Relationships

The Work of “Marital Maintenance” Is a Privilege

And not everyone can afford it.

A collage including flowers, stripes, and a portrait of the author.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy of Sarah Bregel.

Recently, I bumped into an old acquaintance from a mom group while I mulled over a bag of clementines in the produce section at Target. My 3-year-old sat in the cart, kicking me in the crotch. My unwashed hair was shoved under a hat. I was utterly exhausted because I’d been up late finishing an assignment, which, as a work-at-home parent who lacks child care for my youngest, is sometimes necessary. The last thing I felt like doing was chatting about my recent separation to someone I hadn’t seen in years. But before I knew it, I found myself on the receiving end of a lecture about the importance of “marital maintenance” that I hadn’t asked for.

A few months ago, my husband and I announced we were parting ways after eight years of marriage. The response has mostly been supportive, though a few reactions hinted at something else: the idea that I simply didn’t do enough to make my marriage work. This well-meaning acquaintance and would-be marriage counselor thought Target was the place to tell me what I’d done wrong, just as others had before: I didn’t take enough date nights; I didn’t employ enough teenage babysitters; I didn’t go to therapy with enough consistency. I also didn’t take “marital maintenance vacations,” (which is what vacays sans kids are called these days, or so I’ve been told by fellow parents who often take them). I didn’t even take staycations, which, if you didn’t know, is when the kids go to grandma’s for a week so you can stay in your pajamas and spoon-feed one another tiramisu.

Not so surprisingly, these marital tips always happen to come from wealthier folks whose Instagram feeds are filled with trips to Italy, or Napa, California, or some exotic beach they happen to find themselves upon every third Tuesday, complete with pineapple-wedged drinks in hand. Couples’ trips are all the rage these days—or maybe they always were, only now we just get to see a parade of happy, sunbathing, marital boot campers all over social media. And as a mom on the lower end of the middle-class spectrum who has rarely paid her electric bill on time in nearly a decade, I was severely slacking on these crucial marriage-sustaining jaunts.

The concept of taking more time for my marriage isn’t new to me. In fact, it’s exhaustingly old. I’ve gotten used to smiling and nodding, saying, “Yeah, we should get on that.” What I’ve usually steered clear of saying is that my husband and I never had so much as a honeymoon, let alone a weekend away together, in more than eight years of parenting.

We had a baby before we even got married, and from that point on, we were mostly trying hard not to drown in debt, which left no time and no money for swimming with the dolphins somewhere in the Caribbean. We did manage to take exactly one weeklong vacation a year—the time off my husband’s sales job allotted. And because we only got one, we took it as a family. Each cherished family trip got put on a credit card that won’t be paid off anytime soon.

Annoying as it may be, there is truth to the implication that my husband and I didn’t cater to our marriage enough. The fact is, we couldn’t afford to. We live paycheck to paycheck. My husband also works long hours, including many nights. Often, he wasn’t home until I was in bed.

For eight years, I’ve worked from home while taking care of kids to avoid the massive and crushing costs of child care, which typically meant pulling double duty. I spent all day with kids, then worked after they went to bed, or on weekends, or with a kid on my lap to meet deadlines. I’ve swapped kids with neighbors, worked in cafes with play areas. My mother and stepfather, who both still work full time, watched my daughter one day a week from the time she could walk until she was in school full time. Now they do the same with my son, for which I am eternally grateful. Still, time away from my kids has seldom been free time or time spent on my marriage. It’s spent working, typing away so I can make ends meet.

Date nights were rare. We were lucky to have one quiet dinner together every several months, if that. And during the last year of our marriage, I can only think of two occasions where we went on actual dates. The reality was, if my husband wasn’t working late, then I was. Or we were child rearing. Or making dinner. Or doing massive piles of laundry and dishes before collapsing. Because when you’re a paycheck-to-paycheck family, staying ahead of the bills never ends. And neither do household chores (especially if there are children lighting fires in your home throughout the day). While it seems like the stuff of fantasy to me, the ability to outsource chores such as these can have massively positive impacts on relationship satisfaction, says new research out of Harvard Business School and the University of British Columbia. Well, go figure. I never really thought cleaning up potty accidents and pet stains and folding clothes on such a constant basis were necessarily good for my marriage, really.

It’s been fairly well-documented that lower-income couples split up more frequently than couples who earn more. And it’s not that difficult to understand why. Plain and simple, fewer bucks in the bank means more financial stress. It also means fewer dollars to put into keeping your marriage afloat. If you aren’t making deposits, literally and figuratively, pretty soon you’ll be coming up empty. Sure, there are at-home dates to be had. A few precious moments of chatter once the kids are in bed before you drift off to sleep yourself. Yes, there are ways of maintaining a marriage that cost nothing. But even those require time to connect, and for working parents, time is money.

Still, I know there are things my partner and I could’ve done better or differently. The truth is, our financial difficulties were only one issue among many. It just made all the rest harder to navigate. Having financial struggle doesn’t mean your marriage is automatically doomed, of course. It just means you need to work harder to stay connected and maybe get content with a little less marital bliss than you envisioned. Maybe a lot less.

What’s not said enough is that becoming passing ships doesn’t just happen out of sheer negligence, though. Romantic dinners and getaways might be one helpful component to a lasting marriage. But imagining everyone has that kind of freedom is a certain kind of privilege. No, money might not buy happiness, but it does buy more date nights, therapy, and those ever-loving adults-only vacations I keep hearing about. I missed the boat on that one, but you go ahead and sip that piña colada at your all-inclusive resort. I’ll be over here babysitting all the neighborhood kids and writing about fitness gear at 4 a.m. so I can finance my divorce.