I'll admit it—I'm a total Martha. That's not some weird gay subculture terminology. I'm talking about the Martha of the Bible, the one forever remembered as the perfect host who turned resentful because her sister Mary sat around chit-chatting with God incarnate instead of helping serve the food. Martha became preoccupied with fairness and equity, and in turn missed out on the pure enjoyment of relationship. I’m guilty as charged.
I was reminded of this characteristic when we wrote about grace in our post on five things we’ve learned in our first five months of marriage. During our premarital counseling, Constantino and I took a number of personality tests, and I tended to score high on traits such as justice and fairness. That’s great when you’re looking at the broader picture of how people in the world are treated, in making sure those in need have enough to thrive and those who abuse power and privilege are held to account. But it’s not always the sexiest quality in a spouse.
I have an unhealthy preoccupation with making sure everything in our marriage is fair. When we split food at a restaurant, I want both of us get equal portions. When we have friends over for dinner, I want us to contribute equally to the cooking and cleanup. When we respond to an e-mail submission to our blog, I want us to take turns responding. That’s a good trait so far, right?
But the flip side of loving equity is bitterness when things appear unfair. Take chores, for example. When we first moved in, I made a comprehensive list of tasks, with an estimated time of completion for each one. We then split up the list so that we’d be spending an equal amount of time each week doing domestic work. I took laundry—by far the most time-intensive chore—which meant that he got stuck with a slew of smaller, shorter duties. But whereas laundry must be regularly completed if you have aspirations of leaving the house clothed and clean, tasks like wiping down surfaces and scrubbing the toilet don’t have the same urgency. So when Constantino didn’t complete one of his chores in the timeframe I expected of him, I became a total Martha. Not only did I resent him, but I was being unfair by placing upon him my expectations of how he should do his chores.
This obsession with fairness follows me in all area of our lives: finances, social commitments, even responsibilities with this blog. Sometimes I do more; sometimes Constantino does more. And in situations where I’m not pulling my own weight, like how Constantino is currently the primary breadwinner in the family, I don’t feel good about it; I just feel guilty. Discomfort with inequity goes both ways. The truth is, the various efforts within our marriage ultimately balance out, but my concern with equity makes me a slave to the score. Rather than jumping into the game, I’ve relegated myself to the role of a ref on the sidelines. And if Constantino is the only one out on the field, that’s not much of a relationship. I need to set down the whistle.
When I become preoccupied with whether one of us is doing more for the relationship than the other, I’m already setting us up for a forfeit. Marriage is not about keeping a score and making sure the tally is even at the end of the week. That turns marriage more into a business partnership than a relationship. Ideally, I see a good marriage as a race for inequality—an ongoing struggle to see who can serve and fill up and love the other person more. This is much more how Constantino approaches our marriage: I never see him keep score, and in fact he seems to have no sense that there’s any score to be kept.
Equity is counter to the message of grace. The death and resurrection of Jesus remind us that God has stopped keeping a tally of our infinite shortcomings, that the debts we owe him have all been erased. He has ripped up the scorecard. It’s that attitude we should adopt for our relationships, wherein each evening our debts to each other are erased clean. That frees us up for the real task of loving, for love keeps no record of wrongs.
David Khalaf is a fiction writer living in Portland.
Painting: Georg Friedrich Stettner’s Christ at the home of Martha and Mary (circa 1639)
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