As you planned your wedding, you probably didn’t think too much about what you were going to get from your future spouse as part of a “marriage agreement.” You were probably, instead, thinking about the romance, the honeymoon, how great your husband was going to look in his tuxedo, or your wife was going to look in her wedding dress. Maybe you were looking forward to naming future children, taking family vacations, making a comfortable home to share, and growing old together.
You probably weren’t thinking about who was going to wash the dishes, who was going to pick up the shirts at the dry cleaners, whether you would be appreciated for bringing in a second income. It probably did not occur to you that you might feel you were giving more than you were receiving. Or perhaps you never wondered whether you might feel you were not contributing enough.
Marriage is largely about exchange. It’s about enhancing the survival of both the husband and the wife.
That may sound unromantic, and certainly no truly loving marriage would look like a cold-blooded business relationship. However, in a strong marriage, both partners give to the other, and each is better off because of the other.
Sometimes, one partner will not realize exactly how much the other is doing, and then feel the exchange is unfair. This could lead to resentment, I suppose.
However, it feels much, much worse to not give enough.
Perhaps the exchange in marriage seemed simpler before the “women’s lib” movement. When women ran the household, raised the children, did the cooking and cleaning (or, in wealthier circumstances, ran the household staff that did these things), the exchange was very obvious. And women were respected for it.
When the Wild West was being won, men were so aware of the need for women, that they advertised for them in newspapers back East. Businesses were created that matched women to men and sent them out West to meet their new husbands.
The need for a “housewife” was evident. Men needed someone to spend hours preparing their meals from scratch in rudimentary kitchens. They needed someone to sew their clothing. They needed someone to make a comfortable home for them. And they needed someone to love. In the “old days” this arrangement was often much simpler than it is now. The wife usually didn’t “have a job” but she worked very hard at home.
The women’s movement has shaken things up a bit, and I know many women who feel if they “just stay home and raise the children” then they are not truly exchanging enough with their husbands, or they are not being “productive members of society.”
I actually had someone once tell me I was “wasting my life” being a stay-at-home mother and homemaker. When homemakers – men or women – hear comments like this, this can add to their feelings of inadequacy, and as if they are not truly giving enough back to their spouses.
On the other hand, women, as a whole, do not earn as much money as men earn. So many married women who hold jobs outside the home bring home a smaller paycheck than do their husbands. Again, they may feel they aren’t exchanging enough.
Likewise, a man whose wife earns more money than he does, may feel inadequate and as if he isn’t “doing his job” as a husband. What a crummy state of mind to be in! That attitude would certainly strain the relationship!
The system has changed, and so we need to look at the arrangement of “marriage” and figure it out for ourselves. Each marriage is different, and each couple needs to make decisions that usually didn’t have to be made in our grandparents’ time. No wonder so many marriages end in divorce! Society no longer figures these things out for us – we have to do it ourselves.
And we need to feel GOOD about our choices, and we need to feel good about our own personal levels of exchange.
When you were a child, did you ever make a trade with another child, knowing in your heart that you were getting a much better trade? That probably didn’t feel very good.
On the other hand, consider the last time you helped an elderly neighbor take her trash to the curb. Or when you helped a child cross the street. Or when you donated cans of food to the local homeless shelter. That felt pretty good, didn’t it?
Everyone wants to contribute more to others than is contributed to themselves. Contributing to others makes us truly happy!
My husband and I actually meet regularly about our exchange. A couple of times a year at least, we will sit down together and discuss the various household duties and child raising tasks, and we agree on who will do what. This can definitely change – when he is working longer hours, and can’t help as much with the household chores, or when I am pregnant and can’t easily do the laundry. Or when we have a new baby, and the entire household routine is interrupted!
Continually reviewing the arrangement, and adjusting where necessary, helps keep resentment and guilt from building up.
I have largely been a stay-at-home mother and “homemaker.” There have been times when I have felt that perhaps I was not contributing enough, and it would be easier if I had a paycheck to contribute to the family. There have been times when he’s worked long hours and hasn’t been able to help around the house, and he’s felt bad about that as well.
These are the times when we need to really take a good look at what we CAN do that will improve our state of mind and feelings about our marriage. Because if you’re feeling badly about your spouse, contributing more to your spouse may help you feel a lot better about him or her!
When one truly helps another person, it feels good. Not only does one like oneself more, but one finds he likes the person he helped more, too!
Do something special for your spouse, and then see how your spouse looks to you now.
This article was written by Jane James.
Additional information can be found at the blog: Marriage Success and in the book: When the Thrill Is Gone. You may republish this article in your newsletter or at your web site or blog providing the entire article is kept intact, including the contact links.