Monday, August 6, 2007

Dual-Earner Couples

by Shashwati Geed

One of the most significant changes in the labor force over the past decades has been a progressive rise of households where both partners pursue a full time career. Dual income households made up a substantial 42% of the workforce [1] in the US in 2005 and since the 1960’s the number of women juggling a full time career with children has almost doubled [2]. These changing workforce demographics have made it difficult for individuals to lead balanced lives in the context of their families since they are an emerging group. Often, conflicting demands from work and family tug onto their limited resources and time causing distress. 64% of Americans who participated in a survey [3] reported that time pressures on working families were getting worse while 70% of working parents reported not having enough time with their children [4].

Work-family conflict occurs when an individual has to perform multiple roles that require time, energy and commitment. An inter-role conflict occurs as role-pressures from work-family domains become incompatible in some respects [5]. The cumulative demands of these multiple roles can generate conflict from overload or interference. Overload is where total demands on time and energy resources are too great on an individual to perform the roles adequately and comfortably. Interference is where the demands at work interfere within an individual’s family domain (WIF) and demands within the family interfering with the work domain (FIW)[6].

Traditional gender and family roles are starting to break down and the male member is not necessarily the sole breadwinner in the family any longer. Traditional heterosexual relationships however, continue to be structured by gender based power differentials creating a second-shift for mothers in the household. Traditional research has mostly focused on women and their careers as sources for strain and imbalance in the household when it comes to work-family balance. Mainstream media plays its part in projecting the superwoman strategy, where the great impetus is on a female to perform a juggling act perfectly and keep the balance between her career and family. The message to employed women is that if they were just “more efficient, more organized and tried harder” they would attain the work-family balance.

Not surprisingly then, even when women are employed full time, they perform nearly 80% of the second-shift household chores and childcare [7] and the careers of husbands tend to be prioritized more than those of wives’ [8]. To quote Gutek et al. (1991) “Tradition prescribes a different emphasis between work and family for men and women.”

Some empirical research however suggests that the conflict arising between work-family in dual-career households is not that mothers today are working, but how they and their partners perceive that role change [9]. The way in which these couples divide responsibility for the family seems a better predictor of work-family conflict than the primary factor of women pursuing a full time career. Further, the degree of stress perceived by the parents seems a better predictor of distress in the household than the primary stress of dual careers [10]. Research also indicates that combining work and family is both beneficial and possible and is not always a source of strain [11].

So how do couples cope with work and family demands?

Seiber suggests the idea of work-family enrichment [12] instead of conflict – where multiple engagements arising from work and family create opportunities for personal growth and new experiences rather than conflict. If the multiple roles are viewed as high quality with enriching rewards, the shift from conflict to enrichment can be made with some lifestyle adjustments and perspective change.

Coping behavior within the family system (intrinsic)

Poloma [13] identified four tension management techniques that dual career women used to reduce dissonance. These included – defining their dual career status as favorable and advantageous to themselves and their families. They established priorities among and within their roles, for example the couple as a whole lowered domestic work expectations or by reorganizing who does what – children taking on more responsibility in the house. Respondents also reported compartmentalizing work and family as much as they could - like leaving actual work related problems as much as they could back at work and similarly with the family. Lastly, some respondents resorted to compromising their career aspirations to meet other role demands. Men often made compromises such as compromising advancement/promotion opportunities to reduce the possibility of relocation etc.

Marital equality and shared responsibility between partners seems pivotal in work-family harmony [14]. Shared housework, mutual and active contribution to childcare, joint decision making both – inside and outside the house, equal access to family’s finances are other important domains that help make the household a more equal place for the husband and wife are important in reducing the couple’s sense of balance with maintaining jobs and family life. Several households have a seemingly equal division of labor where – the wife does the “inside work” and the husband takes care of “outside work” or the wife looks after elders/children while the husband takes care of finances – though seem like equal division of labor; they in fact are not and are still somewhat defined by gender based expectations. An adjustment instead to mutually sharing all responsibilities and the tendency to value each other’s aspirations and work-life goals are important in achieving the work family balance.

Coping strategies involving external support systems

Dual earning couples often tap resources external to their family system to reduce overall stress – like hiring help for childcare, domestic work, and purchasing labor and time-saving devices [15]. Outside support in terms of friendships with other couples in similar life-stations was also valuable to these families – it helped provide a reciprocal support structure and families could cover for each other when needed on a mutually beneficial basis. Often these professionals negotiated work arrangements like job-sharing, split location employees that reduced lifestyle stress. Research on dual income couple’s life cycle stage also suggests that parents with children less than 6 years of age had the highest work-family stress and it progressively decreased with older children [16]. This suggests support for parents in different stages of family life – for instance counseling and support services at work for parents of children under 13, and not just preschoolers will help reduce stress and conflict. Workplace/societal support make it easier for couples to cope with work-family demands more easily.


[1] Wikipedia: Social class in the United States

[2] Waite, L., & Nielsen, M., The rise of the dual-career family: 1963-1997, Working Papers Series, University of Chicago Alfred P. Sloan Center on Parents, Children and Work.

[3] The National Partnership for Women & Families Family Matters Survey, 1998.

[4] Galinsky, E., The 1997 National Study of the Changing Workforce, Families and Work Institute, 1997.

[5] Greenhause J.H., & Beutell N.J. (1985) Sources of conflict between work and family roles. Academy of management review, 10; pp.76-78.

[6] Gutek B., Searle S., & Kelpa L. (1991). Rational versus gender role explanations for work family conflict. Journal of Applied Psychology, 76, pp.560-568.

[7] Hochschilld A., & Machung A. (1989). The second shift: Working parents and the revolutions at home. New York: Viking.

[8] Friedman S.D., & Greenhause J.H. (2000). Work and family – Allies or enemies? New York: Oxford University Press.

[9] Fuligini A.S., Galinsky E., & Poris M. (1995). The impact of parental employment on children. New York: Family and Work Institute.

[10] Hoffman LW. Effects on child. In L.W. Hoffman & F.I. Nye (Eds.), Working mothers. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

[11] Wikipedia: Social class in the United States

[12] Kossek EE. Work family balance (online manuscript).

[13] Poloma MM. (1972) Role conflict and the married professional woman. In C. Safilios-Rothschild (Ed.), Toward a sociology of women. Lexington MA: Xerox.

[14] Schwartz P. (1994). Love between equals: How peer marriage really works. New York: Free Press.

[15] Holmstrom. The two career family. Cambridge MA: Schenkman, 1973.

[16] Staines G., & O’Connor. (1980). Conflict among work, leisure and family roles. Monthly Labor Review, 103, 35-39.