We all know when you tear a dollar bill in half, you don’t end up with fifty cents, but with something entirely worthless. The only way a dollar is “legal tender” is if it’s in one piece. Although it’s possible to cut coins in half or to burn, tear, or otherwise damage bills, people don’t make a habit of mutilating their currency. Everyone knows that money only “works” when it’s whole.
Marriage operates in a similar way.
Marriage is not a 50-50 venture; it only works when it’s a 100% complete undertaking. And yet, so much of the time, we approach our relationships with an expectation that we’ll meet our spouse in the middle. We assume a simple math equation:
My 50% + Your 50% = 100%
I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that formula in theory, but I believe the concept has two serious flaws: Reality and Score Keeping.
Let’s start with Reality.
When do you ever have an equal division of mental, emotional, financial, and physical labor in a relationship? If you stay home with the kids and your spouse works, how do you go about calculating any sort of percentage of who expends what sort of mental, emotional, or physical effort in any given day? If one of you is the “good cop” and the other is the “bad cop,” do you get equal credit in parenting the kids well? What if one of you is in a challenging work environment and needs more encouragement and emotional energy than the other in any given season? How do you balance out the emotional withdrawals that life randomly deals a person?
Reality always interferes with a couple’s plans to achieve a perfect 50/50 balance. Some days one of you wont show up at all; one spouse will be at zero and the other will have to make 100% of the effort. Other days, it is flipped. And sometimes the division is somewhere in between. Sure, this erratic pattern isn’t “fair” to those of you who like things split evenly (and you may recall, “fairness” isn’t a value to which I aspire), but it’s true. On days like these, the only hope for the marriage to work is to make sure that you give whatever percentage is required from your side.
For example, I can’t count how many days I see my husband doing the heavy lifting around the house (parenting, chores, planning, extracting things from the yellow puppy’s mouth) because I’m swamped at the office or traveling. Even though I want to do my “fair share” (there’s that word again!), I know that many times I’m not meeting him in the middle. The reality of life interferes with the ideal. When I see my shortcomings, I realize is Billy is over-delivering his 50%. He is doing whatever it takes to keep our relationship whole. Of course, when Billy is in days or seasons when he is strained or depleted more, I have to step up and do more work, so maybe that evens out the equation?
Perhaps. But what becomes evident in these “give and take” maneuvers is the natural tendency in each of us to execute a second flaw: Keep Score.
We live in a society that loves scoreboards. We track the number of friends, followers, goals, runs, tweets, hits, and everything else imaginable that can be given a rank or quantitative number. When we come home, it’s easy to stay in “score keeping” mode with your spouse. However, this habit has no place in a healthy marriage.
Keeping score is a funny thing because, for many of us, it seems like a habit that kicked in after we said, “I do.”
Think about it. Do you remember dating your spouse and keeping tabs on who made the greatest effort to connect (who called who first, who had to hang up first, who asked better questions) or did you simply “connect?” Did you worry about how much time one person was driving on date nights versus the other, or were you just thrilled to get together? Did you burn lots of energy keeping a mental tally of who emptied a dishwasher the most, who dropped the ball more, who got the last bite, or who had to do more of the planning?
I submit that it wasn’t a big deal back then… because nobody was keeping score.
When a couple is in “dating mode,” there are fewer expectations about serving each other equally. The focus tends to be on serving each other entirely. Much of the time after the wedding, couples shift from serving each other to expecting to be served by the other. When that happens, the scoreboard comes out and the tension begins. Eventually, a marriage becomes a tug-o-war for control and “my way” instead of an arena to give all that you can for the good of the other…and the marriage.
Reversing the cycle takes work. The work begins ditching the scoreboard and saying four simple words more often: How can I help?
If you practice that, your marriage will always be “legal tender” and ready to work.
Wise marriage veterans, chime in. How do you keep serving and helping your spouse?