In today's self-serve world, more and more people are longing for good service. My husband, Dan, and I are no different. We've been married more than 30 years, and we're still working out what it really means to serve each other.
One of the bigger issues in our marriage has been The Great Dry-Cleaning Controversy. Most of my clothes are washable. Most of my husband's have to be dry-cleaned. For some reason, he thinks I should drop off and pick up the dry cleaning even though 99 percent of it is his! For years, on mornings when we were both getting ready for work, he would say, "Could you stop by the dry cleaners today?" For a while I did it—really, really grudgingly. Then one day I said, "I almost never have anything in the dry cleaning pile. Why am I the one taking responsibility for it?"
So we had The Discussion. Basically his answer to my question was, "You go past the shop more than I do" (which I do), "your schedule is more flexible" (which it is), "and I would really, really like not to have to worry about the dry cleaning. I guess I'm just asking you if you would do this for me."
Inside me, a voice was saying, "Like I don't have enough on my mind? Like I'm not busy?"
To this day—and it has been years since we had The Discussion—I don't fully understand why my husband is so averse to handling the dry cleaning. It's one of the few enduring mysteries of our marriage. But I still take care of it. Why? Because the few minutes it takes me isn't worth causing a strain in our relationship. Does Dan take it for granted that I make time to drop off and pick up the dry cleaning? Maybe. Is it worth an argument or simmering resentment? No way. And when I'm the one who is rushed and need Dan to do something for me, including picking up the dry cleaning, will he do it for me? Absolutely.
The Great Dry-Cleaning Controversy has been resolved by what may seem like me "giving in." But giving in is a far cry from being trampled underfoot. Servanthood does not automatically involve a disregard for our own needs. Continually choosing to meet the needs of others at the expense of our own is neither a healthy nor a spiritually sound way to live. Telling your spouse you can't attend her company's annual picnic the day before your big work project is due isn't being an uncaring partner, it's accepting the limitations of time and energy. Taking the time for an exercise class isn't being selfish, it's being sensible about your health. Asking your spouse to handle a household task that's normally "yours" when you're overbooked isn't being demanding, it's communicating a legitimate need for help.
Much of life is a juggling act. Dan might need help this week, but it won't be long before I'll be the one who needs extra assistance. Here are a few tactics that can help keep servanthood a central part of our relationships.
First, we need to decide who is going to shape the nature of our marriage relationship: Our friends, relatives, co-workers, society at large, the media—or us? Each of us is a unique individual, and marriage multiplies that uniqueness by at least two. While there are certain fundamental principles such as fidelity and trust that we know contribute to a successful marriage, no two couples are alike. If a woman finds it satisfying and pleasurable to have dinner on the table for her husband (or vice versa), it's not for an outsider to say she shouldn't do that. If a husband enjoys doing things that make his wife happy—perhaps attending cultural events that she enjoys but leave him a little cold—then that's his choice to make, not his friends' or co-workers'.
Second—though this advice may seem overused—communication is essential. If you feel that the division of labor in your marriage is inequitable, discuss it with your spouse. But don't do it when you are tired and frazzled, or when an incident has caused hurt, angry feelings. Sometimes a person may not be aware that certain duties have fallen to his or her mate. As in other areas of life, making assumptions about what others know, think or feel without asking is risky. But even when a couple have worked out a division-of-labor plan that's equitable, flexibility remains an important ingredient. Rules and "rights" should never be more important than people.
Third, servanthood is not a matter of "fairness." If I do something for Dan with the requirement that he "repay" the favor, it becomes an issue of keeping score. That's far from an act of love. A gesture of true servanthood has no strings attached and is not prompted by the expectation of reward or repayment.
Our society has talked so long and so extensively about gender equality and individual rights, it's no wonder the idea of servanthood has fallen out of favor. Yet we know that God calls us to demonstrate servanthood both in our relationship with him and in our relationships with others. That's why I'll keep asking my husband one simple question: "What can I do to help?"
Alicia Howe is the pen name of a writer who lives in Florida. She still picks up the dry cleaning.
Copyright © 1996 by Christianity Today/MARRIAGE PARTNERSHIP magazine.