Oh, hey! It’s my third installment in debunking those pithy, and supposedly helpful, statements we all hear about marriage. So far, I’ve taken “Never go to sleep angry” and “Love conquers all” to task. This week? This one is a piece of work.
“Marriage is 50-50.”
Well, let me get right to it: It’s a trap!
Marriage is not 50-50. Not even close.
There is a lot of chatter in the world today about work-life balance. It’s necessary chatter – particularly in this country – but that’s another blog for another time. I understand, then, how applying this advice to marriage might seem natural or obvious. Ideally, partners would share the burdens of life in a half-and-half way. And in a perfect world, that would happen on a day-to-day basis. It would be fantastic if health issues, demands of our careers, the needs from our families and communities, and even basic errands were a pie you could simply slice right down the middle, slap on a pretty plate, and serve à la mode. And, even if not on a day-to-day basis, wouldn’t it be grand if you could say over the life of a marriage that the work of marriage was a tidy and balanced 50-50? Sure. That would be grand. As grand as achieving a work-life balance, or balance in The Force. But it’s a trap! (There ya go, my fellow “Star Wars” nerds).
However, let’s be realistic. Marriage is made up of two human beings. And those human beings have different demands on their lives and different needs all at different times. They come from different family systems and may have different earning potentials. They have different biologies and different psychologies. I am even going to go so far as to say they might be in different places with emotional health and the potential for growth. The idea that all of these factors would come together in some sort of quintessential alignment and – voila! – spit out perfectly divisible [What? Set of tasks? Meeting of needs? Yin and yang?] is preposterous.
My mother died in 2012. Without a doubt, it was the most disruptive event in my life to date. Grief knocked me out. It paralyzed me for a solid six months, maybe longer. Honestly, the process was so debilitating, I don’t even know how long I was out. Such is the nature of grief. During that time, I assure you my husband carried the burden of our entire life. There was nothing 50-50 about those months of our shared life. All I can say is that if I were held accountable – in a sense of accounting – for that period of time, I am still in a deficit. Ask him, though, and he’ll just shrug it off. For him it had little to do with tasks and an allocation of resources, and almost everything to do with caring and loving his wife through a heart-wrenching time in our (not just my) life.
Sadly, we live in a culture that is virtually consumed with transactional thinking and consumerism. Everything seems to be a quid pro quo. I remember the words of a colleague of mine not so long ago concerning social media: If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. Ouch. So, to some degree, I understand that we’d default to thinking of marriage that way. Fifty-fifty advice makes (odd) sense if you think of marriage as a transaction or equation. It’s relatively common to hear marriage described as a sort of coming together of two people where each makes the other better. This is, in part, true. Where such thinking fails, however, is when it is the sole reason for marriage. When a marriage transaction becomes about personal enrichment, it will almost always fail. That is a lot of pressure on your marriage partner. And when your partner ceases to make you a better version of yourself, then what? The marriage must be over?
This is dangerous – as a society, as a culture, and certainly within marriage (which is society and culture in miniature). Not everything in life is transactional. Not everything can be reduced to a commodity or personal gain. Life is not about consumption. Nor is life about personal enrichment. In fact, the best things in life are none of the above.
So, then what? What about marriage and workloads and balance and life?
Well, here’s a revolutionary (no kidding here) thought: It’s relational. Marriage is relationship. It is a give and take where the idea of inequality is assumed. In the sense that marriage assumes not equality or even balance, but a sort of dance where at any given time the partners may switch lead based on need and desire. Marriage is a particular sort of partnership where “you” and “I” create a “we.” And in that strange, mysterious “we” space, one and one are three. Two become one. The sum is greater than its parts. All of which are true in the best moments of marriage but cannot be explained mathematically, practically, or logically. If marriage is any sort of economy, it’s a weird one! Marriage lives and thrives in the third space between two people. A space that has neither voice, nor physical being, but is without a doubt alive.
I think this is exactly why marriage, when done right, does create health and wealth (however you define wealth). Because marriage, when done right, becomes refuge from a transactional world. It becomes shelter from quid pro quo. It redirects our egos towards a beautiful, shared, relational middle space. Our weak points and vulnerabilities are protected rather than exploited. And, yes, perhaps (hopefully) we are made better for it all.
So, what’s my advice? Let go of the score-keeping. When you each not only understand but accept and even embrace the idea that you will each shoulder more than the other at various times, there is freedom. There is interdependence. That truth belies a deep intimacy, vulnerability and trust.
That is not only OK, it’s why you came together to begin with.
Sarah has been crafting custom weddings for couples of all kinds since 1999. Sarah is a Ravenclaw, and loves mythology, historical fiction, hot tea, and cycling of all sorts. She is an ordained minister who believes in coloring outside the lines. Sarah has been married to her best friend, Joe, since 1994. Together, their greatest treasures are their two children and the marriage they’ve worked hard to cultivate.