“It’s not fair.”
If you have children, as we do, then you’ll probably hear that a lot. Our daughter, aged five, suspiciously eyes up her little brother’s ice cream just to make sure they’re equal. If he has even a teaspoon more, she’s sure to let me know how unfair it is.
Sometimes her bowl is clearly more full than his. Does she tell me it’s unfair then? Of course not. To an ice cream loving five-year-old, fairness is all about what she can get.
As adults, it’s easy for us to laugh at our kids’ moral failings. After all, we’re so much better than that, right? It’s not like we constantly obsess about things being fair. Especially not in our relationships, right? Especially not in our marriages?
Actually, I think we do. We are all like that kid checking out the ice cream bowls. Making sure that we’re not pulling more weight than the other. Making sure that we both put our fair share in and get a fair share out.
We’re not entirely to blame. Our culture constantly tells us, ‘you’re worth it’, ‘it’s all about you’, ‘you deserve it’. So we carry all this into marriage, expecting the best possible deal from our new husband or wife.
Fairness or kindness?
Recently my wife Sarah and I went to two weddings. On both occasions the bride and groom held hands, looked deeply into each others’ eyes and declared, “All that I am I give to you. All that I have I share with you.” There was no “if you’ll do this…”, no caveat, no conditions. Only two people committing to give and to share, each to the other.
How quickly do we move from giving and sharing to trading? From offering kindness to expecting repayment?
We want so badly to be sure there’s something in it for us.
The problem with concentrating on fairness is that it cheapens every act of service. Your loving actions – taking out the bins, an encouraging word, even sex – become transactions. Like business contracts, you put in your part in full expectation of a return on your investment.
In a relationship obsessed with fairness, the things we do are done solely in the anticipation of what we’ll get in return. I can think of instances that I’ve done chores around the house so that I could use it as a bargaining chip later on.
But in a relationship based instead on kindness, we do what we can to be kind to the other, and trust that they’ll do the same in return.
Which would you prefer?
Fairness asks what will I get? But kindness asks what can I give?
In one of the marriage services we also heard a reading from the Bible, popular in a lot of weddings, from the book of 1 Corinthians. In it are the words, ‘love keeps no record of wrongs.’
But in marriage we often do. We keep a mental tally of how many times we’ve done the dishes this week, or the last time our spouse changed the bedding, or how many nappies you’ve each changed today. The only possible results of these scorecards are disappointment, bitterness and anger. Keeping score is not the route to a happy and fulfilling marriage.
Love keeps no record of chores.
So, marriage isn’t fair. It never will be, and it isn’t supposed to be. Which is a relief.
What marriage ought to be is kind.
Obviously this kind of relationship is hard to achieve. We all screw up, and we’re all selfish sometimes. It also requires both parties to sign up to kindness rather than fairness. A marriage of mutual kindness requires a mutual commitment. But isn’t that what was made, those months or years ago, at that altar or in that register office?
So, what would it look like if this week I didn’t try to keep score of who had done what? What would happen if I started offering kindness just because, with no expectation of anything in return? What if this week I surprise Sarah with kind actions – not because she has ‘earned’ them, but because I love her and I signed up to give her all I am?
I can’t say. But I want to give it my best shot.
Maybe you’d like to try too?