Couples are composed of individuals who coordinate their behaviors in relation to one another. In working families—where both adults work outside the home and raise school-aged children—the challenge of coordinating behaviors to meet family needs is especially great. The emotional tone of family life pivots to a significant degree on the extent to which family members negotiate and enact effective strategies for contending with the numerous tasks encountered in their daily lives. More generally, observing family members as they go about their everyday routines reveals important insights into family dynamics and communication. Although we have noted some salient exceptions here, our global impression is that expectations and roles are not yet clear and that satisfying domestic routines for many working couples have yet to be established.
Among the couples we studied, mutually shared understandings of responsibilities minimized the need for spouses to evaluate and manage one another’s task-related behaviors. These understandings enabled partners to fulfill their household duties with the knowledge that established boundaries would be not be crossed. Demands were few, disengagement in the face of demands was unnecessary, and partners were more likely to feel respected for the contributions they made. Conflict was more prevalent when couples had not worked out a clear division of labor in the home and had to renegotiate responsibilities from one day to the next.
Ambiguous models appeared to provide ample opportunity for partners to express displeasure toward one another as they completed their chores, such that various attempts at controlling these exchanges—for example, through requests and avoidance of these requests—revealed the ongoing and occasionally tense negotiation of power and influence between partners.