When my husband and I first got married, 15 years ago, we ran into one of the most vexing question of modern marriage: how can we create a life where we’re equals, connected, and in love? We didn’t want the marriage of our grandparents, where one of us took the spotlight while the other toiled away behind the scenes. We wanted to share the work inside and outside the house together, as equals.
Like most modern couples, this desire led us to create a marriage based on 50/50 fairness. When arguments arose, we asked, “how can we make this fair?” When one of us went over and above to help the other, we sometimes thought, “I just did way more than my fair share. Now he/she owes me.”
We lived like this for well over a decade. And after hundreds of attempts to find it, we finally realized that the idea of 50/50 fairness wasn’t working. In fact, it was making our life miserable. We finally reached the point where we wanted to know whether we were the only ones locked in this battle for 50/50 fairness or whether this was a more universal experience in modern marriage. So we interviewed over 100 people about their marriages for our book, “The 80/80 Marriage.”
What we found is that just about every couple has their own version of this battle for fairness. For some couples, the war is waged over who does more and who does less around the house. For others, it’s about who saves or spends more money. For still others, it’s about who cares more, listens better, or even has the higher level of sexual desire.
The content varies, but the result is always the same. The more we fight for fairness, the more we both end up feeling resentful, irritated, and misunderstood.
Researchers in psychology have a relatively simple explanation for this problem. First, it turns out that our judgments of who does more in marriage are distorted by what cognitive psychologists call “availability bias.” We have perfect insight into all of our trips to the store, tuck-ins, and other acts of contribution. But when it comes to our partner’s, things get fuzzy. And that leads us to consistently underestimate the other person’s contributions.
Second, the research of Jill Yavorsky at the University of Carolina Charlotte shows that we’re also really bad at estimating our own contributions to marriage. Her longitudinal time-diary research suggests that we significantly overestimate the amount of time spent on things like childcare, cleaning up around the house, or folding laundry.
This is why the battle for fairness is impossible to win. Even if we could find the perfect 50/50 solution, our cognitive biases would still lead us to argue over what is or isn’t fair. Fairness, it turns out, is an illusion.
Is there love beyond fairness? We think so, and here are three tools for experiencing it in your own relationship.
Shift to radical generosity.
What’s the alternative to 50/50 fairness? It’s the practice of striving to do well beyond your fair share. We call it “radical generosity.” If we had to quantify it, we might say that it looks more like working toward the outrageous goal of contributing 80 percent.
This may sound edgy, uncomfortable, or even irrational. “Why should I do more than my fair share?” you might be wondering. The reason is that this radical practice shifts the entire culture of marriage. It creates a contagious spirit of generosity – a spirit that dissolves the resentment of trying to make everything fair and brings you back into connection.
Appreciate your partner.
Fairness not only turns us into marital score keepers. It also keeps us fixated on all the great things we are doing, while staying relatively oblivious to the kind acts of our partner.
Appreciation reverses this pattern. It’s the simple practice of scanning your partner’s actions throughout the day for moments when they did something right or acted with compassion. When you catch them in the act of contribution, all you have to do is express your appreciation. It’s as simple as saying, “I noticed how much time you spent this morning getting the kids ready for school. Thank you for all of that work.” The research on this is clear: appreciation is one of the most powerful practices for enhancing the strength of your marriage.
Reveal the hard truths.
When locked in this battle for fairness, the way we handle conflict often amplifies our experience of anger and resentment. Instead of revealing our feelings of resentment or irritation, we tend to lash out at our partner with sarcasm, underhanded jokes, or silent, passive aggressive displays of anger.
There’s a better way to handle these inevitable moments of misunderstanding and conflict. It’s the practice of simply revealing your inner experience to your partner. It’s as simple as saying, “I notice that I feel upset when you come home late without texting me. Can you please give me a heads-up next time you’re going to be late?”
The key is to offer this feedback from a spirit of kindness and radical generosity. When you do, these moments of misunderstanding and conflict can turn into opportunities for growth and connection.
Using these three tools, you can change your experience of marriage. And while that might not seem fair – why should you be the one to have to make this change? – your change is likely to be contagious. It’s a change that your partner will notice. It’s a change that can help you shift out of resentment and back into love.