September 29, 2015 by Julia
We are surrounded by imbalanced relationships that might drive us crazy even when we aren’t part of them. Have you ever overheard a one-sided conversation at your local coffee shop, the kind where you just have to wonder how the nearly silent friend puts up with the self-absorption of the endlessly prattling woman across from her? I find it really distracting, as well as painfully obvious to anyone outside of the conversation.
But maybe that listening friend is okay with it. Maybe she’s had her turn. Maybe she knows her rambling friend has had a rough week, and just needs to dump it all. Maybe the quiet, listening one is enjoying her coffee, and is happy to sit back and let her friend talk, because she’s too tired to think of anything to say. Only she knows for sure. (I’ve been on both sides of a conversation; chances are, you have too.) In the end, what matters is that each friend’s needs are being met over the course of their friendship. And the needs of two people can be met in unexpected, seemingly imbalanced ways.
I am learning to think of marriage and partnership the same way. I’ve kept score for most of my life, out of a desire to keep things fair not just for me, but for the other person. Part of this impulse comes from my need to justify any “break” I get from work. If I’ve counted how many hours a week Dennis has to himself, free from the typical family responsibilities, I then feel okay taking a break for the same amount of hours. If he goes away for a weekend, I feel okay planning my own getaway. This kind of score-keeping is not terrible, as long as it’s generous and vague rather than petty. Score-keeping can quickly turn toxic though, when you start to feel as though you are doing more work than your partner, and you feel the need to prove it to him or her. Most of us fall into the passive-aggressive approach with snide comments and loud sighs, while the braver of us take the plain-aggressive “here’s my tally, you are clearly not pulling your own weight!” approach.
And then the other person pulls out their tally, and you both have to sit down with spreadsheets and timecards and take into consideration the levels of physical and mental health you were both dealing with at the time the work was performed, as well as measure the stress levels, boredom levels, physical demands, interest level, and then dock points if part of it was enjoyed, or fulfilled some aspect of your life dreams. Because if you’re enjoying it, does it count? Also, results: how much did you produce from all of this work? What do you have to show at the end of the day?
And after all that, you still can’t objectively say whether the work done is equal – not unless you were doing the exact same work for the same amount of time and share the exact same personalities and life situations. Umm…doesn’t sound like a very appealing partnership. Sounds like a sci-fi novel, set in an dystopian future where people forget how to act like people.
There is another way.
Ask yourself: am I getting what I need out of this relationship? Not: are they working as hard as I am?
Because it’s impossible to say who is working harder. And besides, it doesn’t freaking matter. IT DOESN’T FREAKING MATTER.
This is what matters: Can we use our complimentary abilities to work together to reach our goals? Do we feel respected, secure, and cherished? Am I able to ask for and then receive what I most need from this relationship? Am I able to give to my partner what he or she most needs?
When we bring it back into the realm of our personal needs and desires, we can stop pretending that there is some scientific method to this madness of making a life together. It becomes real again. We are flesh and blood, not machines. What I need might be a backrub. What Dennis might need is loose, unstructured playtime with the kids. What I needed was to quit my job and stay at home caring for our children, while he needed to work outside of the home. If those needs changed, we could switch roles for a while and see how that works for our family.
The goal is happiness and goodness, both in the times we are together and the times we are apart, over the long term. The goal is not perfectly balanced daily workloads. Because who gives a shit about that, at the end of the day? We have to trust that in a caring relationship, it will even out enough. Faith in your partner simplifies things. I just want him to be happy and I know he wants the same for me. We are glad for any opportunity to make that happen. I will sacrifice for him, and he will for me; he has done it time and again. It is a good thing to be needed.
So we mostly just pay attention to the fluctuations of strength and happiness, these days. I believe Dennis will do as much work as he is capable of (and sometimes more, until I remind him that sanity and rest are necessary, too), and I no longer try to prove to him that I worked my ass off at home all day with the kids, even if you can’t tell by looking at the house just yet. (Okay, I don’t do that as much.) Instead I take note of his level of exhaustion as well as my own, and use that as our directive for the rest of the evening. Any grace that I extend comes back to me eventually, just like love.
Plus, I just care about his well-being, regardless of what comes back to me. It’s good to acknowledge that feeling toward a spouse. It’s there for most of us, I think, but we often leave it in the background of our relationships, taking it for granted.
So if one of us forgets to take out the trash, or turn out the lights, or pay that bill, it is better to handle it ourselves, if we can in that moment, without resentment, knowing that we are making our lives better. These things do not go unnoticed. Dennis has developed a habit over the years of using a chair in our bedroom as his dresser – where he flings his assorted pants. I don’t really mind. I only recently started trying to keep our bedroom closet clean. But a few weeks ago, I noticed all of his shorts and pants on the chair and ottoman were folded. It touched me. It was a cute gesture of trying to keep our bedroom orderly. He asked me jokingly later if I’d noticed his efforts, and I said I had. These things do not go unnoticed. Do what you can.