Honey, where are my navy pants? Didn't you wash them?"
"I can't worry about your clothes because I've got to get your son ready! Who else is going to do that?"
"Well, I worked overtime last night! I didn't have time to wash and press a pair of pants."
This was normal conversation in our house—one spouse offering up a sacrificial responsibility, the other countering with greater sacrifice. I even recall one or two arguments over the fact that he keeps more pillows on the bed than I do. (It seemed important at the time.)
Our marriage had become little more than dueling to-do lists—a competition to establish who had the most hectic schedule, as if that were the secret of marital superiority: "She who works hardest wins."
But what did I expect to win?
Why was I competing with my husband over duties and responsibilities, eager to convince him that my burdens were far greater than his? How did it benefit me to prove that my husband "just didn't understand"? Why did I desire the title of "Most Taken for Granted" anyway, and why was I willing to spend hours of energy maintaining it? It's not as if there's a beauty pageant for martyred mothers and wives. And if there were, what would be my platform? "Of course I'd like to establish world peace, but I simply have too much laundry to do."
I remembered our courtship years and the excitement I felt when I'd get ready for one of our dates. I'd spend hours thinking about it and preparing for it. What should I wear? I'd think. Something he hasn't seen me in before. Where's my good perfume? Does my hair look okay?
I wondered how a relationship once so carefree had turned into a competition dominated by one-upmanship.
I was having difficulty transitioning from the fun-exciting-butterflies-in-the-stomach stage of dating to the mundane, everyday frustrations and hectic pace of modern married life. Though I'd been blissfully happy while we were dating, once the honeymoon was over,
I felt increasingly dissatisfied. I focused constantly on the things my husband used to do for me but now neglected. I was alert to any discrepancies in our workloads, and determined to maintain equality. I was playing to win, and I was keeping score!
While my lifestyle and responsibilities changed after marriage, my expectations remained the same. As a girlfriend, I could pick and choose the parts of his life I wanted to share. This freed me to come and go when things got bad. I enjoyed low investment and high returns. But as a wife, I found myself committed to endure both the pleasant and unpleasant sides of life with my husband. Over the years, as my expectations gave way to reality, I compensated with self-pity. This also gave me a great excuse not to work on my marriage. After all, as the mistreated wife, I never had to acknowledge my husband's good points or understand his feelings. I couldn't be expected to praise his moments of better judgment or take responsibility for overcoming the lack of romance in our relationship (one more task for my mammoth to-do list!).
I knew this wasn't what God wanted for me and my marriage. This was the vindictive solution my carnal nature created to assuage my disappointment. This victim persona I created allowed me to be cynical and complacent about my marriage, and to shirk my responsibility to work at being a good wife. The end result was that I began to treat my faithful partner as an enemy, repeatedly punishing him because I feared further disappointment. (Hurting him before he could hurt me.) I knew the Bible stated clearly that my choices were wrong: "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love" (1 John 4:18). While I knew God desired that I treat my husband with love, assigning blame gave me a good excuse to treat him badly.
Evening the score
As I struggled to understand and change my behavior, I thought about my relationship with God. I was spiritually mature enough to admit I was imperfect and perfectly capable of sinning. I shared with God my failings and shortcomings. I confessed regularly my sins, wrong motives, and misjudgments. The result of this humbling process was always positive change in my life. I could feel God pointing out the contradiction with a burning question: "Are you imperfect only in your relationship with me, but perfect in your relationship with your husband?"
While this wasn't the most enjoyable question I've been asked, it was devastatingly revealing. How could I believe my relationship with God should be so different from my relationship with my husband? I never held grudges against God because I trusted his love for me, and when I messed up I humbly and eagerly sought reconciliation. Perhaps if I'd behaved more like this with my husband, my marriage would never have gotten off-track. While it was difficult to admit that altering my perspective in this way could change our entire relationship, until I acknowledged my role in the deterioration of our marriage, I'd be powerless to make it better.
In order to stop the blame and start the gain in my marriage, I made a choice to take responsibility for my feelings and decisions, and to play a more proactive role in initiating positive changes. After all, I do have a choice in the tasks I take on and can't always blame my spouse.
First, I had to give up the blame game. I reminded myself that marriage isn't about a one-time win, but a long-term partnership. The goal of marriage isn't for one partner to best the other, but to grow together toward mutual gain. Dwelling on past disappointments and comparing hardships is a losing proposition for both sides.
Second, I took steps to help my marriage gain positive momentum. My husband and I promised to avoid bickering over insignificant concerns and save our disagreements for issues that really matter. This has helped us identify the central, recurring problems that are damaging to our relationship and then choose our battles more wisely. When we work as a team, even the simplest gestures can diffuse anger. My husband and I have agreed that before we can argue, our foreheads have to be touching. You'd be surprised how silly you feel attempting to argue this way! We often end up laughing off the entire disagreement.
In taking an honest look at how I viewed my commitments and my spouse, I began to gain a more truthful understanding of our relationship. We often believe that if our spouse would just make things easier for us, the relationship would heal itself. But thinking this way allows us to act as though we're helpless; it makes us passive bystanders in our marriage.
In his wisdom, God encourages us to extend the love and forgiveness of our relationship with him to the relationship we have with our mate.
God has shown me how to turn my marriage around by helping me take responsibility for my decisions. As a consequence, I've developed a less one-sided definition of what it means to be a marriage partner.
So, who wins in this game of marriage?
She who determines to work with, rather than compete against, her husband. Disappointments are inevitable, but through love they can actually strengthen a marriage.
Renata Waldrop, a freelance author, lives in Tennessee.
Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.