Marriages Are Never 50-50. Thinking About ‘Seasons’ Helped Me Come to Terms with That

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We all know that marriage is hard work. Marriage with kids? Even harder. Add in jobs, various social obligations and endless piles of laundry and, yeah, I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

The way to cope with all these responsibilities and commitments, we’re told, is to share the burden with your partner. You can’t do it alone! And on paper, this makes sense.

I’ll drop the kids off in the morning while you clean up the kitchen and start work, then you pick them up in the afternoon so that I can wrap up my meeting and get dinner started. Except…you also have a meeting at 5 p.m. with that new client. Oh, and I told our son that I would pick him up today because he was nervous about going to school this morning and I promised I would take him to the library to cheer him up, plus we don’t have any food at home to make dinner anyway. OK fine, I’ll reschedule my meeting, get the kids, take them to the library and then the store and make dinner when I get home. Then it’s my turn to give them baths and put them down so yeah, I’ll do that too, before catching up on work when they’re in bed. The final thing on my to-do list? Simmer in resentment.

The idea that there is no such thing as work-life balance isn’t new. But lately, I’ve had the niggling feeling that you can’t achieve true equilibrium in a marriage, either. And when I say equilibrium, I’m not talking about having an equal level of respect or commitment to one another. What I mean is that when you’re married with kids, it’s damn near impossible for you to both focus on your professional goals, your personal goals, your friendships, your self-care and everything else to the same degree. Something—or someone—has to give. And that sucks.

But I recently read something that made me feel better about this sad state of affairs. In their book Love or Work, researchers and married couple André and Jeff Shinabarger talk about the concept of “seasons” as it relates to two people in a marriage pursuing their dreams.

“In any committed relationship there must be seasons when one person takes priority in pursuing their dreams over the other,” they write. “This precedence of one partner is not for the totality of their marriage but seasonal. It needs to be a constant discussion. And societal expectations and gender roles need to be excluded from the equation during this conversation.”

For the Shinabargers, for example, André wanted to become a doctor but medical school was expensive. And so, her husband took a job supporting her so that she could achieve her dream. She then got a job with health insurance and stability while Jeff dove into his dreams of creating a non-profit. In this way, you take turns balancing each other’s priorities and goals. “One person anchors the see-saw so the other can soar,” they explain.

This makes sense in a marriage-work context (your meeting is more important than mine so I’ll reschedule; I have to go into the office but you can WFH with our sick kid, etc.), but it can apply elsewhere too. Like a few months ago when my oldest child was in an intense mommy phase where he wanted me to play with him, take him to school, read him books, put him to bed, and crawl all over me as if he was climbing back into the womb (I’m sure other moms can relate). And despite our best efforts to share responsibilities, I ended up doing most of the parenting at the time. But a few weeks later, he switched and only Pappacould play with Legos, make him pancakes, pick him up from school, etc. We see-sawed, as I knew we would.

Or when my daughter was little and I spent countless hours nursing her and then blending sweet potatoes and peas into colorful purées. My husband is the cook in the family, but infant feeding just wasn’t his thing. I took the lead in the baby years, and it was time-consuming and dull, but we’re now in the season of him cooking our family meals (and they’re much more elaborate than boiled carrots, so I think I got the better deal in the end).

Some seasons may last for years (in the case of medical school, for example), while others a few weeks (see clingy child above). The important things to remember are to reassess constantly (who’s season is it right now? Who’s season should it be right now? When will it be my season?) and—this is crucial—that every season must end.

Understanding the concept of seasons in a marriage won’t make a trip to the grocery store with two little kids in tow (while checking work emails, RSVPing for this weekend’s birthday party and figuring out what the hell to make for dinner) any easier, but it will help nix the resentment. Balance? No. But up and down? That seems doable. Next week, month or year, you’ll be on top of the see-saw…and your spouse will be the one on the floor with a tantruming toddler who wants to eat ice cream for dinner.

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Executive Editor

Alexia Dellner is an executive editor at PureWow who has over ten years of experience covering a broad range of topics including health, wellness, travel, family, culture and...