Relationships aren’t fair

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We often expect things to be fair in relationships. We may not consciously frame it this way, but people quite often think of it as if we do something that helps another, then they owe us somehow or at least should reward us in some other way with appreciation or reciprocity. Reality is just not quite like this.

It is easy to deny this for little things, but over the long haul and as more is asked of us, it can seem imbalanced and unfair. There are many situations where there is a control or power imbalance in a relationship where more responsibility or emphasis in some other way is going to be placed onto one person than another. (Think of caring for an elderly parent or chronically sick family member.) Our desire may be to be helpful, but we can grow resentful when it is “always up to me”. This is why so much has been written on caregiver burnout. It wears you down and can make you petty.

A client told me years ago that he had heard that relationships are not 50-50, but 100-100. (I should have maybe paid him for that session, as I have appreciated and used that idea ever since.) This gets out of the tit for tat dynamic that is so easy to fall into. Instead of working to hold up your end of a relationship (50%), you should take full responsibility for it (100%). Love should not be conditional.

This does not mean that you are supposed to and should want to work more and have it all be about you. It means that you can’t control others and should focus on what you can do, without conditionally wanting something in return. Ironically, it is when we take this position that we can see the greatest positive shifts in our relationships.

It is doing what you can because the relationship matters to you, not because you are trying to get something in return. The person that has to bear more of the relationship responsibilities should look at it as an act of service. Things may balance out down the road, but maybe they won’t and you need to wrap your head around why you are doing this in the first place.

This is a bigger can of worms, but it brings up equity vs equality. A conditional, 50-50 approach to a relationship expects things to be equally distributed between partners. As I mentioned above, equality might not be possible, but this is also based on a superficial view of what the relationship is. Maybe the core of what matters in the relationship is not about the transactional aspects. One person may provide more tangible support or carry more of a load on many things, but maybe the other person provides “value” in other ways (equity). Think about the things you really like about someone you have a relationship with. Maybe they are funny or spontaneous or patient, etc. Those are valuable. They attracted you to create and maintain this relationship with them. This should be enough.

Psychiatrist, Gerald Jampolsky smartly once said,

You can be right or you can be happy.

We sometimes need to stop and think a little deeper about what makes us happy in a relationship and try to do more of that. Trying to enforce what is “right” and fair only drives a wedge in.

These ideas may seem to not generally apply to some of the more day-to-day scenarios in relationships, but they definitely do. You don’t have to be a primary caregiver for someone to take the approach of owning the health of the relationship. Maybe you are “always” the one to do the dishes or apologize or [insert act of personally perceived awesomeness]. You could talk to the other person and maybe the two of you might work out a new dynamic that feels better to both of you. However, there are bound to be certain things that will most likely never swing into balance. If your partner has been leaving their socks on the floor for the past 10 years or forgot to call you once again when they were late because they got lost in their work, maybe that is just who they are going to be in the relationship. Is this a make or break issue for you or do you just want equality? Think of the benefits they bring to the relationship and (less desirably) all the things that you similarly do that chronically bother them. Not everything needs to be a hill to make a last stand on. There’s no need to escalate it to that through days, months and years of building annoyance into resentment over it.

Think of a few things that you really appreciate about someone you care about and go tell them why this matters to you. Rinse and repeat. This is a good step to focusing on the things that matter.

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