Over the last year, I’ve collected clippings that detail research on diverse topics, like weight gain and physical fitness, with a common theme: the effect of our social networks–actual friends, not just Facebook ones–on our experiences.
For many of us, the influence of peers is most intense (or most obviously so) when we’re in school, especially as teens. But the truth is that during adulthood, our friends’ behaviors and attitudes can remain powerful.
Take weight gain, for example. In 2007, researchers from Harvard and UC-San Diego reported that obesity isn’t just spreading in the United States; it might actually be contagious. Specifically, being friends with someone who becomes obese—even if they live elsewhere—can increase our own chances of obesity by up to 171%, especially if they’re close pals. By the way, if our spouses or siblings become obese, our risk increases by far less, a “mere” 37-40%.
In case you think this phenomenon applies solely to weight (or fitness, as cited in a recent study by the US Air Force), it turns out that divorce is also infectious. According to research at Brown University, regardless of how far away they live, a close friend’s divorce increases our own risk by as much as 75%, while a sibling’s marital split bumps the risk of our getting divorced by 22%.
Why the higher impact of friends? According to Dr. James Fowler, one of the authors of the study on obesity:
We look to friends more than spouses or family to gauge acceptable social behavior.
So if our friends (and to a lesser degree family) can have a powerful effect on our weight, physical fitness, and likelihood of staying (or not staying) married, what impact might they have on our co-parenting? Specifically, how might friendships affect how we divide household and childcare responsibilities with our spouses?
I mention this topic because my coaching clients often cite housework and parenting duties as stressors on their relationships. In fact, division of labor is one of the Top 3 topics about which straight parents* argue most (the other 2 are kids and money).
The frequency of conflict over housework and childcare isn’t surprising, given that even in dual-income heterosexual households in the United States (and I suspect Canada, too), moms tackle about twice as much of the household labor, and anywhere from 3 to 4 times the childcare as dads do on average.
These data are especially striking because it’s not unusual for expecting couples, in which both spouses plan to continue working outside the home after their babies arrive, to declare best intentions about sharing parenting duties equally or close to it. Yet, many end up lapsing into a mom-does-more-than-dad mode.
There are, no doubt, many factors that influence housework and childcare once we’re parents. They include employer attitudes that privilege the importance of men’s over women’s jobs, the fact that men still earn more on average than women (combined with the belief that earnings should determine who does or doesn’t do what at home), and enduring cultural ideals of motherhood that dictate mom-knows-best and dad-knows-least.
Plus, according to Mount Holyoke psychology professor, Francine M. Deutsch, who researches what she calls “equally shared parenting;“ the effort by some couples to equitably divide paid work, housework and parenting responsibilities:
The most predictive factor of how equal a couple will be is how equal their friends are.
While I’m certain that peer-influence doesn’t operate in a vacuum, in the absence of quickly resolving the broader cultural factors noted earlier, how can our friendships better support our co-parenting efforts? Meaning, if we want a more equitable division of labor with spouses, how do we limit the impact on us of our friends’ inequities?
One option, of course, is to ditch our current friends. Not gonna happen, so here are some other options:
(1) Actively cultivate friendships with those who believe (and act on beliefs) that it’s not just important but doable for spouses to share more housework/childcare.
(2) Shift conversations with friends from complaining about spouses—e.g., wives sometimes kvetch about how little their husbands do; husbands sometimes bemoan their wives’ criticisms of what they do—to developing strategies to empower spouses to contribute more equitably, to feel good about what we both do, and to inspire a team attitude to housework &/or childcare.
(3) Chat with spouses about the possible influence of peers, and try to shift the lens from friends’ approaches to our own so that, together, we design a division of labor that’s true to our joint/compromised vision for our family and relationship.
Adopting any of these approaches requires a few ground-rules (feel free to come up with more, as you and your spouse see fit):
Both parents already know how, or are capable of learning on their own, to perform childcare and housework duties.
Our styles of parenting or doing housework might differ.
There’s no one right way to parent or do housework.
Unless our children’s safety or wellbeing is at stake, or our home is in ruins, support co-parents’ childcare and housework styles, without unsolicited advice, judgment or intervention.
While our friends’ behaviors and attitudes don’t always determine our own, it’s likely they are influential. Evaluating how our friends’ behaviors are in sync and out of sync with what we want for our marriages and families, not only increases our awareness of the external factors impacting us, it also empowers us to improve our relationships and co-parenting.
* Research suggests that, overall, the division of housework is more equitable among gay and lesbian couples, and that when lesbian moms argue about childcare, their focus is on wanting more time with their kids versus dissatisfaction with how little time their spouse devotes to childcare.