TOGETHERNESS IN THE HOUSEHOLD: Evidence on how couples value time spent together

13 Apr 2021

New research explores how couples value ‘togetherness’, what benefits and costs accrue from spending time together in leisure or childcare activities and how beng together interacts with other uses of their time. The study by Sam Cosaert, Alexandros Theloudis and Bertrand Verheyden notes data suggesting that togetherness is a substantial part of family time use, but then asks why do spouses not spend even more time together?

They analyse how use of time (including joint and private uses) is affected by economic circumstances, such as wages in the labor market, the timing of work or the costs of day nurseries. For example, the spouse who works fewer hours in the labour market is also the person who forgoes work flexibility in order to increase togetherness.

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Most people consider at some point in their lives how daily life may change if they enter a relationship with another person, that is, if they form a couple with a partner. When considering the gains from marriage/partnership, one of the first ideas that comes to mind is togetherness, namely time spent together with a partner.

Surprisingly, little is known about how couples value togetherness, what benefits and costs it accrues, or how it interacts with other uses of time. The authors explain what they have found:

The data

Recent data in the Netherlands suggest that partnered individuals spend substantial amounts of time together. Over 90% of Dutch households report some joint leisure, namely leisure in the company of each other. Often, joint leisure is almost one half of each person’s overall leisure.

Togetherness is not limited to joint leisure; childcare may also be joint between partners. We do not observe joint childcare (it is rarely observed in survey data) but we observe the overall time each parent spends on childcare, comprising care done jointly with the partner and childcare done alone. In the vast majority of households both mothers and fathers do childcare, and the amounts of childcare are positively correlated between them. Joint childcare is a possible interpretation for this correlation.

So the data suggest that togetherness, be it in leisure or childcare, is a substantial part of family time use. But why do spouses not spend even more time together?

The benefits and costs

Joint leisure is desirable on the grounds of companionship and joint childcare is beneficial on child developmental grounds. It enhances communication and closeness in the family and improves children’s verbal and other cognitive skills.

They both have significant costs. First, togetherness requires spouses to synchronise their schedules to be physically together at the same time. Those who prefer joint time may have to renounce a job that requires flexibility. Nonetheless, being flexible at work is often associated with a wage premium, for instance in high-responsibility occupations or in medical services where work schedules are irregular or unpredictable.

Second, while joint childcare may improve the quality and impact of care, it hampers division of childcare duties between partners and hurts specialiation in the household.

A model of family time use

We develop a model of family time use featuring the benefits and costs of togetherness. The model allows us to understand how use of time (including joint and private uses) is affected by economic circumstances, such as wages in the labor market, the timing of work, or the costs of day nurseries. It also allows us to monetise the additional value (if any) that joint time has over private time, and estimate the amount of joint childcare in the household – a component not typically observed.

Based on Dutch data, households pay on average €1.20 per hour (10% of the hourly wage) to replace private leisure with joint, and €2.10 (17% of the wage) to replace private childcare with joint. These numbers show the extent to which couples value togetherness in leisure and childcare. In addition, parents spend up to 12 hours per week on joint childcare, representing 92% of total childcare by the father.

Togetherness and the gender gap

Our model suggests that the spouse who works fewer hours in the labour market is also the person who forgoes work flexibility in order to increase togetherness. In the Netherlands, the UK and other countries, women work fewer hours than men due to low pay or other reasons.

Our model suggests that women will then restrict flexibility on the job to synchronise work with their husband’s and increase togetherness. Women, not men, forgo flexibility because it is less costly for them to align their fewer work hours with their husbands’. If flexibility pays a premium, women then forgo such premium. This is consistent with Claudia Goldin and other scholars’ argument that women’s inflexible timing of work reinforces any preexisting gender wage gap.

Alexandros Theloudis

Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER) | a.theloudis@gmail.com