Where Logic Meets Love

Unfairness and the Happy Marriage

Thursday, August 4, 2011

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Unfairness and the Happy Marriage | Faith Permeating Life
The summer Mike and I got married, several of my friends did as well, which meant lots of bridal showers and the corresponding obligatory marital advice from older married women. Some of the advice consisted of platitudes that I've since learned are bad ideas, like "Never go to bed angry," but one notion came up several times that struck me as unconventional: "Marriage is not 50-50. Sometimes it's 90-10, and that's OK."

The "equal marriage" is an ideal I think many people of my generation have going into marriage. It seems to be the farthest you can get from the old-fashioned notion of gender roles, where everything from money-making to child-rearing to house-cleaning is pretermined for you by your sex. Instead, we strive for partnerships where both partners contribute equally to making money, raising children, and cleaning house.

There are a few problems that quickly crop up with this model. One is clear if you read Spousonomics, the marriage/economics book I've recommended a few times. In most cases, household chores get done better and everyone is happier if you each specialize in different things rather than taking turns doing the dishes or the laundry or whatever.

Another problem is that this equality mindset provides a slippery slope into scorekeeping. You expect that for everything you do, your spouse will do something in return that you consider to be of equal time and effort. For every sacrifice you make, your spouse should make one in return. For every time your spouse slacks off, you figure you're allowed to slack off in return. And soon the things you're doing are less out of love and service than out of a careful calculation of balance in your head.

After two years of marriage, I've found that those women were right. Marriage is unbalanced and unfair. But -- and here's the catch -- if you're both committed to giving 100% to each other, it's unfair... equally.

For example:

Mike and I merged our finances the year before we got married, when we were both starting grad school. I had a full ride for my undergrad and an teaching assistantship for grad school, whereas Mike had student loans from undergrad and we didn't want to take any more out for his grad school. At the time, I had roughly 60 times more money than him in my bank account. It went toward paying his grad school. When my grandfather passed away that December and I received some inheritance, that went toward paying his grad school. The money I made from my assistantship? Went toward paying his grad school. Unfair? Unfair.

About seven months into marriage, I came down with mono. Mike took on everything at home. He was going to school and working two jobs, and he cooked every night, did the dishes, cleaned the apartment. He would drive me to and from the train station every day so I didn't have to walk between the parking lot and the station, and so he could help me up the stairs at the end of the day. I was utterly useless. My immune system was weakened, and so I got sick a lot, and Mike would make me tea and run out to the store at 10pm for medicine, tissues, soup, whatever I wanted. He put his heart and soul into taking care of me at a time when I could give nothing back. Unfair? Unfair.

When Mike finished grad school and couldn't find a job for a year, when he quit his part-time job and then didn't take the next one offered to him, there was a period of time when he was doing nothing and making no money. I was working full time and combing over our finances to make sure we would be OK. If he hadn't been married, he wouldn't have had the luxury of having a secure place to live and money for food every week. He hated job applications and sometimes went a week without applying for a single job, and I had to get on his case and sometimes sit next to him and walk him through applications while typing up cover letters for him. When he finally landed a full-time job, it wasn't one he'd even applied for, he'd just been called up by someone who'd gotten a recommendation to interview him. Unfair? Unfair.

This past week we were on vacation, and I was reminded how much of the burden Mike shoulders for me, literally and figuratively, in these kinds of situations. In addition to his own carry-on and suitcase he willingly carried my heavy carry-on bag so I wouldn't hurt my back. At the airport ticket counter, after we'd been standing for 4 hours in an insanely long line and missed our flight along with most other people there, he calmly and easily charmed the woman behind the counter and we were both able to make it on the next flight out. At the rental car counter, he told me to take it easy and watch the bags while he stood in line and got our car. Then, because he didn't want me to freak out about driving in the city or through the mountains, he drove the entire 3-4 hours to our destination even though he had a horrible neckache from the plane. I didn't have to do anything but go along for the ride. Unfair? Unfair.

The point, in case you were thinking along these lines, is not whether these specific sacrifices balance each other out, whether they're "worth" the same. The point is, I don't think either of us generally thinks about these situations in terms of fairness. We both step up when we're needed and do whatever we need to do for the other person. That's what we've both committed ourselves to, and that's why our marriage works.

From the beginning, our marriage has been about service -- that was the theme of Mike's proposal and our wedding. This is not a business partnership or a roommate arrangement. We've committed to love and serve each other unconditionally, regardless of what we get back in return. It works for us because both of us made that commitment, and neither of us is keeping score.

How does this work in your relationship? Do you strive for an "equal" partnership? Are you accustomed to thinking about things in terms of fairness and scorekeeping, or do you try to serve your spouse without worrying about what you get in return?


  1. We are totally like this. Even though I have a job I have weirdly fallen into some gender stereotypes due to my hatred for math (husband is in charge of the budget) and the fact that I work fewer hours and have a much lower threshold for filth than him (so I do a lot more cleaning).

    When I had a job and he didn't, I paid for dates and gas for him to come see me.

  2. This was awesome. We got the 90-10 advice before we got married and it's been a godsend.

    Jason also heard that 'spousenomics' idea (about having specific chores instead of sharing everything) and it. has. done. WONDERS. for us living together. I mean, we were already doing great, but now we've got a system that keeps us both really content.

    And I'll admit, sometimes I do still fall into the "scorekeeping" mentality, but it's fading away. I might just get the hang of this marriage thing sooner or later : )

    You're awesome.

  3. I've never gotten the 90-10 advice but I think it can be very true.

    My first year of teaching? I was a wreck. All that I could do by the time I stumbled home at 6:00 PM was sit on the couch and drool. I was non-functional when I got home. So my husband did a lot of the cooking and dishes. He still is the better cook, so even though I just finished my second year he does a lot of the cooking if I don't have a preference in what we're eating and always without fail does the dishes. Unfair? Unfair. Do I feel guilty sometimes? Oh yeah. But the way he approaches it is that I am working at a job that continues even after I've come home, which for a couple of months was our only source of income. So, whatever we both need to do to keep he house and our marriage running is what we need to do. And of course sometimes I can't help but score keep but I'll always loose track the next time some other crisis comes up.

  4. @Macha
    I think the backlash against gender stereotypes has caused some people to forget that sometimes our strengths do fall along "traditional" lines. Mike and I are reversed on most things, but he, for example, does 90% of the driving when we're together, not because he's the man but because I hate driving and he enjoys it. Sometimes it just works out that way.

    That's great that you've found a good system for the two of you! Even though we already had a pretty good division of labor when I read Spousonomics, it helped me to stop feeling guilty about the fact that I was letting Mike do all the cooking and dish-washing. I'm glad you've also found a system that makes you both happy.

    What a supportive husband you have! That's awesome. And from what I've read on your blog, it sounds like you have been supportive as well about his job and the hours he has to work. That kind of attitude makes for a great, service-oriented marriage!

  5. This reminds me of one of the important ideas in A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle: Alike and equal are not the same thing. Making your contributions alike is not the only way to make them equal or fair. In a long-term relationship, equality is not about who's doing how much in the moment but about striking a good balance over the long term. It can't be measured only by time spent, calories of effort, dollars earned, or anything like that; what matters most is that both partners feel loved and respected.

    A friend told me that the best advice she got at her wedding was, "There is never a good reason to be unkind." I think that applies to any relationship and particularly to those moments when you feel tempted to total up the contributions, confirm that you're doing more than your share, and therefore slack off and resent your partner--when he truly needs your help, even if he's unable to pull his weight, refusing to help him is very unkind.

  6. @'Becca
    I like that: "There is never a good reason to be unkind." We would all do well to remember that throughout the day, in all situations!

    I think you're right that the temptation to forget this is strongest when we feel like we have justification or good reason for retaliating toward someone. I thought that Jennifer Fulwiler's latest post on reason was a good reminder that just because you have good reasons, doesn't mean you're right.

  7. I knew I forgot one :) I like this post a lot, especially when, right now, our lives are not "fair." (I know, life ISN'T fair.) It's not fair that DH is out of work and has to do more around the house since he's home all day. It's not fair that I'm the only one working (and the benefit holder), where the pressure is on me to not get fired or anything, and then having to juggle stuff when I'm home. When DH goes back to work, he could have a job where he's home less than he was during his last job, so more would fall to me. Is that fair? No, but if we want our house to run as smoothly as possible and to have food in the cabinets and clean clothes and money in the bank, someone will have to pull more weight in one area. Like 'Becca said, you can't measure this kind of stuff. "I did 20 minutes of dishes, now you have to do 20 minutes" is pretty ridiculous :P

  8. @Rabbit
    if we want our house to run as smoothly as possible and to have food in the cabinets and clean clothes and money in the bank, someone will have to pull more weight in one area.
    Exactly. The end goal is not that each person has a precisely equal burden of tasks and responsibilities, it's that everything that needs to get done for you both to have a happy and healthy life gets done. I think when you begin with that goal in mind, it's easier to see how everything should get divided up.

  9. I will try to remember this. But it isn't fair that I have to get up at 5:30 am to drive to work and my husband gets up around 8:30 - 9 am and somehow never gets enough done around the house (at least not to my standards!) Anyway, I like to think that I would get so much more done if I stayed home but if we ever switch roles, I'll probably get up much later also

  10. @Anonymous
    After Mike finished grad school and was underemployed and then unemployed for a period of time, I found myself getting resentful at what he wasn't doing with his time at home. What I finally realized was that I was judging him not based on what needed to get done, but what I would have been doing with all that time. Since I'd finished grad school the year before, I knew how uberproductive I'd been prior to getting a job--but that was mostly my own motivation to tackle some projects I'd wanted to do for myself.

    Now he is working 50-hour weeks while I am working 40-hour weeks, but we each have two days of the week off (different ones). I spend mine running around doing errands and cleaning, but I finally figured out that I couldn't expect Mike to do the same on his days; mostly I was doing it because the things I was doing were important to me, and I like being busy. With the same to-do list, Mike gets overwhelmed. So instead I decide what the most important things are, and I ask him to do one or two each week. This has worked a lot better because 1) he can remember one thing, so he's more likely to do it, 2) it's only one thing, so he's less likely to get overwhelmed and do nothing than if he had five or ten things to do, and 3) one thing done is one thing I don't have to do.

    That's what's worked for me, anyway. It's a lot about perspective to me--what's actually important vs. what I think is important, what needs to get done soon vs. what I want to get done soon, how I like to spend my free time vs. how Mike does. And everything gets done in the end. Having a good division of labor helps, too--laundry is his arena, so that gets done every week no matter what, and again is one less thing I have to worry about!

  11. This post is very interesting to me - because my marriage is exactly the opposite from what you are describing (though I am not challenging you about which way is "better" - that's why the post is interesting)
    My husband and I don't do anything for each other - unless we want to. This was sticky for a few years until the scale leveled out (which it finally did).
    It would take me an entire 2000 word post to explain why we came to this decision...but this is how we do make it equal.
    The funny thing is that after years of "striking" against the inequality (I did the striking), my husband who always loved me (this is a necessary prerequisite) went along with the strike - without saying one word.
    I did nothing for him except follow my heart.
    After realizing that my husband does truly love me, even if he may not do as I expect a "loving husband" should do, my heart led me to being a typical housewife that takes care of him, while he goes to work (when he wants) and pays the absolutely necessary bills, rent and small stipend for food.
    And we both end up doing exactly what we really want to do, and we don't even care about what the other is not doing - because we both know that in our marriage, loving the other means giving them the option of doing whatever makes them happy and if that means that my husband is not going to work enough to make money so that I can take a trip to Rome, than so be it..I still know that he loves me. If I decide to ignore the house and not cook for him for a few months...he doesn't care, he hugs and loves me for who I am.
    But I want to cook and clean for him, because it makes me feel good and he wants to pay the bills because he doesn't want to be homeless.
    And being divorced from a completely different type of situation, I truly appreciate this arrangement.
    I just want to say once more that I am in no way challenging anyone to who has a "better" marriage. I am just offering a different perspective :)!

    1. But it works if there is mutual agreeement. If there is no eye to eye connection on this issue, then one partner would be unhappy.

  12. I just read my comment and I failed to mention one thing - I refuse to work at a job. This was our biggest point of contention originally. I felt that we needed more money to live than he was making and I did not want to have to worry about everything (house and bills as well as my own children from a divorce)
    I guess that was the 2000 word post in a nutshell. :)

  13. @Shayna Abrams
    It sounds like there are some similarities in your situation to what I was writing about here--that is, there are aspects of your marriage that might look "unfair" to people on the outside, but they work for you and your husband. You're not trying to strive after a perfectly "equal" marriage in which you each put in exactly the same amount of effort; I think some people do strive for that and find it difficult and not as rewarding as they expected.

  14. You are right in that respect that we have similarities regarding equality in our marriage. The only difference I want to bring out is that I don't define my marriage as unequal (and you probably don't either..).
    I understand your point that marriage does not have to appear equal to be a good one - which is the same point that I am making... I am only trying to switch perspectives by saying that sometimes by trying to reach "equality" by pulling back AND accepting that you are to receive zero service from your spouse in return (this would be unarguably "equal"), this may enlighten you (not necessarily you, because you have a working marriage)but others regarding what an "equal" marriage really is - or how necessary it is. In my case, it eventually led me to a service orientated marriage, but I had to first strip the expectations away before I got there willingly.
    Willingly is the key word here, because if you are not happy doing things for another, because you expect a return, then why bother doing them?
    Anyway, I appreciate the post and the message ...I just wanted to add my two cents..

  15. @Shayna Abrams
    if you are not happy doing things for another, because you expect a return, then why bother doing them?
    Right, and that's one of the issues with scorekeeping, that it becomes more about keeping some imaginary balance of give-and-take stable than about doing things for your spouse because you want to do things for your spouse. Or, heck, because you want to do things for yourself--sometimes I have to remind myself that I'm cleaning the kitchen because I want the kitchen clean; I'm not doing it "for" Mike and Mike doesn't have to "appreciate" it or do something equally strenuous in return. That's a lesson I have to keep re-learning.


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