Don’t Count Good Works in Marriage

Have you ever assessed your performance as a spouse by counting what you do for your husband and wife and keeping tabs on what they do for you as well?

Edric asked me a question a few days ago that made me do this very thing. He jokingly mentioned that he planned everything for the trip, did all the hard planning, and then inserted, “What have you done for me during this trip?”

Although he was kidding around, it irked me so I started to react. Then the conversation turned into a contest about who served whom more, who worked harder and made more income for the family, and we spiraled into an unhealthy back and forth battle that turned our sweet vacation into a sour one.

I walked off as he finished his work at a cafe, and he didn’t bother coming after me. At that point, I didn’t care. I knew the gate for our next flight to Kiruna, Switzerland, so my plan was to head there on my own to put some distance between us in the airport.

Well, it was a momentary upset that lasted no longer than thirty minutes. As we both took our seats, Edric showed me a written note on his phone that said, “I love you”, and I followed with a written apology. After all, I was the one who instigated the conflict in the first place by being reactive.

So why did he ask the question, “What have you done for me during this trip?”

He explained that he just wanted my attention. At the moment when he asked me what my “contribution” had been, we were standing in line before the check-in counter, and my focus was on the book I was reading. He thought I seemed detached and preoccupied when he hoped to share a meaningful conversation with me as we waited.

How this led to counting marital “good works” is hard to imagine now, but it happened none the less, and it was an ugly debate rooted in pride. Basically, we were both trying to prove ourselves to be the better spouse, the more giving and sacrificial of the other. However, this is a dangerous perspective to hold on to in marriage. It assumes that one person is more significant than the other, and therefore more entitled to respect and appreciation, which leads to feelings of bitterness and disappointment towards the spouse who seems to be the lesser contributor in one’s estimation. The focus shifts from Christ and sacrificial giving in marriage to, “Look at me and all I am doing to make this marriage and family work. I am the one trying hard. I am the one sacrificing so much.” Naturally, this me-centered thinking robs us of joy.

Yesterday, I spent some time reading another book by Laura Story called, When God Doesn’t Fit It. She didn’t elaborate too much on marriage principles because that wasn’t the focus of her book, but she had a line in there that struck me. “Marriage isn’t a union intended to make you happy. It’s a union intended to make you holy.”

Happiness or joy in relationships, especially in marriage, is a by-product, not a goal. I need to understand who I am before a Holy God first — someone who isn’t entitled to anything, and merely a recipient of grace I do not deserve. The same goes for Edric.

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)…For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians‬ ‭2:4-5, 8-9‬)

Our goal is not to become better than each other so we can feel like we are “good” spouses, “good” parents. Instead, our goal is to become more like Christ, to imitate who He is. He is loving, forgiving, understanding, patient, kind, compassionate, wise, good,

and full of mercy and hope. Wow. I need to grow in all these areas!

Christ is the standard and the mirror that we must look upon. (Hebrews 12:2)

Then marriage no longer becomes about favors, the keeping of tabs, a list of whose done what, or who outshines whom. It shifts to mutual humility and accountability. It moves away from being about competition to being a collaboration towards completion — becoming whom God wants us to be as individuals, as well as together, as a team.

“Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.” (Philippians‬ ‭1:27‬)‬‬

How can I help you be all that God wants you to be is the question we must ask of each other rather than, What are you doing for me? Shifting our energy and effort towards the former gives us greater motivation and resolved to improve as a husband or wife, and to meet the needs of our spouse.

After Edric and I resolved our conflict,

I spent some moments assessing my answer to the first question. (Thank God our fight was too short-lived to spoil our vacation, but significant enough to get me introspecting.) I started to look for opportunities to serve Edric more, even in just small ways I knew he appreciated, like taking the initiative to get him a glass of water or orange juice from the breakfast buffet, or offering to buy him something to eat while we waited at different airports. And lo and behold, I received the bonus of him delighting to open the door for me, and seat me comfortably in my chair every time I returned to our table. He also made great adjustments for me such as cutting short our mountain bike ride to the top of a hill, and forgoing a midnight dash towards the iconic Mermaid statue in Copenhagen during our long lay-over. These were things he was itching to do but he considered my less energetic state at five months pregnant, and deferred to me so I could rest. (Don’t mountain bike while pregnant after your first trimester when the path is ridden with uneven stones and roots. It’s a baaaddd idea.)

Let me close with this point: When you stop counting tabs in marriage, you start to do things that really count for each other, that really start to look more like things Christ would do, and then happiness and joy become the bonus.

9 thoughts on “Don’t Count Good Works in Marriage

  1. Wow joy,this so timely. I was sitting in our couch sour graping and feeling frustrated because i was thinking that i do so much for our family but i feel so unappreciated. Thank you for this and i thank God for using you as an instrument for His words.

    1. I can relate 🙂 I think we all tend to fall into this mindset which is why I wrote the article to remind myself, too!

  2. “I need to understand who I am before a Holy God first — someone who isn’t entitled to anything, and merely a recipient of grace I do not deserve.”

    Yet another great post, Joy! Thank you!

  3. Thank you for making us realize that hapiness and joy is a just a by product of holiness. The negative effects of counting good works does not only apply in marriage but also in all aspects of life: relationship with home helpers, family relationships, frienship, business partnerships, workplace environment and more.
    I discovered your blog when we enrolled at TMA last 2016. Mr. Jesi Tan also introduced me to you in one of the Homeschool conference in SM Aura.
    I am a single parent of 2 kids and reading your blogs inpired me to continue homeschooling and following Christ. With the help of a very dedicated academic teacher for my 8th grader, I am enrollong my 5 year old daughter this August too.
    Life is very difficult most of the times, there’s a struggle of fighting anxiety and depression after the loss of my husband, but I know God has been there and will always be my partner in raising up my two kids. I will definitely not count the good works in this marriage but definitely count all the blessings God has in store for us, one gracefilled day at a time.
    Congratulations on your 6th baby and have a safe pregnancy.

    1. Praise God that you keep going regardless of the challenges! So blessed by your resolve:) May God continue to sustain you through all seasons of your life!

  4. Thank you for this. It made me realize why I’ve been unhappy in our marriage lately — it’s because I have been counting all the things I’ve done for my spouse while I feel he has not given me half of that amount. I realized I have this entitlement mentality which I never would have thought I have. Thank you for the reminders.

  5. Joy, thank you for sharing your story. You always enlighten me in so many ways as a wife and as a mother. I am on this situation right now “bitterness and disappointment towards my spouse”, and this is not the 1st time. Sometimes it’s tiring already and I feel that the best and easiest thing to do is to “GIVE UP”.

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