We all expect some amount of fairness and equality in our marriage/relationship.
Fairness implies a balanced “give and take” that is built upon the expectation that you will both (at times) say “yes” to the other (even when you might feel like saying “no”). The equality mindset leads to the understanding that your and your partner’s emotional needs, feelings and concerns will be seriously considered.
The golden rule of equality is reciprocity, compromise and respect.
Problems arise when one or both of you feel that the relationship has become so imbalanced that it is now one-sided (when this occurs, feelings of unfairness enter into the relationship picture)– a common refrain from couples struggling with a breakdown in communication arising from feelings of unfairness usually goes something like:
“I’m the one who is always _________ (compromising, apologizing, giving in, initiating sex, taking care of the house, cooking, cleaning, helping the kids, planning our weekends…). It’s totally unfair and I resent it!”
Relationship Problems: When Equality Gives Way to Imbalance
There is no perfect compromise balance that couples should reach for, since every relationship is unique, and the people who make up the relationship are unique and different. Depending on circumstance, there will be times, of course, when one of you is more giving (emotionally, pragmatically) and when this occurs, the giving-receiving scales are clearly tipped in a particular direction. And in addition to the shifting contexts that might alter the balance of compromise/give-and-take, people inherently differ in how emotionally/pragmatically giving they are—you might even know a couple where one partner seems to consistently demonstrate more love, caring and compromise than the other.
But once a sense of unfairness takes hold of the relationship (independent of circumstance), then one or both partners start to feel taken advantage of—and this often results in “keeping score” of any perceived unfairness. Keeping score (“I’ve done the dishes the last five times!”) is problematic for any marriage/relationship. Once you start tracking relationship asymmetries, you become hyper-vigilant to any and all perceived negatives that may be occurring in the relationship.
This sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy by feeding negativity (what you attend to grows) at the exclusion of the positives (and effort being made by the other) that may exist. When you keep score you anticipate (and expect) short-comings, failures and inadequacies—it’s as if a guard is on alert, readied to pounce and accuse. This creates a shift in the energy of your relationship, where tension and hostility take over.
Effective Couples Communication: Openly Discuss Your Expectations
You might have read marriage and relationship advice books/articles describing how one person can improve a marriage/relationship by acting more loving, appreciative, emotionally generous, etc. The idea is that you (and you alone) can improve or save your marriage/relationship. While I agree that we each have significant influence in the direction of our relationship, this idea (of the power of one) is built on the premise that sooner or later the other partner (who is on the receiving end of the increased love/appreciation) will be positively impacted and ultimately become more engaged, loving and giving. This shift might take months or even years, but the expectation is that your positivity will create a relationship atmosphere that will open your partner up to express greater kindness, love and appreciation.
I’ve worked with many couples where one of the individuals has tried this approach—making Herculean efforts to get their partner more engaged in the relationship or marriage. Too often, however, the partner who is accused of not being fully engaged or fair believes that s/he is giving just as much (or as much as s/he can give) to the relationship as the other person. When this is the case, it’s important for couples to assess their expectations—what is the couple’s shared vision of give-and-take/compromise; what would this look like in action.
Here’s the challenge when communicating about issues of fairness-unfairness:
It will be important to put any feelings of unfairness or indignation aside (easier said than done) because these feelings will quickly engulf the discussion like a wildfire. Your partner will come away feeling judged and accused, and you’ll come away feeling an even greater sense of unfairness. While your feelings of unfairness might be the motivation for this discussion, these feelings should not be invited or allowed to the discussion.
We’d all like to think we’re beyond feelings of fairness-unfairness; that we can transcend these petty feelings that other couples struggle with due to their pettiness. But the truth is these feelings are a reality for many of us and if they do creep into your relationship, they should be explored rather than ignored. Remember, feelings that are ignored often have a hidden power that can make you each feel powerless.
Healthy marriages/relationships are built upon a foundation of effective communication skills and strategies. The good news is that you can make healthy communication a regular part of your relationship.
For more information, check out my communication workbook (The ABCs of Effective Communication.)
Wishing you a strong and fulfilling relationship!
Dr. Rich Nicastro