As a married couple in our late 20s, my husband and I lived somewhat separate and mostly carefree lives, him traveling as a management consultant, me working from coffee shops as a freelance journalist. Our biggest compromise was over what to eat for dinner—and that was only on the nights he was in town.
A decade later, challenges crept in. There were kids (2), new jobs (many and not all great), and moving (from New York City to Chicago) to be closer to extended family. Time became more limited, and we now needed to make decisions on behalf of our foursome. At first, we bickered about who did what, and who got more sleep when the kids were restless babies. Then, between his dedication to video games and my habit of leaving used teacups around the house, we got caught up in dissecting the minutiae of the day. That left us feeling grumpy instead of united on how we would achieve our common goals of marital bliss and financial comfort. I also realized that I had to protect my writing career from getting sidelined by invisible labor—like ordering a present for a child's friend's birthday party or booking a parent-teacher conference time—in addition to housework and child care. Moms, not dads, tend to handle the bulk of these in many heterosexual partnerships, even when both parents are working.1
Ultimately, we saw a need for a deeper conversation on equity in our marriage. Equity doesn't mean equality, where we always split things 50-50. That's not plausible. Instead, striving for equity means that we both have the power to make choices and take actions in a way that feels fair.
It still feels like a privilege to debate this. Some relationships are under so much pandemic pressure that adding another thing to do—even a short chat—can feel hopeless. There's less wiggle room for shaping a partnership when you're just getting by, be it financially, emotionally, or both. But if you can swing this type of discussion, it's worth it because it can help align your needs and put you on a path to satisfying them.
Open a dialogue—and keep it going
Like most couples, we were naturally discussing work and home responsibilities daily. We just decided to be more intentional about aiming for equity in a bigger initial conversation centered on that topic. We talked about who gets to sleep in each weekend (answer: me on Saturday, him on Sunday), who schedules the children's doctor's appointments (answer: him), and who orders the kids' new clothes (answer: me, and only once their pants start to look more like shorts). We were driven by fairness as well as by who was naturally gravitating toward these responsibilities.
We're now more cognizant of whose food preferences are prioritized for dinner, what we do with our weekends, and how we decide where to invest—all in the name of valuing both our perspectives. Despite the added challenges of raising children during a pandemic, we're more attuned to the importance that both of our careers continue to grow.
The exact decisions we've made in our marriage probably won't be what you make for yours. But this will probably hold true: You can't have only one conversation in which you plan for every possible task and scenario and stick to that forever.
Striving for a fair partnership is an ongoing discussion rather than something we need to brace ourselves to bring up. For instance, because we're both self-employed—without steady, predictable paychecks—we regularly talk about how we spend our money, looking at our credit card bills, IRA contributions, and more. To work toward financial equity, we switch off being the boss without making the other feel like an underling. That means trusting each other when it comes to everyday expenditures and which mutual funds to buy. Plus, we celebrate one another's joy-boosting splurges. Rather than blaming the other person if they make a choice we wouldn't have made, we insist only on transparency regarding how we each make big decisions.
Let go of what you can
Reducing my mental load is another key to an equitable partnership. My approach: deliberate inaction. I ignore many of the invisible tasks that need to be done in order to keep our household running. Research shows that women take on more emotional strain—and that has only been amplified during the pandemic.2
Knowing that the numbers are against me, I actively try not stepping in. That means that my husband will rarely hear from me to check in on what the kids ate for lunch or whether he wished someone dear to him a happy birthday.
There are times that I break my rule. It feels mandatory to send out party invitations, make plans with friends, schedule playdates for the kids, and check the family calendar to create an itinerary for us each weekend. I'm still working on letting it go and reminding my partner that not everything needs to be on my plate.
Don't always meet in the middle
One way we strengthen our bond is by vocalizing our personal goals and dreams. We talk about the future to let the other know about our longer-term wishes. Sometimes we even look back on unrealized plans or goals. We're never too prescriptive about how we reach these goals, knowing that life can get in the way. The most important part of these talks is giving the other person an understanding of what we hope to achieve.
We focus on equity for realizing our dreams, not constant compromise. That means that we take turns prioritizing our bucket-list experiences and spending money on things that matter to each of us. We don't meet in the middle. If one of us wants to save up for an electric car and the other does not, we don't compromise by getting a hybrid. We just make sure that our budget can handle such a large purchase, make it, and then start saving anew for the next partner's important expense.
Prioritize time to reassess
Finding equity takes hard work. Type-A couples may benefit from a quarterly meeting. And we'll do that when it's manageable—or a must. Other times, we're just fumbling through.
We don't always get it right. Work deadlines make us both short on empathy, so does contending with a lack of time for ourselves. After a long day, the last thing we need is to talk about our relationship.
What has continued to work is a constant reassessment of our life and actions. It sounds exhausting, but the prospect of giving it all up is worse. So we routinely reassess who does what to make sure that our previous assessments still make sense. Recently, I've taken on leading things at home as my husband builds a new business. The larger conversation started after I volunteered to drive our children to school more days each week. In the past, when I've had demanding long-term projects at work, he has done the same. Acknowledging this together and checking in on each other's well-being is critical.
In the long run, we're committed to building happiness and confidence in our marriage. Equitable partnerships bring those rewarding days, and we love each other enough that we're willing to work for them.