Don’t Settle for a Performance-Based Marriage

Brad Rhoads  and Marilyn Rhoads
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When Marilyn and I first got married, I didn’t think, Now that I’m married, I’ll be rude, slop up the house, join a bowling league so I don’t spend time with her, go to games all the time, and see how miserable I can make her. I had wrong thinking about myself and marriage, and that led to wrong behavior. I needed an entirely different perspective.

When we’re seeking to grow in some area, it can be helpful to first discover where our thinking got off track. We can then discard wrong thinking and behavior and start anew. If the well of joy is running dry in your marriage, let’s get rid of the stagnant stuff before you attempt to put fresh water in.

If your marriage alternates between feeling okay and feeling burdensome, you may be living in a performance-based marriage. And if that’s true, your marriage is like most marriages out there.

What is a Performance-Based Marriage?

In a performance-based marriage, love is given and withdrawn by one spouse based on the behavior of the other. For example, if your spouse is nice and takes good care of you, then you will be nice and care for them. If your spouse is unkind or thoughtless, you’ll snap back or go cold. You will respond to their failure with withdrawal or consequences.

The fuel for a performance-based marriage is effort. If both spouses perform well, then the marriage performs well. But problematically, fuel levels run low at times. When the performance of either spouse dips, the marriage suffers.

When Marilyn and I are in performance mode, here’s what our marriage can look like.

Sin will have no control over a marriage under grace.

Let’s say Marilyn gets overwhelmed with some (or all) of our five kids. When she is struggling, she’ll raise her voice at the kids and tell me how I am either not helping or am making the problem worse. Her volume level tends to increase with her stress level.

If I’m in performance mode, I get defensive and tell her to calm down. Then I, too, get short with the kids. I go quiet and withdraw, making sure she gets the message that I am annoyed.

You can guess how well this works in helping Marilyn to a better place.

Since I’ve added insult to injury, Marilyn is now hurt and angry, and she withdraws from me. She doesn’t want to be around me, and the feeling is mutual. A cold distance sets in. In a performance-based marriage, love must be earned. It is a reward, not a gift.

Life in Performance Mode

Performance-based marriages are prevalent because we live in a performance-based world. Rewards and consequences are doled out based on how well we do. While this may be necessary in the marketplace, it is not the way gospel love works.

In marriage, we almost subconsciously give and take away love based on how we feel we are being treated. We withhold love because we don’t want bad behavior to continue, or we give it as a reward because we are pleased and desire more of that good behavior.

Of course, there can be a beautiful synergy in marriage where love motivates love, and sacrifice motivates sacrifice. However, when one spouse struggles and the other pulls back, bitterness takes root in the gap.

In performance mode, we reserve our precious resources of heart and soul for those we deem truly deserving.

You don’t get my affection today; that is reserved for Good Wife.

You don’t get my respect today; only Nice Husband gets that.

Of course, we would never say such things out loud. But this manner of thinking sometimes undergirds our behavior toward our spouse. This is the familiar notion of quid pro quo. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. You give me what I want, I’ll give you what you want.

You can hear the idolatry of self in that line of thinking. Galatians 5:17 tells us, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” The pull of our flesh is powerful, and the thing the flesh loves most is itself. Operating in the flesh will push you toward a performance-based marriage, where your focus is always on what your spouse should be doing better.

This default selfishness keeps our finger pointed at anyone but ourselves for the cause of our relational issues. We may think, If my husband would just be more helpful around the house, I would have more energy for him, and we would have a better marriage. Or, If my wife wasn’t so stingy sexually, I wouldn’t be frustrated with her all the time, and we would have a better marriage.

Even our relationship with God can suffer from a performance-based mentality. Consider how we frequently equate how much God loves us with how we are behaving. Our peace levels can be determined more by how we think we are doing than by His grace. We can focus more on what we have done than on what Christ accomplished on the cross. It’s as though our joy and contentment hinge on whether we are on God’s “good boy” or “good girl” list.

We know that’s not right, but we still often feel that way

The Hamster Wheel of Performance

The obvious problem with a performance-based marriage is that, as in our relationship with God, a standard of perfect performance is unattainable.

When Brad and I condition our love on the performance of the other, we are placing our marriage under the law. We are implying that the other must meet the requirements of Brad’s Law or Marilyn’s Law in order to be in good standing. And when we begin to put laws into our marriage that we expect the other to uphold, we set each other up to fail.

Second Corinthians 3:6 says that “the letter [of the law] kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The verdict on our performance according to the law will always be Guilty. Failed. Did Not Finish.

Performance-based marriages are prevalent because we live in a performance-based world.

When we set up laws in marriage, we bring distance and condemnation into the relationship. We hold sin and mistakes against each other. Resentment grows. Soon, sin has dominion over the marriage, as both spouses insist on choosing themselves over the other.

You may have a period where you both intentionally try hard, and your marriage is better for a while. Then, a mistake or argument blows everything to pieces. Sunken frustrations and despair are dredged to the surface. You feel discouraged and ashamed over having landed back where you began. You hop back on the hamster wheel and resolve to do better next time.

Over time, spouses in a performance-based marriage learn to live separate lives. Instead of growing in enjoying each other, they grow in tolerating each other. She gets to a point where she feels she can live with his issues, and everything is okay. He does the same. They choose a shallow coexistence over meaningful intimacy for the sake of the peace—which really isn’t peace at all. But the hamster wheel still sits in the shadows, waiting for one of them to mess up again. One bad fight can send them spinning for weeks.

As we focus on our own performance and the performance of our spouse, our marriage will rise and fall with our circumstances. Our marriage will be self-centered and self-dependent, instead of God-centered and God-dependent. Marriage will be a duty, not a delight.

In the same way, our relationship with God will be doomed if we seek to build it on our own efforts instead of the perfection of Jesus. When we seek to work our way into God’s favor, we place ourselves under the law. We come up with grand plans to do right and avoid wrong, like getting a new Bible reading plan, journal, or accountability partner.

Yet we still find ourselves cycling through the same old sin patterns. And we feel the same grudging disappointment from God. It’s the same hamster wheel as in our human relationships, but the stakes are much higher.

The law will tell you—every time—that you are not enough. Not enough for your spouse, not enough for God.

The Great Hope for Bad Performers

Our hope in daily life is not in behaving so well that we land a spot on God’s “good” list. Our hope in marriage is not in striving to become the ideal mate. Our hope in every sphere is the great hope we hold for eternity—Christ has paid it all, for each of us.

God walked the earth as a perfect man and took our sins upon Himself at the cross. He defeated the power of sin and death for all time when He rose again three days later. Those who, by faith, call Him Lord of their lives and trust His grace alone for their salvation are given the free gifts of full forgiveness and eternal life.

In other words, it’s not up to us to become acceptable to Him or to be approved by Him. He has already taken care of all of that.

It is finished.

Ephesians 2:8–9 could not be more clear: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” We don’t curry favor with God and earn His approval. Our good days do not make Him love us more. Our worst days do not make Him love us less. Nothing we do has any effect on His steadfast affection for us.

Colossians 2:13–14 tells us why: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with [Jesus], having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”

This is the good news of the gospel. We don’t have to get cleaned up before we come to God. He chose us and canceled the record of our sin when we had nothing to offer because we were dead. God’s heart toward us is like that of the father in the parable of the prodigal son.

Though his son had been offensive and foolish (and likely reeked of pig feces), the father ran to him when he saw him coming. The father embraced him, threw a party for him, and restored him to full sonship. Nothing the son had done could deter the gracious, celebratory, unstoppable love of the father.

For those who have put their faith in Christ’s redeeming work, God sees the all-sufficient blood of Jesus when He looks at you. He is perfectly just, and He will always honor the atonement His blameless Son made on your behalf. If you are Christ’s, you have been made a new man or woman in Christ.

You are no longer under the law. You are under grace.

This Grace is Really Good News

God’s grace is hard to fathom, but if we seek to grasp it, it is good news that can change the rest of our lives. A grace-filled focus will keep us close to the heart of God as we joyfully lean on Him, rather than ourselves, to supply our needs.

And grace can completely revolutionize your marriage

Release yourself from the burden of striving for perfection in your own power. Rest in God’s grace toward you. Trust the unfathomable freedom available in the forgiveness of Jesus. Then, with a rested and grateful soul, you can enjoy the nourishing fruits of the Spirit and exhibit them to your spouse.

Two believers who are resting in the grace of Christ and extending that same grace to each other tend to get along pretty well.

You will continue to sin against, hurt, and frustrate each other, but sin doesn’t have to dictate your marriage nor the atmosphere of your home. Romans 6:14 says, “For sin will have no dominion over you [and your marriage], since you [and your marriage] are not under law but under grace.”

Notice what the Bible does not say. It does not say, “Sin will have no dominion over you because you will become so strong and holy that you will never stumble or struggle again.” No! Sin will be a reality this side of heaven. But because you are under God’s grace, sin has no power to enslave you. Sin cannot lay claim to that which it does not own.

This is also true for our marriages. Sin will have no control over a marriage under grace.

For Further Reading:

The Grace Marriage

by Brad & Marilyn Rhoads

We live in a performance-based world—but happy and hope-filled marriages thrive on grace. Marriage was God’s idea, so we know He designed...

book cover for The Grace Marriage