We are celebrating our 10th anniversary this year, a gigantic milestone in our secular culture as we have been married almost three times as long as most celebrities and 226 times longer than Brittany Spears’ first marriage (it lasted 55 hours). When people find out it’s a “big” anniversary they inevitably ask what our secret is for a happy marriage—and I must confess that I don’t have one.
I don’t think there is a secret to happy marriages. Good marriages come in all shapes and sizes and can be based on just about anything you can imagine. If pressed, I would say this. First, there must be love. There must be a solid, unshakeable love that can weather tornados and sunny skies, calm seas and shipwrecks. Second, there must be forgiveness. Third, there must be humility and forgetfulness and fourth (which perhaps I should have mentioned first) we must call down Divine Help in every moment, but especially in the times when we are at our wits’ end, unable to turn to anything or anyone except the Creatpr for help and guidance. After that, the sky is the limit for the makings of a good marriage.
I am wholly intrigued when I come across couples that are making things work and thriving within their marriage, most especially when they do so in unconventional ways. Like this couple: two self-described economics nerds who pay each other for everything from chores to childbearing. They have established a rather elaborate bidding system based on game theory and behavioural economics (around which I had a hard time wrapping my brain) in which they assign value to just about everything, in the quest for equality, autonomy, and fairness in their marriage and life together. They have completely separated their finances and record, in little black books somewhere, how much they owe each other, and how much they are owed for the daily offloading of their “shared goods or services.” At the time the article was written, Mrs owed Mr $80,421.10 from grad school, but they were in negotiations to “pay” her for giving birth to their two children—mulling over whether to give her a “lump sum payment to fix the imbalance.” If there were a sixth love language, for these folks it would be money.
But to my mind, it is all rather jarring. Paying your spouse to do dishes, put the kids to bed, take trips to Taco Bell, or bear children seems fruitless and unproductive if you are a team. It sounds mercenary to weigh and measure every little thing—it does not sound much like love. It seems more like cold-hearted capitalism: not so much “love and honour and cherish until death does you part” but “sign on the dotted line and you will get what you want.” Can a marriage survive in that kind of environment? What happens if your marriage ceases to give you what you want?
But beyond the havoc this type of attitude might reap within yourself, your spouse, or children, what kind of view might this attitude inspire in reference to God and the higher realities of life? Not everything is fair. In fact, life is decidedly unfair. Might this elevation of fairness to god-like status contribute to an inability to deal with the unfairness of life? And what about God? Since grace builds on nature, might you be tempted to think that God acts just as we do—to think he is exacting, and that we can somehow bid or buy our way into heaven. That simply is not true. Everything, absolutely everything, in the spiritual life is offered to us freely. “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Is 55). The economics of the spiritual life are in direct opposition to the economics of the earthly marketplace. As Catherine Doherty says about fasting, “We do not say, ‘Here are my sins Lord, and here is my payment or atonement for them.’ No. We fast to seek the face of our Father.” We do not Hail-Mary our way out of purgatory or build up points to get out of hell free. We must love. Period. And love is not exacting or mercenary and in the immortal words of the Beatles, you can’t buy it (or sell it for that matter). For obvious reasons, it could be seriously detrimental to the spiritual life to fall into thinking that anything other than love will get us into heaven.
Yet on the other hand there may be benefits to their system, method in their madness—not least of which would be assigning actual value to deeds that are often overlooked by mainstream society. Household chores, child bearing, and child rearing are rarely seen as valuable, or even (the mind reels) as work. This system of bidding and buying could make it clear to both spouses that the contributions of each partner are legitimate, seen, and appreciated. This system also has a built-in way of gauging how important each individual job is to the other, which could be a good means of communication between spouses. Mr might realize Mrs is feeling overwhelmed because of her bid and they could talk the situation through and make changes if necessary.
But— I am just going to say it—this would not work for my husband and me. Love would become a farce and would be reduced to a series of weights and measures, fairness and money would become gods in their own right, and gratitude would become nonexistent. As Ann Voskamp said, you are not actually thankful for something if you think you earned it. “That’s pride, not gratitude.” I don’t write Walmart a thank-you letter every time I buy something there. A fair exchange happened. They wanted a certain amount for something, I paid it. What is there to be grateful for? Nothing. And isn’t gratitude a very important part of love? Absolutely.
For me to flourish in my marriage, love—which for me means time spent with my spouse, physical affection, and deeds of service—must be freely given, freely received, and unconditional. In our marriage, my husband and I give 100% all the time. There is no 50-50 split or a little black book recording how many times he did the laundry and how many times I did the dishes. We just do what we need to do, in the moments we need to do them, for love of one another. We do not always do them WELL, mind you (there may be a bit of grumbling here and there) but at least we do them freely, which speaks love to me in a language that doesn’t require words.
But what do I know? I have only been married 10 years. And perhaps your life experiences have given you a different philosophy to go on, just as this couples’ experiences have given them. If so and things are working well for you, then God bless you! I suppose that as long as the love between you and your spouse grows in some way every day, as long as there is room within the micro-economy of your family for God, as long as that your non-spiritual practices are in line with your spiritual practices—then good on you! On second thought, maybe I do have the secret to a happy marriage after all. Find out what works for you and your spouse, and then do it wholeheartedly and without reserve. This couple is, and so far it has worked for them.