Unfairness and the Happy Marriage
Thursday, August 4, 2011Tweet
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.
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?