The headline of a recent Seattle Times article caught my (Leslie's) attention. It asked a seemingly innocent question regarding married couples: "Are we peers yet?"
Searching for clues about my own marriage, I decided to take the ten-question "test" that promised to tell me whether my own marriage was a peer marriage (between equals), a near-peer marriage (where equality is admired but still out of reach), or a traditional marriage (where a hierarchy establishes the husband at the top). The test consisted of questions about who initiates sex, who controls the money, whose career is given pre-eminence, and the role each partner takes as a parent.
Sociologists agree there are many ways to make a marriage work, but marriages between equals or peers are thought to be more satisfying to both partners. However, according to sociologist Pepper Schwartz, author of Love Between Equals: How Peer Marriage Really Works (Free Press), only 10 to 15 percent of all American couples have a peer marriage.
The idea of being a peer with my husband has always been important to me. When Les decided to pursue a doctorate, we decided that I would also pursue a doctorate, in large part, to protect the peer quality of our relationship. In our 13-year marriage we have co-authored books, co-taught courses at the university where we both work, and generally approached our lives as a team. But the questions on this test made me doubt my equal footing.
How could I be certain I had an equal say in how we spend our money? In a crisis, would my voice really carry the same weight as Les's? The test revealed that my marriage was more a near-peer relationship than one between peers. But it was the questions—more than the results of the test—that got me thinking.
Later that day, as Les and I opened our mail while eating peanut butter sandwiches at our kitchen table, I unrolled a mental tape measure on our relationship. Determined to somehow quantify and compare the power each of us had in our marriage, my attitude resembled that of the finicky building inspector who needed to sign off before our home loan could be approved. I wanted to uncover any faulty wiring or unstable relational structures that could threaten our peer rapport.
Before I had finished the second half of my sandwich, however, I realized my inspection was misguided. There is no such thing as perfect equality. Even the best of peers are never identical—we wouldn't want to lose our individuality or minimize the different gifts each of us has. The strongest peer relationships are complementary, with each person exercising his or her abilities where they are needed most.
I realized that determining who in our marriage was initiating or controlling this or that didn't really matter. The true measure of a peer marriage is not so much who has the power; it's a commitment to mutual respect and dedication to the partnership you share. Whether you are in a peer, near-peer or more traditional marriage isn't really the point. What matters is becoming peers of the heart—listening to each other, seeking consensus in major decisions, being equally dedicated to one another's well-being.
That's the type of equality I want, no matter what label it comes with.
Leslie Parrott, Ed.D., and Les Parrott III, Ph.D., are co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University and the authors of more than ten books, including Saving Your Marriage Before it Starts and Like a Kiss on the Lips (both published by Zondervan).
1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.