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August 21, 2023

Cortisol? It's the hormone associated with stress. It peaks shortly after awakening in the morning and decreases as the day goes on, with spikes during stressful moments. Cortisol levels can be quite high by the evening, depending on the demands of the day and the demands after the workday ends. The bad news is that elevated end-of-day cortisol has been associated with burnout, depression, and even earlier mortality. 

So whose cortisol level drops the most after the workday ends — husbands or wives? In other words, whose body is recovering the most successfully from the day's stresses? 

Research reported in the Journal of Family Psychology (Volume 25, 2011) found that among dual-income couples with children, wives spent more time than husbands engaged in domestic tasks at the end of the day, with higher end-of-day cortisol levels. Even without children, wives often carry a “domestic consciousness” on the brain. Not surprisingly, as husbands took on greater amounts of domestic tasks, their wives' cortisol levels dropped; the efforts of husbands translated into wives having an easier time unwinding.  

It's really a question of free time: who has it and who doesn't. Studies show that working women with children typically have less free time than their husbands. It's not because women work longer hours at the office — many work fewer hours than their partner — and it's not because the gap between what men and women do around the house remains enormous. That formerly huge gap has shrunk noticeably in recent decades as men have taken on more and more household chores. It seems that wives enjoy fewer hours of quality free time because their so-called free time is "contaminated" by the interruptions of kids and the mind drifting off to those domestic responsibilities that continue to rest on wives' shoulders (for instance, "What do we need at the market? Did I remember to get decorations for our son's upcoming birthday party? What about that leaky faucet?") It's a different sort of gender imbalance than we witnessed thirty years ago, but it's an imbalance nonetheless, leaving wives with less effective ways to recharge their batteries (and lower their cortisol). 

Who gets to truly unwind in your partnership? If the scales aren't balanced, talk together about ways to correct the tilt so both of you can enjoy a significant cortisol drop by the end of the day.