URJHS Volume 8


Dual-Earner Couples: The Impact of Work-Family Spillover on Marital Satisfaction

Sarah A. Cherry
Samantha J. Sutorius
Emily L. Zimmerman
Huntington University


The present study examined the relationship between couples’ combined hours in gainful employment and volunteer activities and marital satisfaction. It was hypothesized that dual-earner heterosexual married couples who report a greater number of hours spent in gainful employment and volunteer activities would report lower levels of marital satisfaction. The Comprehensive Marital Satisfaction Scale (Mehrabian, 2005) was administered by convenience sampling to 30 couples in the researchers’ home churches and workplaces in Indiana. The data were analyzed using a Pearson r statistic and found that r equaled .01. No statistical significance was found; therefore the null hypothesis was retained. Future studies should consider a multi-variate approach to control for unemployment, children, and remarriage, among other confounding variables.


Due to the influx of women into the paid workforce in the last half-century, the balance of family dynamics has shifted significantly. For the couple particularly, the impact of both spouses working increases the number of stressors in their marital relationship. The attempt to balance “working outside the home, taking care of children, and completing household chores and errands . . .” is “. . . likely to set in motion a pattern of demands, stresses, and frustrations that shape men’s and women’s emotional lives and the nature of the family relationships” (Schulz, Cowan, Cowan, & Brennan, 2004). This can result in marital conflict.

An increased demand in one domain, either work or family, can cause strain on the other because of the overlap in these two roles and spouses’ limited time and energy; this is known as the resource drain hypothesis (Heller & Watson, 2005). When one role affects a person’s ability to contribute as a family member, spouse, or employee, this concept is referred to as “spillover.” Spillover, or the transmission of attitudes or reactions, can have a positive or negative outcome (Mauno & Kinnunen, 1999; Rogers & May, 2003; Schulz, et. al, 2004; Song, Foo, & Uy, 2008). When spillover follows the path of work to home, it begins with a job stressor - moving from affecting one’s occupational well-being to his/her overall well-being and, finally, to his/her spouse’s marital well-being (Mauno & Kinnunen, 1999). However, high amounts of spillover are conversely shown to be a result of increased job satisfaction, healthy communication patterns, and cohesive family structures. Opinions differ as to whether work and family spillovers have reciprocal relationships, meaning that work life can affect family life and family life can also affect work life (Song et al., 2008).

Another aspect of this relationship is the impact of gender on dual-earner couples’ marital satisfaction. Sweet and Moen (2004; 2007) noted that male spouses’ employment tended to take priority over female spouses’ workforce positions, especially if they decide to relocate. When a male’s workload is greater, he is more likely to withdraw at home, whereas a female with a greater workload is more likely to increase her anger at home. This demonstrates the gender difference where men have a tendency to retreat while women have a desire for further connection (Schulz et al., 2004). As a result, women report lower marital satisfaction due to decreased time shared with their husbands (Sweet & Moen, 2007).

Conversely, spouses who work at the same institution but in separate positions have a more positive perspective on marital satisfaction. This occurrence, referred to as co-working, is a potential method to reduce marital conflict. Accordingly, because both spouses’ positions are of equal importance in the relationship, the husband’s job is not favored over the wife’s position, causing less stress. However, home and work boundaries for a couple can become blurred when sharing the same employer (Sweet & Moen, 2004; Song et al., 2008).

Although most prior studies have found that time apart tends to create additional marital conflict for couples, one could wonder if Christian spouses would have the same result since they should value a more loving interaction and experience less conflict given their value system. In the present study, the first variable was the number of hours a self-identified Christian couple reported spending in gainful employment and volunteer activities on a typical week. The second variable, marital satisfaction, consisted of two separate parts. First, satisfaction alone can be described as finding pleasure or enjoyment in having a need or expectation fulfilled. Consequently, the term satisfaction is also very similar to being content and feeling gratified. More specifically, marital satisfaction can be defined as spouses finding fulfillment in each other in a first marriage as they spend time together, meet each other’s needs, and find pleasure in their relationship with each other. Aspects of marital satisfaction will be common goals and values, mutual affection, agreement on finances, commitment to one another, and minimal conflict (CMSS) (Mehrabian, 2005).

In today’s world of “strong commitment to employment and high marital instability” (Rogers & May, 2003), it is important to dedicate scientific studies toward researching the potential linkage between work and family. The increasing number of women entering the workforce leads to an increase in dual-earner households, which will likely result in an additional kind of marital conflict. Therefore, the hypothesis for the current study is as follows: dual-earner heterosexual married couples who report a greater number of hours spent in gainful employment and volunteer activities will report lower levels of marital satisfaction according to the Comprehensive Marital Satisfaction Scale (Mehrabian, 2005).



The participants in this study consisted of 30 Caucasian, heterosexual, church-going married couples from the Midwest. They came from varying socioeconomic backgrounds that were not specified for each couple. Participants were chosen using convenience sampling; the administrators of the scale selected the couples through their own churches and workplaces. The dropout rate was approximately six percent.


This study used Mehrabian’s (2005) Comprehensive Marital Satisfaction Scale (CMSS) to assess each married individual’s reported level of marital satisfaction. This scale uses 35 statements to gauge each spouse’s perception of their homogamy, general satisfaction, and interpersonal interaction (Blum & Mehrabian, 1999). These statements were answered on a scale of -4 (very strong disagreement) through 0 (neutral) and up to +4 (very strong agreement). Three examples of these statements are: “My spouse and I have similar ambitions and goals,” “My spouse and I often disagree about major decisions,” and “If I were marrying again, I would pick my present spouse.” The CMSS has confirmed content validity and construct validity. The test-retest reliability for the CMSS was found to be .83 over a six-week interval and its alpha internal consistency coefficient was 0.94 (Mehrabian, 2005).


The participant populations were informed about the study a week ahead of time through a published announcement. The statement read: “The present researchers are conducting a study on marital satisfaction for their Applied Research Methods class. They would appreciate your participation in their short questionnaire a week from today as it makes up a large portion of their grade for the semester. We hope to see you next week.” Once the participants were conveniently selected from the administrators’ churches and workplaces, participants were instructed:

Completing this scale is entirely voluntary, but we would strongly encourage your participation, as this study is a large portion of our grade for a research course. Because we are not asking for you to put your names on this scale and because you will place the scales inside blank envelopes, your responses will be kept completely confidential. However, if at any time you feel too uncomfortable to continue responding, you may terminate your participation. If you are interested in viewing the results of our study, please provide us with your email address on our clipboard and we will send the results to you by the end of May. If the statements on the questionnaire bring up feelings of marital discomfort, please speak with your pastor. If you do not feel comfortable talking about these issues with your pastor, we will connect you with another professional.

The scales were then distributed to the participants who, in addition to completing the scale, also individually reported their estimated number of hours that they worked for a business and received compensation as well as their non-paid volunteer hours. Scales were returned to the administrators in blank, sealed envelopes. Administrators then totaled the couples’ reported hours worked for a typical week, analyzed the couples’ combined reported scores on the Comprehensive Marital Satisfaction Scale (CMSS) (Mehrabian, 2005), and assessed the overall impact on their reported marital satisfaction.


Two scales were omitted from the study before calculating the results because the spouse did not return a scale. The remaining data were entered into a Microsoft Excel Program that calculated the Pearson r correlation coefficient. Using an alpha level of .05 and 28 degrees of freedom, the obtained Pearson r value was .01 and the critical r value was .36, so the null hypothesis was retained. There was no statistically significant correlation found.

Of the couples who received scales to complete, two did not return the scale, resulting in a dropout rate of approximately six percent. During scoring, decimals of .5 and above were rounded up to the next whole number. In the case of one individual reporting a range of hours, the average was calculated and used. Lastly, if one spouse reported an inexact number of hours, the spouse’s more exact reported number was used.

Three of the couples represented outliers in the scatter plot of the data (see Figure 1). The couple with the lowest number of hours worked was retired, so they each only volunteered 5-6 hours per week. The couple with the lowest marital satisfaction level had an average number of hours worked, but there was an insufficient amount of information to assess why their marital satisfaction level was so low. The couple that had the highest combined number of hours worked also had one of the highest levels of marital satisfaction. This couple has children, but the children are older and out of the home, so this could be one reason why their marital satisfaction was so high.

Figure 1 . Hours Worked and Marital Satisfaction


The results of this study did not support the initial hypothesis that dual-earner married couples who report a greater number of hours spent in gainful employment will report lower levels of marital satisfaction. Although our prediction was not supported by the results of this study, a correlation could still exist based on previous studies of work-family spillover where demanding roles interfere with one another (Heller & Watson, 2005; Rogers & May, 2003; Schulz et al., 2004). Past research defined marital satisfaction as the combination of several factors that differed from the present study, including coping mechanisms, perceived equity between spouses, and combined income (Perrone & Worthington, 2001). These varying definitions could have produced different results for the studies.

Several confounding variables could have contributed to the respondents’ answers and limited the results of the study, such as unemployment, volunteering, the presence or number of children, the duration of marriage, and the occurrence of remarriage. von Bergen (2002) noted that unemployment can place a negative strain on a marriage. When one person is unemployed, additional financial and emotional stress can be created. Since several of our respondents reported that they were unemployed, this could be another confounding factor. Respondents were asked to report the number of hours they volunteered each week in addition to hours they spent in gainful employment. It is believed that volunteer hours can potentially be more fulfilling and less stressful than paid work hours that could also distort the results. However, including these in our variable could have also distorted the results by eliminating some stress.

According to Sweet and Moen (2007), couples tend to have additional stress present in their marriage when they have children, especially school-age children. Because couples in the sample group had varying ages of children and some did not have any children at all, this could have skewed the overall results. Lastly, considering that the reported length of marriage ranged from less than one year to 55 years, this could also potentially impact marital satisfaction levels. Our sample included some couples who had been married more than once and these couples reported higher levels of marital satisfaction on average.

Although the literature on this topic seemed to point toward hours spent in gainful employment having more of a negative correlation with marital satisfaction, the results of this study revealed neither a positive nor a negative correlation. This could be due to numerous confounding variables that were unable to be eliminated with such a simple research design. The main limitation of this study was the focus on only two variables rather than multiple variables that likely impact marital satisfaction. It is recommended for future research that a multi-variate approach be used.


Blum, J., & Mehrabian, A. (1999). Personality and temperament correlates of marital satisfaction. Journal of Personality, 61(1), 93-125.

von Bergen, J. M. (2002, November 5). Unemployment can crack even strong marriage, therapists say. The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Heller, D., & Watson, D. (2005). The dynamic spillover of satisfaction between work and marriage: The role of time and mood. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(6), 1273-1279.

Mauno, S., & Kinnunen, U. (1999). The effects of job stressors on marital satisfaction in Finnish dual-earner couples. Journal of Organization Behavior, 20(6), 879-895.

Mehrabian, A. (2005). Manual for the Comprehensive Marital Satisfaction Scale (CMSS). Monterey, CA: Author.

Perrone, K. M., & Worthington, E. L. (2001). Factors influencing ratings of marital quality by individuals within dual-career marriages: A conceptual model. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 48(1), 3-9.

Rogers, S. J., & May, D. C. (2003). Spillover between marital quality and job satisfaction: Long-term patterns and gender differences. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 482-495.

Schulz, M. S., Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., & Brennan, R.T. (2004). Coming home upset: Gender, marital satisfaction, and the daily spillover of workday experience into couple interactions. Journal of Family Psychology, 18(1), 250-263.

Song, Z., Foo, M., & Uy, M. (2008). Mood spillover and crossover among dual earner couples: A cell phone event sampling study. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(2), 443-452.

Sweet, S., & Moen, P. (2004). Coworking as a career strategy: Implications for the work and family lives of university employees. Innovative Higher Education, 28(4), 255-272.

Sweet, S., & Moen, P. (2007). Integrating educational careers in work and family: Women's return to school and family life quality. Community, Work & Family, 10(2), 231-250.


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