Fairness vs Generosity

In a healthy marriage, roles and responsibilities are discussed because they directly affect each partner’s behaviors and responsibilities in everyday life. Whether it’s household chores, childcare or decisions that need to be made, partners need to discuss how these roles should be defined and implemented.

Quite often, couples arrive in my office with a story that boils down to being frustrated because one or both partners perceive something the other did or didn’t do as unfair. For example, “I did the laundry the last four weeks, and you didn’t help.” This can lead to resentment. Or it might be that your partner, who typically does the dishes after breakfast, doesn’t do the dishes. So, you end up doing them – again with resentment.

Marriage, many believe, is a “fifty-fifty” relationship. That belief sounds good, and seems to make sense. There’s just one problem – it doesn’t work. Here’s why: Thinking our spouse must do his or her 50 percent leads us to focus on the other person’s performance. But once couples start measuring each other’s performance, disappointment follows close behind, and a deadly cycle begins:

“You do your part” leads to “unmet expectations,” leads to “disappointment,” leads to “resentment,” leads to “distance instead of harmony,” leads to “increased pressure to perform (nagging).”

Relationships cannot be tit-for-tat, or keeping score, or bargaining: meaning if you do one thing, than I have to do another. You cannot tally who did what and where.

If you insist that the relationship be 50/50 you’ll have constant strife, arguing and pain. If one of you gets 51%, the other will complain until something is done to reestablish the balance. Fairness requires a lot of accounting and measuring – as well as enforcement. This way of thinking about fairness creates conflict, arguments, and eventually resentment.

Too often we think in terms of a balance sheet, of earning someone’s love, or having him or her earn ours – an economic model. The problem with holding up fairness as a measuring stick for a good marriage is that it turns what should be a partnership into a contest. Scorekeeping is done unconsciously. Unfortunately, when you’re constantly fighting for fairness, you end up hurting the marriage. Even if you win, you lose: you lose intimacy, and the joy of giving freely to one another.

Debbie Seid, in her forthcoming book, “Shifting,” says that the essential “shift” you want to make is from the game of fairness to the game of generosity. In a generous partnership, you delight in giving to your partner and you see your partner through the lens of love – not because he or she is perfect, but because true giving is not about judging, keeping score, or seeking advantage. 

That doesn’t mean you don’t try to work out who does what in terms of responsibilities; however, if you forget – or something comes up – generosity wins the day. There’s no coming down on your partner because they didn’t do their chores.

Generosity means committing to giving your partner what he or she needs – without rendering a bill for your service. Instead of, “I will come home earlier if you’ll have more sex with me,” we say, “I’ll come home earlier because you need me to spend more time with you.” You don’t come home from dinner because your wife demanded it, or because she promised you more sex. That is not generosity. Instead, if you go out of your way to come home for dinner because you recognize your wife really needs you, that is generosity. This is a “no strings” commitment to the welfare of our partner. There is a reciprocal exchange without anyone keeping score.

Try the following exercises: 

Exercise 1

Having conversations about expectations regarding how responsibilities will be shared and establishing roles for some of the basic things around the house, will be very helpful.

    • Are there certain chores that neither of you like to do?
    • Do you feel that you are doing more than your share of the tasks?
    • What do you see as your role to be in regards to household chores?
    • What do you see your partner’s role to be in regards to household chores?

Exercise 2

Ask yourself: What would it be like if you stopped keeping score and instead put each other’s interests first?

Spend today noticing when you feel disappointed that something in your relationship feels unfair, or that a need or an expectation that you have is not being met. Surrender any expectation that your needs will be met. If they are, that’s great; if they are not met, your practice today is to pay no mind – and not allow your giving of love and being generous towards your partner to be affected.

Stretching to meet your partner’s needs is done not for something you’ll receive back, but rather just because your partner needs it. And as it turns out, the more you give, the more you receive.