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Psst, husbands: Vacuuming may spice up your sex life

Husbands of the world, take note.

A broom is not just a broom. A mop is not just a mop.

And to add to the confusion, a dishwasher is not just for cleaning the plates.

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It could rinse away the possibility of divorce. It could eliminate the need for marriage counselling.

And, perhaps more importantly, it could add sparkle to your sex life.

If you volunteer to load and unload it, that is. And you don't have to be nagged.

That housework and sex are linked is not a new idea. It's in the realm of conventional wisdom that a woman's anger or resentment over her unfair share of household duties can undermine intimacy with her mate.

What has changed is that men are beginning to understand that doing housework, or at least participating in a discussion about the management of the house, unprompted, goes a long way to creating marital happiness.

And as Toronto sex therapist Betty Stockley notes, "What is or is not happening in the bedroom is what is happening in the kitchen and other parts of married life."

Intimacy is not just for the bedroom, in other words. Foreplay can begin with a dishtowel.

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And it's not because men look cute in aprons.

Both men and women, in almost equal numbers, agree that the division of household management is a crucial component of a happy marriage, according to a study from the Washington-based Pew Research Center, released last month. "Sharing of household chores" now ranks third in importance on a list of nine items often associated with successful marriages.

That's above such staples as adequate income, good housing, common interests and shared religious beliefs. It was even well ahead of children.

Faithfulness was ranked first (93 per cent of survey respondents) - no surprise there - followed by a happy sexual relationship (70 per cent) and then the sharing of household tasks at 62 per cent.

Interestingly, back in 1990, fewer than half (47 per cent) of adults said that co-dusting, co-cooking and other shared household duties were of great significance in determining marital bliss. But in the 17 intervening years, no other factor on the list has risen in importance as much as how partners divide the domestic labour.

Clearly, women entering the work force account for some of the need for men to pick up a portion of the home-management tasks.

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Still, in the Pew study, even the stay-at-home mothers (or half of them, compared with 64 per cent of mothers working outside the home) said the sharing of household tasks was very important to the level of happiness in their marriage.

The key seems to be how much husbands appreciate their wives' housework burdens, and try to do something to help.

It's not about equity, it's about acknowledgment.

"My studies show that it's not so much who does what, and the balance or imbalance, but the way it is perceived by the couples," says Steve Nock, a sociology professor who studies marriage and the family at the University of Virginia.

"I predicted that couples in which each felt that the share of tasks both inside and outside the home [was]fair and equitable would have the lower divorce rate. But I was wrong."

The lowest divorce rate was among couples in which the wife felt the division of tasks inside the home was unfair to her and the husband felt that the division of household tasks was unfair to her, too. If both partners felt that the wife was getting the short end of the stick, the marriage was more likely to be happy.

It's the man's capacity and willingness to understand how women think that makes a difference.

"It's really a gift of gratitude," agrees Prof. Nock, who has been married to the same woman for 32 years. "It's a gift of the husband acknowledging what the wife does."

A friend of mine, whose first marriage ended in divorce and who is now happily remarried, says that her new husband's willingness to discuss what she calls "life management" is a big part of what makes him a wonderful mate. The children are grown, and both husband and wife work.

"It's not so much about what he does, the actual tasks, it's his understanding of what I hold in my head about the emotional well-being of the family and the anticipation of what has to be done. I don't want to be telling him all the time. That makes him defensive and it makes me feel preachy. We discuss it all openly.

"And yes," she adds, "it makes me feel much more attracted to him, when I know he understands that this management of our life is a burden that should be negotiated. He gets it, and that's huge."

Shared housework as an expression of intimacy "was the biggest marriage revelation of all revelations," says a fine specimen of modern husband-hood from his small town outside of Winnipeg.

"No one told me that before. I always assumed that women got turned on by men's buffness or something. But now, my understanding is the polar opposite of what you go into marriage thinking."

The 31-year-old has been married for 10 years. He and his 30-year-old wife have five children under the age of 9. He is the sole breadwinner. Their marriage is what they call "neo-traditional," built upon what the husband sees as a more evolved understanding of his male role.

"If you see manliness as being this individual who gets into gear in his household, who helps with the children, who thinks about what his wife wants done around the house, then that's a turn-on to women. But if you don't have that perspective on manliness, if you think it's more macho - which is what I had at the beginning - then you are totally in the dark.

"It used to be that men figured, 'If I make the money, that should be enough.'"

His wife, when questioned, says that she doesn't expect the household duties to be equally shared. That he supports the family financially, allowing her to be the primary caregiver and home-teacher

for their children, is a division of responsibilities she happily accepts.

However, if he came home and put his feet up in front of the TV, she would not be "in the mood for [sexual]intimacy."

"It's not by magic that we got to this happy place in our relationship," adds the husband. "It's through a lot of talking."

Neil Chethik, author of VoiceMale, published in 2006, and a U.S. media expert on the way men think, says unequivocally: "Statistically and anecdotally in my surveys, there's a correlation between housework and sex, both in terms of satisfaction and the amount of sex."

Mr. Chethik quickly adds, however, that the data don't illuminate cause and effect and could be interpreted in several ways. "It could be that the more sex a couple has, the more likely the husband wants to help his wife around the house."

Women need to help their men understand their domestic concerns, he explains.

"It's unconscious for men to not do their fair share of the work. It's not that they are trying not to work. It's that they are not conscious that it's so important," says Mr. Chethik. "They are often completely unaware. They don't notice dust."

"Most cultural messages that men get about women are not about understanding them," Prof. Nock adds. "And it's not part of the courting and dating rituals. Courting for men is about winning. It's about winning affection. It's about winning sex. It's a catch-and-capture fishing expedition."

Once they get her in the boat, so to speak, they are often unsure what to do.

"Loving women is one thing. Learning to live with them happily is another," offers the young husband in Winnipeg.

So, remember: handing your wife a bouquet of fresh flowers is lovely, but it may not be enough. "Darling," you should say with a smile, "please hand me that mop."

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More


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