A recent online article in Psychology Today examined the concept of fairness in a relationship. The author, a marriage counselor with experience and credentials, essentially says that if a relationship is fair, there is equality between the two partners. Equality means balance in the key issues and aspects of a relationship where it is needed, and it takes respect for each other, a willingness to compromise, and no feeling of being taken advantage of or being taken for granted. When there is imbalance between partners, then there is usually a repressed feeling of resentment on the part of the one being treated unfairly, and when this feeling goes unexpressed and nothing changes, the relationship suffers.
My initial reaction to the idea of a relationship being fair was that it seemed to make sense in a kind of idealistic way. In a perfect world, any issues that could possibly arise in a loving relationship could be solved if everything was kept equitable. If an inequality develops, then the difficulty could be solved by having genuine communication, coming up a plan of action aimed at making everything fair again, and then assessing its success to be sure it became a reality.
Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world, and how many times have you heard that life isn’t fair? Which is not to say that fairness in the sense of equality is not a worthwhile goal for a romantic, loving couple – it absolutely is. And there is also nothing wrong and everything right with good communication, a consistent, genuine, and evident sense of respect for your partner, and a willingness and ability to reach a compromise.
My problem with fairness as equality is that it just isn’t realistic, or even healthy in a lot of ways. The whole process of making compromises to get your needs met involves accepting some inequities. Take for example, the thorny issue of housework. I totally hate cleaning the bathroom – not that I haven’t done it a few times, and not that I can’t do it. But there is something about it that makes me want to hire a cleaning person. My wife, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to mind it at all – in fact she enjoys taking a dirty bathroom and turning it into a clean shiny finished product. What I do enjoy doing is running the vacuum, and sweeping the tiled floors. I also like the fact that it takes about an hour of my time, and then I’m done. My wife needs at least 2 hours to clean the bathroom, sometimes longer – is that inequitable?
Another area where resentment can rear its ugly head is in the bedroom. When lovers find that they have different sexual needs, or their libidos are changing for various reasons, a couple of things can happen. If there is a lack of communication about it, the problem can indeed cause the relationship to suffer. But if an honest open discussion can happen, it is possible to work out a very unequal arrangement that works for both. Most couples who are truly in love would do anything reasonable to accommodate their partners – agreeing to solo satisfaction for the more needy person, and couples sex as the less needy person needs it, for example. Not an equitable arrangement, but a fair one.
Finally, an obvious sore spot for many couples is money – who makes it, who spends it, and who is more responsible with it. Again, a compromise may be reached which seems externally to be out of balance, but might be perfectly acceptable to the partners. One person might earn a much higher salary than the other, and be responsible for paying the bills and making most of the spending decisions. This is often the case, and it’s fine as long as there is no resentment on the part of the other person – it’s simply accepted as reality.
Equality is a great goal for couples, but it doesn’t mean that everything has to be fair. It means that everything is getting done and the couple as a partnership has worked out ways of behaving and living that work for them. These behaviors might well seem unequal to an outside observer, but if both of the people in a loving relationship are happy, then inequality itself can be fair.