How Do You Know What Responsibilities You Have in Your Marriage?

Sure, "till death do us part" and all that, but what matters day to day?

man and woman with feet touching

About a year before David and I started dating, back when we were just (platonic) best friends, we were sitting at the Irish pub downstairs from his apartment, eating shepherd’s pie while outlining our plans for future lifelong relationships.

“I’ve come up with a list,” I said.

He raised an eyebrow. “This should be good.”

“Okay, this is it: smart, makes me laugh, and doesn’t put up with my shit.”

David laughed. “Doesn’t put up with your shit? You’re kind of a handful. How are you going to pull that one off?”

The short answer was, apparently, marrying him. The long answer was that he has reminded me of that pronouncement hundreds of times during fights. “You said you didn’t want someone who put up with your shit,” he says (over and over), “so I’m calling you on it.” And while it’s deadly annoying to be reminded of that mid-argument… he’s not wrong. For us, at least, that’s part of what partnership is.

Which brings me to my question: What do we owe our partners? When all is said and done, what are the fundamental responsibilities we have to the person we’re spending our lives with, and what responsibilities do they have to us? If I’ve learned anything from all these years of writing about marriage, it’s that the ground rules of every relationship are different, and that there are as many different ideas about fundamental responsibilities as there are humans on the planet.

For us, I think it’s pretty simple. While there are a ton of nice-to-haves (dinners out? Sleeping at a hotel through the night? A girl can dream), my basic list shakes out about the same way it did that night when I was twenty-three and sketching out my future over beer:

  • Basic physical and emotional care. Is one of us struggling with depression, or having a weird pain that we don’t quite want to get checked out? It’s the other one’s job to make sure we get to the doctor, like it or not.
  • Making each other laugh. And sex too. But laughing might be even more important.
  • Pushing each other. Write that book. Push for the promotion. Take more time off to spend with the kids. Whatever the goal is, we push each other to go further than we would on our own. (I owe my two book deals to David’s insistent nudging, though every word of the books is mine.)
  • Not putting up with each other’s shit. As I suspected way back when, this is our most important rule. And as David suspected, it’s often the most unpleasant one to act on. But we’re on deck with each other, saying, “No, don’t send that angry email.” Saying, “Yes, you probably need to have that conversation you’re avoiding.” Saying, “I know three-year-olds are difficult, but you need to try to have more patience.” Saying, “Listen to me more.” Saying, “Hey, you need to go to therapy and deal with that.”

People often say they married their best friend, and… I actually did. I married my former platonic best friend. But I don’t consider him my best friend anymore, simply because we have responsibilities to each other that BFFs don’t. (Or at least ones that BFFs can avoid, if they want to.) For us, our marriage vows mean a commitment to having all those hard conversations, and stepping in to kindly inform our spouse that it’s possible (just possible) that they made a mistake, or are avoiding a responsibility, or generally acting poorly, and they should probably fix it. Our job is to step in and say the things the other person doesn’t want to hear, because the rest of the world probably isn’t going to tell them.

Sometimes it’s sort of miserable, and it’s a lot of work. But hey, I’m pretty sure that’s why we get the sex too. And the cute babies.

Every couple works differently. What do you consider your responsibilities to your partner, and they to you? What do you NOT consider to be their responsibility? (I don’t consider my happiness to be my spouse’s responsibility, for example.) Where do you feel like YOU’RE meeting your responsibilities to each other, and where do you think you’re falling short?

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