Why 50/50 Marriages Never Work

This Christmas my mom gave my dad a chocolate bar, supposedly designed specifically for sharing between “Him and Her.” The wrapping was one part pink and one part black, with each side labeled “50%”…but the punch line was in the pink, which spread obviously beyond the midline of the chocolate! “Her” portion was taking up more like 75%!

This gag gift reminded me of a comment a married woman made to me when I was in high school, “Once you get married you learn how selfish you really are.” Hearing this as a teenager, marriage suddenly struck me as an intimidating and even frightening. Everyone wants their “happily ever after,” but nobody wants the love of their life to turn into a mirror revealing their biggest and ugliest flaws. It’s one of the paradoxes of marriage that in our most intimate and fulfilling earthly relationship we also encounter the worst version of ourselves. We all marry sinners, we all make mistakes, and we all hog our end of the chocolate bar.

I think many couples enter into marriage with this 50/50 mindset, whether they recognize it or not. And at first glance it looks like a reasonable system: the husband and wife each give half, compromising their efforts, responsibilities, and needs so that they meet in the middle. He takes care of the trash and house repairs, she handles the dishes and the shopping. Or maybe she gets up early with him to make his breakfast before work, and he lets her pick what movie to watch that night.

The 50/50 split appeals to many couples because it is fair, it attracts us because it makes a relationship equal. But the truth is no one ever really gives their half. We may think we’re giving our 50%, and our spouse thinks he/she is putting forth the same, but instead we both offer more like 30% and suddenly there’s a gap in our marriage. We keep a tally of the “selfless” tasks we’ve done for our spouses but we are blind to the extra miles they have gone for us. We begin demanding that they give their half, convinced that we deserve it. And instead of “meeting halfway” our giving becomes conditional: if he picks up his clothes on the floor like he’s supposed to, then I will treat him with respect. If she comes home on time like she says she will, then I will take her out like she wanted.

The problem with understanding marriage as a 50/50 arrangement is that it orients the success of a marriage on equality. The concept of compromise, of meeting halfway, is dictated by the value of equality, which is certainly an American value but not necessarily a biblical one. Christ did not preach a gospel of equality, but a gospel of humility, surrender, and service, and the relational theatre where these virtues are primarily played out is marriage.

Ephesians 5:22-25 says, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord…Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” The marriage as God created it to be is one in which the wife gives 100% of herself to her husband, and the husband gives 100% of himself to his wife. The husband and wife will strengthen their relationship by serving each other in the attitude of Christ, who “did not consider equality something to be grasped, but made himself nothing” (Phil. 2:6-7).  No holding back, no conditions, no exceptions.

Christ’s self-giving love provides the model for what marriage should look like. Instead of marriage as a 50/50 compromise, God’s plan for marriage reflects a sacrificial love in which 100/100 is the goal. Here’s the difference:

  • In a 50/50 marriage, the couple develops the habit of keeping score, but in a 100/100 marriage they stop counting altogether, knowing it will never add up perfectly.
  • In a 50/50 marriage, the individuals are focused on protecting their portion, but in a 100/100 marriage they are focused on blessing the other individual.
  • In a 50/50 marriage, the husband and wife are instilled with the attitude that their spouse owes them their half of the bargain, but in a 100/100 marriage the couple learns to focus on giving love rather than receiving love.
  • In a 50/50 marriage, love is restricted by conditions, but in a 100/100 marriage love is unconditionally given.
  • In a 50/50 marriage, love is viewed as currency, an equal exchange between two parties, but in a 100/100 marriage love is a gift.

It’s easy to become discouraged when you face daily clashes of interest and opinions, and you realize your own selfishness in marriage. And because we live in a fallen world, the truth is we won’t be able to give our whole selves day after day. But even if we are only able to give 70%, we begin to imitate the selfless love of Christ. Take heart in the fact that when you start loving your spouse as Christ loves the world, your spouse will be inspired to return such love, creating an upward, growing cycle. As your spouse begins to go above and beyond for you, you will be motivated to go and above and beyond for him/her. Together, giving and receiving love, you will grow into the image of Christ.


Stephanie S. Smith is a twentysomething writer, editor, blogger and independent book publicist addicted to print and pixels. After graduating from Moody Bible Institute with a degree in Communications and Women’s Ministry, she now runs her business, (In)dialogue Communications, from her home in Upstate New York where she lives with her husband. She blogs at www.stephindialogue.com, about embodied faith, creative life, and millennial culture, and you can follow her on Twitter @stephindialogue.

  • Kenny Roberts

    Selfishness takes the lead in so many marriages because we all want to get our way and never admit fault. Thank you for dispelling the 50/50 myth.

  • mark lyons

    I’m a 46 year old man who has never been married and has no children. I believe that marriage today is a very, very bad deal for men, for both emotional and financial reasons. I know hundreds of men and women, and almost everybody is either divorced, unhappily married, or non-endingly “working” on their marriage. The harsh truth is this: if your in a marriage that your spouse wants to “work on” then it means only one thing: you married the wrong person. A marriage should be effortlessly happy, it should not require “work” as that word is used today.
    “Effortlessly happy” marriages do exist–my parents had one–but they have become increasingly rare. How do these marriages work? Both spouses are mature, fully grown adults who take their own marital duties, obligations, and responsibilities seriously. Both spouses have compatible personalities and the same values. Both spouses are dedicated to being the most selfless, loyal, loving, and supportive partners that they can be. Both spouses put their partners first–not themselves. Both spouses work on being more selfless in their marriage–they do not work on “fixing” their marriage, or work on “changing” their partner so that their partner will better meet their own selfish needs, wants and desires. I would estimate that probably only 2-5% of contemporary long-term marriages fall into this “effortlessly happy” category. If your LTR, or marriage, is not in this category, then you are with the wrong person–that’s the bottom line. My advice: Never, ever agree to “work” on your LTR, or marriage. Simply dump the person and start looking for the right partner.

  • David

    My intention is that my marriage will be mathematically correct. A whole cannot be more than 100. Would you stop perpetuating this well-sounding, but misguided phrase? We’re talking basic math skills.

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