Fairness is the air that we breathe in modern relationships.
We breathe it in as we watch our partner failing yet again to be helpful and load the dishwasher like a sane human being. We breathe it out as we complain either out loud or in the privacy of our own minds about their shortcomings.
Like the air that surrounds us, fairness is also mostly invisible.
We discovered this during our interviews with couples for The 80/80 Marriage. We asked each couple, “How does fairness show up in your relationship?”
Some responded with a laundry list of fights and conflicts.
But most couples said something like, “Well, we’re equals. So we don’t really have a problem with that." Then, they would proceed to talk about the resentment they experienced when their partner spent too much on a lavish purchase or always seemed to have more free time.
In short, we found that all modern couples have some version of this battle for fairness playing in the background like smooth jazz in a hotel lobby.
We also found that the key to unwinding this battle for fairness can be summed up in a single word: awareness.
When you see this conflict over fairness happening in real time, you can interrupt the habit. When you don’t, you fall into the trap of trying to make everything perfectly, 50/50, fair and then feeling the inescapable resentment that follows in its wake.
How can you become more aware of the ways fairness shows up in your relationship? Look for it in these four areas.
The classic 50/50 dispute, this is a fight over who does more and who does less when it comes to all the tasks of domestic life: vacuuming up dog hair on the couch, replacing the half-and-half that just went bad, or waiting around for the cable guy to show up during a three-hour service window on a workday. It’s a fight that sounds something like this: “I just canceled an important meeting to be here for the cable guy. The least you could do is take over the ballet class carpool.” Translation: I’m pissed because I did more than my 50 percent, and now you owe me.
This is the fight to find the perfect, 50/50 balance between time spent with your family and friends and time spent with your partner’s family and friends. You’ll know you’re in this one when you hear lines like, “You said you’re tired of going to dinner at my parents’ house and now you’re asking me to spend a long weekend with yours. Are you serious?” Translation: We need to spend the exact same amount of time with our extended families to hit 50/50 perfection—not a minute more, not a minute less.
This is the fight that happens when your partner returns with an armful of shopping bags from Nordstrom Rack, while you haven’t shopped for new clothes in a year. It’s the feeling you have when you buy your dad a thirty-dollar sweatshirt from Old Navy for his birthday and your partner buys his dad a five-hundred-dollar tournament-grade Ping-Pong table.You’ll know you’re experiencing the money fight when you hear: “I can’t believe you spent that much,” “Why are you such a cheapskate?” or “Why am I grinding every day while you’re sitting around doing nothing?” Translation: I’m mad because I’m doing more than my 50 percent by saving while you’re spending. Or if you’re the other partner: I’m mad because you’re too cheap.
This fight starts happening the day you leave the hospital and walk through your front door with your first child. In this moment, “free time” changes from being a relatively abundant resource to something more like domestic gold—scarce, hard to find, and insanely valuable. It’s the fight that starts with a line like, “You already had your time. You went to Target without the kids. Now it’s my turn to go for a run.” Statements like this elicit a predictable response, something like, “Yes, you’re right. I went to Target. But that’s not ‘my time.’ That’s me buying a bunch of stuff for the family.” Translation: Free time during nights, weekends, or family vacations needs to be distributed 50/50. Oh, and what you call my free time isn’t actually free time at all.
Any of these fights sound familiar? If they do, the next step is to simply notice them happening in real time. You can even label them as they're arising, "Looks like we're having the friends and family fight again." By naming the pattern, it gives you a chance to shift to 80/80 and appreciate what they are doing or have a constructive, revealing conversation instead.
The more you notice these fights over fairness, the more quickly you can shift back to love and the mindset of radical generosity.
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