Marital Bliss Bar

On Saturday night, several girlfriends and I met in Portsmouth, NH to go shopping, people-watching, and dining. While browsing upscale kitchenwares and funky jewelry, I spotted a stack of Marital Bliss chocolate bars, each of them divided in “half” as shown above. Chuckling, I pointed them out to my girlfriends and continued browsing. A girl, of course, can never have too much chocolate, upscale kitchenwares, or funky jewelry, but I wasn’t seriously in the market for anything: just looking.

North Church Steeple

After we’d stopped shopping and started deciding where to eat, I got thinking about those chocolate bars and the Marital Bliss they presumably promise. Perhaps I was still contemplating the thoughts on growing a 20-something-year marriage that Beth posted last week, or perhaps I’m still feeling contemplative in the aftermath of the three year anniversary of my separation. Whatever the reason for my having serious thoughts about a chocolate bar designed as a gag gift, it seemed I wasn’t the only one in Portsmouth on Saturday night thinking about marriage. As my friends and I considered and then rejected one restaurant for our Girls’ Night Out, we encountered the members of a beer-soaked bachelor party milling on a street corner, the guest of honor clearly identifiable by an actual ball and chain tethered to his foot. Once we’d decided upon and gotten settled at another restaurant, we discovered the table next to ours was the site of a bachelorette party, the guest of honor sporting a fake tiara and pacifier-sized toy diamond ring. On a summer Saturday night in Portsmouth, it seems the Almost-Marrieds & Friends come out in droves.

Sitting next to a party of marriage-minded 20-somethings, I had to wonder what wisdom our table might offer theirs. I’m a 30-something; my two girlfriends are 40-somethings. Two of us are divorced after a dozen years of marriage apiece; one of us is a veteran dater. I’m not a math wizard, but I couldn’t help but think that we three more-than-20-somethings had more relationship experience–and certainly more firsthand knowledge of marriage, separation, and divorce–than the dozen 20-somethings sitting next to us. Collectively, the women sitting at my table surely know something–surely I know something–the blushing bride-to-be with her fake tiara and toy diamond ring hasn’t yet learned.

And so here it is, little sister: wisdom learned the hard way. Don’t listen to me: listen to the chocolate bar. When it comes to Marital Bliss, it ain’t about 50/50.

Pleasant & Congress Streets

At first blush, Bride-To-Be, my words might seem bitter: dark chocolate that’s far less sweet than what you’re used to. But when it comes to relationships, calculating percentages almost always leads to keeping score. As soon as you replace the sexual thrill of scoring with the judgmental act of keeping score, you’ve taken what an old friend of mine called the Turning Point Toward Death. The honeymoon’s really over when you stop appreciating and being grateful for what your mate is and does and instead begin tallying what your mate isn’t and doesn’t do.

Because no two people are perfectly matched, no relationship can constantly and consistently operate on a strict 50/50 basis. One of you will make more money than the other. One of you will do more housework, and one of you will work longer hours. One of you will be better at managing household finances, one of you will be a better cook, and one of you will be neater and better organized. If you have children, one of you will spend more time than your partner does changing diapers, reading bedtime stories, and chauffeuring youngsters to music lessons and sporting events.

In a word, in any given category of marital housekeeping, one of you will rate 60% and the other 30%; in some other category, one of you will score 10% and the other 75%. None of this adds up, of course, to a perfect 100%, and it certainly isn’t 50/50. In the real world, the perfect math of 50/50 is an elusive ideal that couples can strive toward, but expect to be disappointed and be ready to be tolerant when the numbers simply don’t add up.

In my own, admittedly failed marriage, my ex-husband and I were practiced perfectionists when it came to keeping score, and the result was seething resentment and divorce. An English major with several adjunct teaching jobs can’t possibly match the income of a software engineer. Although I tried to compensate by doing as much around the house as my more-flexible work schedule allowed, the value of all my cooking, cleaning, errand-running, and other to-doing never seemed to equal the paycheck my ex-husband earned from a “real job.” When it came to making financial decisions, I never felt I’d invested enough (metaphorically or literally) to make my voice count. Although my ex-husband remembers our deliberations differently, I clearly recall the moment when our decision to buy a house was made by his definitive proclamation, “I make the money, so I get to make the decisions.” Money is one way to decide who’s contributing more than 50% to a given relationship, but it’s not the only factor worth considering. As soon as you start doing the Marital Math of calculating who’s worth what, the damage has already been done.


Agreeing to split wage-earning and household tasks 50/50 is a noble goal, but the calculus of trade-offs can be tricky. Does the “worth” of staying home to raise a child equal or surpass the “worth” of pulling in a full-time paycheck? If a stay-at-home partner manages a frugal household, does Ben Franklin’s motto about a penny saved being a penny earned truly enter into home economics? In the premarital and honeymoon phases of a relationship, it’s easy to think you and your partner are on the same page when it comes to the division of labor, management of finances, and other mundane issues that encourage score-keeping…but as soon as one of you starts wondering if the other is pulling her or his weight, there’s trouble in paradise.

Pulling your weight in a relationship is essential, but so too is the realization that few partners weigh the same. In any relationship, there will be countless times when one partner will have to use her or his strength to compensate for the other’s weakness, and in any long-term relationship, there will be times (in sickness and in health) when one partner is partly or even wholly incapacitated, relying even more upon a helping hand. If you’re keeping track of Who’s Helping Whom and How Much, there will be times when you wonder why you (or your partner) is doing more of the relational heavy-lifting. In my experience, this line of thought is a one-way fast-lane to unhappiness and domestic discord.

When it comes to Marital Math, I learned my lesson the hard way, having been stumped by a problem I couldn’t solve. On the other side of marriage and divorce, I have this to say to any Almost-Married looking for advice: splitting things 50/50 is a lovely ideal, but in a real marriage, you shouldn’t count anything but your blessings. Instead of keeping track of your and your partner’s percentages, shouldn’t each of you agree to put 100% into your relationship no matter what?

UPDATE: In response to my question about what she learned from her brief first marriage, Beth posted a follow-up to her original post on how to grow a healthy marriage. As much as I appreciated Beth’s original post, I think her follow-up list is even better!