant domestic, roles in maintaining the family and household by default. The men in these couples made no secret of the fact that they had little work orientation and considerable job turnover. The highest status job of respondents in this group was held by Bill, who worked 20 hours a week in a college computer lab. The women were similar in their hazy notions of desired employment, but were the primary earners (with the exception of one full-time student), and were all employed at least 30 hours a week. The men in this group said that household expenses were split; most of the women, however, asserted that they paid the majority of the bills themselves. This did not translate into their male partners’ assumptions of domestic activities, though the women in this group had a greater likelihood of attaining parity in household labor than did Conventional or Contesting women. In contrast to the Contesting couples, these financial and domestic arrangements were not part of a conscious plan to overturn gendered roles. Rather, they resulted from the men’s lack of steady work.

Neither partner in most of these couples had a clear idea of the work they would like to do in the future. Counter-Conventional men, in particular, bragged that they were able to find work whenever they wanted, but most noted that they quit or transferred jobs frequently. Harry, who at thirty-two had not held a job for longer than a year and a half, typified the response of many in this group. When asked about his work goals he replied, “To this point I still don’t know what my dream job would be. That’s my whole problem. I have no idea what I would really, really want to do.” Several did mention a profession in which they would like to work, but say they doubted they would. Patty thought of becoming a therapist, but did not think she had the ability, money, or patience necessary for more than a two-year degree. These respondents were not unique in being unsure of future work, but their lack of focus distinguished them from respondents in the other groups.

The majority of women in this Counter-Conventional group were dissatisfied with their economic roles. Because all but one of the women worked at least as many, and often more, hours weekly than their male counterparts, they generally reported earning higher salaries. In some of the Counter-Conventional couples, the women were clearly the primary bill payers as two of their male counterparts were unemployed and the third worked part time. Whereas the economically dependent women in Conventional couples frequently commended their partners’ provider abilities, these Counter-Conventional men did not even acknowledge their partners’ financial support. When asked how he and Sheryl had managed to make ends meet for the past few months, Adam noted, “We both work and pay our bills accordingly.” Reminded that he had not been working for several months, he replied, “Yeah, I’m not working anywhere right now . . . Occasionally I’ll work with my Dad to make some extra money here and there. I mean I always, you know, put it to the fund.” Sheryl, like the other women, noted that she was unhappy with her primary financial role, the resulting financial difficulties, and stress that ensued from her partner’s job instability. Her discussion of Adam’s decision to quit his job highlighted why she was dissatisfied with their arrangement. She said,

He had a little hard time there. Which if he just would have stayed at the first job it would have been fine. I have a little anger towards that that I’ve discussed and worked through, for the most part. I had to pick up a lot of extra hours [at work]. And he borrowed money from people. And like my parents paid my school fees, ‘cause my loans weren’t in.

Furthermore, these women had not anticipated being the primary providers. Vanessa took on that role, she said, because Robert would not. She explained, “He’s not really responsible and that’s sort of weird, ‘cause I never, going back to the question about how I imagined my life when I was a kid, I never in all my life thought that I would be the one that would be responsible for things like that, but I am, so go figure.” Later, when asked, “What kind of responsibilities did you think you would have towards Robert?” She replied, “Like when we first went out? Nothing. Like I didn’t think I would have to like pay his bills or anything like that, you know, but that’s what happened.”

Counter-Conventional men also did not view domestic labor as a means of balancing out relative contributions. The two unemployed men (Harry and Adam) did perform a greater share of the housework, though Adam was unhappy about this arrangement. The women were generally happy for their male partners’ contributions on the domestic front. However, they still wished the men would contribute more to the household coffers. And often the men who were not contributing much financially to the household were also not doing much in the way of domestic labor nor expressing gratitude for the women’s contributions. When asked, “How did you think you guys would divide up, like your division of labor?” Vanessa explained that she gave up even suggesting her partner help clean, saying,

He doesn’t do any labor and I do it all (laughs). I mean like he doesn’t wash dishes or I have found that just ask him to wash dishes or doing any type of housework is like pulling teeth. He doesn’t like to do that. So I mean, now the division of labor is I clean, sometimes he’ll clean if he sees that I’m just really mad or frustrated at him but I basically do all of it to avoid arguments now.

Robert agreed with Vanessa’s perception. When asked how much of the housework he did, he replied, “Nothing. I mean, really, I don’t do anything. She’ll spend hours on it and I’ll spend like half an hour.” But from these men’s perspectives, such divisions were acceptable. Robert noted, “When I was younger, my mom would just do all the dishes and clean everything, so I’ve never really had to clean. It’s hard for me now. Every little bit I do, I feel like it’s a lot! I’ll say ‘Well I did the dishes! I took out the trash!’” Some dissatisfied women, like Vanessa, chose to stay in their relationships for now. They did not, however, foresee a permanent future together. Others were still hoping that their partners, in one woman’s words, would “grow up” and take on a more equal share of the household responsibilities. Counter-Conventional couples were the group most likely to be living with children, which may reinforce the desire for some women to remain in their relationships and hope the divisions become more equal in the future; alternatively, the contributions their male partners make as fathers may outweigh the women’s dissatisfactions with their divisions of paid work and domestic labor.

Other Differentiating Attributes of the Groups

The three groups of cohabitors exhibited other differences from each other that are illuminating. Conventional couples had lived together for the greatest amount of time and therefore had more time for their divisions of labor to evolve. Their duration together also helps explain their greater likelihood of having marriage plans, as previous research suggests that it generally takes several years before cohabitors who are not engaged upon moving in together to even begin to discuss marriage (Sassler 2004). Conventional couples were also more racially homogamous than other groups and were least likely to have previously married or cohabited. Such attributes, in addition to their traditional divisions of labor, may contribute to Conventional couples’ stability. Even though half of respondents in Conventional couples were parents, most were not living with children full-time. In all but one situation, the parents were men whose children did not live with them; half saw their children less than a few times per year. Unlike for married couples, then, the increased domestic and financial labor caused by children cannot account for Conventional couples’ more traditional exchanges (see Deutsch 1999).2

Previous research has suggested the difficulty of maintaining relationships when normative gender roles are continually challenged (Brines and Joyner 1999; Greenstein 1996; Lavee and Katz 2002). The Contesting couples in our sample demonstrate this premise. These couples also exhibited other potentially destabilizing characteristics. Contesting couples entered their cohabitations with the greatest rapidity; over half were romantically involved for less than 6 months before moving in together. Such rapid transitions gave these couples fewer opportunities to assess compatibility prior to becoming more serious. Couples in this group were also most likely to be racially heterogamous and to demonstrate large age disparities. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Contesting couples had the shortest mean length of living together. They also reported the least agreement regarding marriage and/or having children together. This is also consistent with the existing research on heterogamous couples, who are more likely to experience the dissolution of romantic relationships (Bratter and King 2008).

The characteristics of Counter-Conventional couples we studied did not provide many hints about their gender orientations. This group was most likely to be living with children. The presence of children seemed to bond these some of these couples together, though not all were shared biological children. Most of the men who had children with their partners had not yet settled into a single occupation, and all were either currently attending school or planned to attend school in the near future. With an average age of thirty, these men were in a later stage of life than most college students. Their progress toward finishing school, combined with the fact that they were bringing in at least some income or contributing substantially to childcare, may be part of what drives their partners to remain in these relationships. The remaining (childless) Counter-Conventional women reported a great deal more dissatisfaction with their situations. Their partners had the lowest incomes in the sample, but still expected the women to do the majority of the domestic labor. Of note is that minority women, particularly those with white partners, seem to be at particular risk of Counter-Conventionalism. Further research is needed to determine whether this is due to a shortage of minority men or unequal exchanges within interracial relationships (see Sassler and Joyner 2011). Beyond this, there were few racial differences noted. While the relatively small nature of the sample may help explain this finding, it is also possible that social class, and not race, is the ruling variable which shapes these couples’ gendered behaviors.


Our exploration of how these cohabiting couples construct gender suggests the difficulty of enacting relationships that operate outside hegemonic gender expectations. In particular, our results reveal that the institution of gender is so entrenched that it shapes interactions even among respondents (primarily women) who expressed desires for less traditional divisions of labor. We find little evidence that these cohabiting couples view their living situations as an opportunity to challenge established gendered ideologies. Not one of these respondents specifically discussed a goal of overturning established gendered behaviors. Rather than attributing their struggles over housework and financial divisions to how gender is currently institutionalized in American society, they view their disagreements as “personal troubles.”

When appropriate gendered behavior is unclear, individuals often defer to hegemonic expectations (Ridgeway and Correll 2004). Such was the case for many of these Conventional cohabiting couples, especially in terms of the household division of labor. That is not to say that gender, as an institution, remains unchallenged or unchanged, however. The men in our sample largely preferred having a partner who also worked for pay. Furthermore, few women expressed the belief that men should assume the role of sole provider – though some of the men continued to view such an arrangement as preferable if they were to have children. And about one-third of the couples in our sample were actively trying to share financial provision equally. In this way, the changing nature of work is impacting the ways that gender is constructed within these romantic unions and how individuals define their gendered selves.

Nonetheless, the majority of men in our sample continued to expect the masculine prerogatives once tied exclusively to the provider role. Contesting and Counter-Conventional men were able to undo gender by becoming co-providers or even economic dependents in their relationships (Gerson 1993), though some of their partners were very unhappy with this arrangement. Still, most of these men adhered to the belief that men should retain control over household finances and continued to benefit from women’s disproportionate responsibility for domestic labor. On the surface, then, the ways in which gender is expressed have changed moderately, but the connection between masculinity and privileges is maintained for many of these men. Almost none of the women who paid the majority of the household bills were awarded the privileges that male providers have traditionally received.

Men’s beliefs and behaviors surrounding the household division of labor appear to be the most firmly entrenched vestiges of conventionality among these couples. Even those who were pushing for equality in financial contributions (Contestors) failed to achieve parity in household labor. Women were far more likely than men to complain about domestic inequality, but most lacked the power to change their situations. Furthermore, most men who performed household work considered it a gift, and a temporary one at that (Hochschild 1989). Even when housework was shared somewhat equally, women invariably remained the supervisors of men’s domestic activity, responsible for allocating it and monitoring whether it was done (Risman 1998). As a result, women ultimately retained accountability for its performance.

For many of these couples, men’s recalcitrance makes it far more difficult for transformational women to achieve their desires for gender roles more consistent with the egalitarian ethos often advocated through popular culture. This is not unlike the experiences of some transformational men studied elsewhere (see Coltrane 1996). Here, though, we did not find evidence of these working-class men attempting to “undo” gender, at least within the domestic sphere. Instead, many were fighting to hold on to their provider privileges, meager though they might be, even when they were financially dependent. Increasing gender equality, then, seems to require the effort of couples working together, rather than women laboring alone in pursuit of shared domestic responsibility (Martin 2004).

Our study is not without limitations. The class composition of our non-representative sample might explain why these couples are not as likely to challenge the gender status quo as one might expect given extant research on cohabiters. The working-class has traditionally expressed more conservative views regarding women’s status and men’s responsibilities (Rubin 1976, 1994), even if their behaviors are not always consistent with their beliefs. The focus that many Contesting and Counter-Conventional women had on making their household divisions of labor more equal seemed due to their desires for “fairness” rather than egalitarian principles or feminist philosophies. This may be a uniquely working-class phenomenon. Some of the rationales used by Conventional couples to explain why men do less housework—because they do what they consider to be “the hard chores,” for example, might also be explained by our sample’s class composition. Comparisons with cohabiting couples in disadvantaged or middle-classes will help illuminate this topic.

Working-class men face considerable threats to their ability to fulfill the role of good provider (Sum et al. 2011), which has made them increasingly receptive to women’s labor force participation. At the same time, some evidence indicates that it has increased their sense of vigilance regarding the need to maintain their privileges (Brines 1994; Ciabattari 2004; Tichenor 2005). Recently, Sullivan (2011) argued that married working-class men and higher-earning women, in particular, are no longer engaging in the kind of gender deviance neutralization through male housework avoidance that occurred when a man’s partner outearned him. Our results lend support to Sullivan’s findings regarding women. Among a number of the Contesting and Counter-Conventional men in this sample, however, we find that performing a less than equitable share of housework regardless of relative employment status, is still a very real, and, according to the men, admittedly unfair, phenomenon. Perhaps working-class male cohabitors who do more household labor are more likely to be selected into marriage and, therefore, were not included in this study. We find support in our other work, for example, that at least some working-class women are reluctant to marry their partners because they feel that an unequal division of labor would become even more gendered (Miller et al. 2011). A final limitation is that, because our sample consisted only of intact couples, we no doubt missed couples where divisions of labor were more vigorously contested, as they would have an elevated risk of dissolution.

Our findings, though not representative of the population of cohabitors overall, are consistent with results emerging in studies of how the “stalled revolution” (Hochschild 1989) operates within this generation of “new” families (e.g. Gerson 2009; Lavee and Katz 2002; Tichenor 2005). Given that the majority of marriages are now preceded by a period of cohabitation, then, our results suggest that entrance into shared living, rather than marriage, sets the stage for the recreation of unequal gender roles. The institutionalization of gender roles that disadvantage women, then, is evident even in informal relationships. These results also suggest the need to explore whether class differentiates how cohabiting couples construct gender. As rates of cohabitation rise, it is likely that cohabitors will articulate more disparate beliefs regarding appropriate gender roles.

Given that cohabitors are socialized in the same gender regime as couples who marry directly, it is not surprising that overcoming institutionalized norms is challenging. Although attitudes about gender are becoming less conventional among women and men (Bolzendahl and Myers 2004), changed attitudes do not necessarily lead to more egalitarian behavior within cohabiting unions. Some women may view living together as a way to escape the traditionally gendered bonds of marriage. For many of the cohabiting women in this study, however, that was not the case. Some of these couples have chosen to construct their relationships in ways that are conventionally gendered and are happy with their arrangements. The majority of the women in our sample, however, came to their relationships expecting more equal partnerships. Though their desires to share the domestic and financial load did not come to fruition, that so many women had these expectations does indicate a change in conventionally gendered beliefs. The men, in contrast, seem content to reap the benefit of partners who co-provide fiscally, without challenging their dominant domestic power positions. In fact, there were no couples where partners equally shared both household and financial responsibilities.

Our results highlight the difficulty faced by some working-class individuals (and couples) seeking to challenge the gender status quo. Some couples are content to bend conventional gendered roles by earning similar amounts or sharing in the housework equally but the cohabitors in this study are not intentionally setting out to break the standards established by previous generations. Based on the results of this study, for the working-class, cohabitation does not appear to be a challenge to traditional marriage. Instead, for most of these working-class couples, cohabitation is yet another institution in which couples enact, or encourage their partners to enact, conventionally gendered relationship scripts.


For additional information on sample selection, please see (Miller and Sassler 2010; Sassler and Miller 2011b).


For further information on the ways that couples in this sample adapted their divisions of labor in response to parenthood, see (Miller and Sassler 2010).


Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012