The hardest lesson I’ve had to learn in my marriage is that my wife is not me. She is herself, emphatically. And her self is a very different self, an unequal self. The joy and challenge and pleasure and hardship of the marital vocation — the whole point of it, really — is found in this fact: that I am not her, and she is not me, and we are not equal because we are not the same.
So many marriages fall apart these days because both partners have been raised on the lie of marital and gender “equality.” They’ve been told that there is no difference between a husband and a wife, the two are interchangeable, exactly the same in every way that matters, and so they approach the altar with the expectation that they’re marrying mirror images of themselves. They imagine that they won’t need to make any serious changes or sacrifices in their new life as a married couple because they’ve partnered with someone just like them. Everything can just be split down the middle, they think, 50/50, easy as pie.
“Equal partnership,” they call it. Like it’s a business proposition. Like they’re starting a law firm. Like marriage comes with a scorecard. And many marriages do have score cards. The spouses keep a running tally of who is doing what and how much and for how long, and at the end of the day it must be determined that the husband and wife have exerted themselves to the same degree, done the same number of chores, relaxed for the same amount of time, experienced the same stress, carried the same burdens, and done everything equally and fairly and without the slightest discrepancy.
The husband works so the wife must work. The wife cleaned for an hour today so the husband must clean for an hour. The husband mowed the lawn last week, now it’s the wife’s turn. The wife changed two poopy diapers, now the husband must change two. The husband has this or that stress on his mind so he unloads it on his wife. “Why should I be the only one worrying about this?” The answer never occurs to him: Because this is your cross.
The equal marriage doesn’t work for the same reason that a football team with 22 starting quarterbacks won’t win any games. Marriage is built upon difference, not sameness. The union thrives when the complementary differences between the two spouses are embraced and harnessed for the good of the family. The family itself is literally created through these differences. A truly “equal” marriage is sterile, functionless, confused, and pointless.
In the whole history of marriage, I’m not sure that any spouse has ever insisted on increased “equality” for selfless or loving reasons. I can say, personally, I’ve never stressed about “making things equal” in my home out of generosity. I’ve never done something for my wife in the interest of ensuring that we have an “equal partnership.” My passion for equality always involves things I want her to do, or things I don’t want to do anymore, or things that I want to do less often. I am an egalitarian when I check the scorecard, realize that I’m several points ahead by my count (a horribly skewed count, most likely), and then sit on the couch so as to thoughtfully afford my wife the opportunity to catch up.
It just doesn’t go the other way. I don’t say to myself, “She’s ahead on the scorecard. I should do exactly enough to make it equal again.” No, if I’m being a good husband, it means that I’ve forgotten the scorecard completely. And if it ever crosses my mind that I may in fact be doing more than her in some area, or that I’m carrying more of a particular burden than she, I ought to take joy in that fact. I ought to delight in the “inequality” of it because I know that I’m actually fulfilling my purpose. That purpose, again, is not to be an “equal partner” to my wife, but to give all of myself with absolutely no regard to how much she has given (although she gives so much of herself that it would be difficult for me to ever give more).
There’s a common slogan that says a marriage ought to be 100/100, not 50/50. It’s true that 100/100 is better than 50/50, yet even 100/100 is not equal. One hundred percent of an apple is not the same as one hundred percent of an orange. The most self-sacrificial apple cannot turn itself into an orange. It can only be what it is, and that’s all it can give. It can ring itself dry but it’s only ever going to produce apple juice. One hundred percent of a husband is not equal to one hundred percent of a wife. That doesn’t mean one is inferior — just that one is not the same as the other, and therefore not equal.
I think a lot of marital strife stems especially from this point. A husband may give something close to one hundred percent of himself, but he has not given it in the same way, doing the same sorts of things, so the wife will imagine that he hasn’t given hardly anything at all. The wife does not know what it’s like to be the man in the house, to carry the special burdens and responsibilities that come with the man’s particular vocation, so she judges him and his contributions using the wrong scale. The man does the same with respect to his wife, both failing to realize that the other carries their cross in a way that is unique to them. They both give something distinct, filling a role that the other is not capable of filling.
Of course, the other problem with the 100/100 formula is that it’s impossible. Nobody gives one hundred percent all the time. Even the best marriages are probably more like 87/82 or 74/83 or somewhere in that range. Point being: your spouse may well be giving less than you. Or more. The statistical odds that they’re giving the same is very low, but who cares? Every moment we spend trying to calculate our spouse’s contribution is a moment we are giving entirely to ourselves. We are feeding our egos and our sense of entitlement, and in the process our own number is dropping rapidly from 86 to 83 to 72 to 61 and before long we’re moving into an apartment and fighting over who gets to keep the dog.
Indeed, “equality” is a matter for divorce, not marriage. Equality is what you worry about when you’re splitting apart. Equality is the goal in court hearings and custody arrangements. (Although, ironically, the results will almost always be even less equal than the marriage ever was.) Marriage has a more transcendent aim. Marriage is fueled by love and sacrifice. Equality has nothing to do with it.