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Try to See It My Way: Being Fair in Love and Marriage

Try to See It My Way: Being Fair in Love and Marriage

by Karen Hibbs, Ph.D., Karen Getzen Karen J.

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Couples enter marriage thinking it will last forever. So why do more and more relationships fail? As Dr. B. Janet Hibbs explains, poor communication and differences between men and women aren't solely to blame. The answer lies much deeper: the key to healthy, loving relationships is fairness. Without a shared sense of fairness, marriages struggle and often end.


Couples enter marriage thinking it will last forever. So why do more and more relationships fail? As Dr. B. Janet Hibbs explains, poor communication and differences between men and women aren't solely to blame. The answer lies much deeper: the key to healthy, loving relationships is fairness. Without a shared sense of fairness, marriages struggle and often end. Most couples' problems-over money, children, chores, sex or the in-laws-boil down to what's fair.

Intuitively, we think we know what's fair. But as Try to See It My Way reveals, how individuals define what's fair is much more complex, and is powerfully shaped by family expectations and experiences. With humor and clinical wisdom, Dr. Hibbs shows why we think we're "right," why we "keep score," and most important, how couples can move beyond communication and gender differences to resolve problems and create a stronger, fairer relationship.

With Try to See It My Way, you'll learn how to:

Find common ground

Recognize and let go of false assumptions

Learn how to balance give-and-take

Stop the battles over family obligations

Repair past hurts and rebuild trust

Filled with compassionate, practical advice and vivid, real-life examples, this groundbreaking book opens the door to love that lasts a lifetime.

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Copyright © 2009 by B. Janet Hibbs, Ph.D., and Karen J. Getzen, Ph.D.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the authors’ rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
Published simultaneously in Canada


My thanks to Dr. John Gottman, for his permission to reprint an exercise from the
Gottman Institute’s Clinical Manual for Marital Therapy, 2005.


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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Hibbs, B. Janet.
Try to see it my way : being fair in love and marriage / B. Janet Hibbs with Karen J. Getzen.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.

eISBN : 978-1-101-02932-9

1. Interpersonal relations. 2. Love—social spects. 3. Couples. 4. Fairness. I. Getzen, Karen J. II. Title.




Neither the publisher nor the authors are engaged in rendering professional advice or services to the individual reader. The ideas, procedures, and suggestions contained in this book are not intended as a substitute for consulting with your physician. All matters regarding your health require medical supervision. Neither the authors nor the publisher shall be liable or responsible for any loss or damage allegedly arising from any information or suggestion in this book.

While the authors have made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the authors assume any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

For Earl, Jared, and William—
life’s meaning is time with you


Nothing in my life quite prepared me for the undertaking of writing a book. Fortunately, everything in my life pointed the direction, and along the way key people lent encouragement, wisdom, and love. Try to See It My Way was in the gestational stage for twenty-five years, following my clinical training in contextual family theory. I owe a profound debt of thanks to the brilliant author of contextual theory, my teacher, the late Iván Böszörményi-Nagy. His elegant theory gave me a new professional direction and paradigm to live by. I also had the great fortune of studying with his colleagues, Barbara Krasner, the very spirit of contextual theory, who was my mentor, and Margaret Cotroneo, who shared my love for the pragmatic and first encouraged my research in this field. Another important influence was the late Emmy Pepitone, at Bryn Mawr College, who urged me to continue my writing. These great thinkers trained, befriended, and inspirited me over many years.

As with other important things in my life, I did this process backward. I wrote the book first and then sought a publisher. First, Barbara Cullen, then Liz Widdicombe, friends in the academic publishing world, reviewed a chapter, made suggestions, and then assisted me in finding an agent. Through Liz, Bruce Nichols, and the seven degrees of separation in the world, an early draft arrived on the desk of my agent, Priscilla Gilman. Priscilla took a big chance representing a first-time author. An embracing thanks to Priscilla, who tirelessly and astutely edited early drafts of the book, saved me from inelegant writing, then guided me through the publication world, until the book found a good home. Richard Prud’homme deserves tremendous credit for his keen suggestions on the all-important proposal, which aided me in transforming the ghost of an outline into a compelling read.

Lucia Watson was a dream editor, par excellence at the Penguin Group, Avery/Viking Studio. Lucia rescued me from repetitiveness and other flaws with her extraordinary editing. Her finely tuned ear for the nuances of language, and well-honed vision for the book’s cohesiveness, made this a much finer and more accessible book. Many thanks, Lucia, for your professional wisdom, personal grace, and kindness, too.

My trusted friend Karen Getzen turned the solitary pursuit of writing a book into a dialogic process. Karen responded to every word I wrote (and rewrote), striking an artful balance between challenging and deferring, while making valuable contributions. Karen, thank you for this process, along with the gift of your steadfast patience.

My sister, Gwenn Hibbs, generously took on, at the eleventh hour, a final polishing of that same crucial proposal. She also kindly read and made most insightful comments on the last draft of the manuscript. Gwenn was exceptionally helpful. My close colleague Suzanne Brennan responded to my earliest formulation of the book. My dear friend Jane Buhl contributed the concept of the well of trust. Other talented friends: Jamie Lilley drew the book’s charming line illustrations, and Weaver Lilley created and updated my Web site. My thanks to my colleagues—Drs. Susan LaDuca, Andrea Bloomgarden, Arlene Houldin, Steve Levick, Paul Schaefer, Caroline Mac-Moran, and Jan Filing, who shared my excitement about the project. For quotable comments, my thanks to Jim Bradberry, Claire Robinson, Dr. Jim Hoyme, Weaver Lilley, Diane Luckman, Mark Sivrine, and Ted Loder. My deepest appreciation to family and good friends who were “there for me” while life inconveniently happened at the same time.

My goal in writing this book was to make a complex body of work as simple as possible, but no simpler. There is a long learning curve before you can write in an uncomplicated way about the concepts of relational ethics. Along that curve, my family therapy graduate students taught me to make abstract concepts comprehensible. A large part of the curve was learning from my patients. Their lives have enriched mine, and the lessons I’ve gained will now benefit the lives of others.

Most crucially, I learned to practice what I preach in my own family. I thank my parents, in memory of Max and in honor of Jeannette Hibbs, who blessed me by having dreams and aspirations for me, that I could have them for myself. They lovingly embraced all the challenges I posed for them in my life as a family therapist. My in-laws, Ruth and Earl Marsh, graciously supported my writing in many ways, allowing me time to write when we visited, spending time with the kids, and baking the world’s best cookies. Thank you for the love you have brought to us all.

To my children, Jared and William, I thank you for the great joys you’ve given, and the humility that parenthood brings. They patiently indulged my constant refrain “I’ll just be a few more minutes” during the many hours I wrote.

Above all, I owe the deepest gratitude to my husband, Earl. It would have been impossible to write a book about fairness for couples if I hadn’t experienced it first-hand. Earl has a great generosity of spirit to which I aspire. His resolute support, unflagging belief in me, and good humor (“the book is done again”) made this undertaking not only possible but also a treasured gift of love. Earl, I thank you with all my heart, now and always.



—B. Hibbs

I want to thank B. Hibbs for coming to me five years ago and asking me to contribute to a book on fairness. Through that time I’ve had the pleasure of learning more about her vision and her deep desire and ability to share that vision with others. In the early stage of the development of Try to See It My Way, my friends and fellow writing group members, Annette Lareau and Erin McNamara Horvat, gave feedback that was helpful in making the book more focused. My colleagues in the English department at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia have been supportive and able to find humor in unlikely moments, and have welcomed me into their world. To all my close friends and family, especially my newborn granddaughter, Kayla, thank you.


—Karen Getzen


Why Being Fair Will Make Your Relationship Stronger


To be happy, one must be just.





Life isn’t fair. But relationships can be. Fairness is the key to solving problems and making love last. Despite the fact that most of us learned to tell right from wrong at about age three, curiously, few partners have mastered the art of what it takes to be fair to each other. And you can’t solve this vexing (and sometimes deadly) relationship problem simply by taking turns, or even “fighting fair.” Instead, you need a new way of understanding the intricacies and intimacies of fairness. This new way recognizes that partners bring to their relationships a host of deeply felt “truths” about fairness, based on their own unique family experiences. When these differing “truths” collide, they can prompt a downward spiral of unhappiness. In this context, you need to learn to be fair in a whole new way. If you do, you’ll have a more loving and vital marriage. That is my conviction and the promise this book makes.

When most of my clients first hear this message, they look at me with disbelief and curiosity as if I must live in a fantasy world and certainly must be clueless about their lives. Most couples don’t think of fairness as their defining problem. Most reveal their troubles, as Michelle and Jim did, with a cross fire of accusations. Though this was only their second therapy session, like many couples in distress, it was easy to see that Michelle and Jim were having a recurring argument. They were stuck in their own private, hellish loop with no exit and no apparent solution.

Jim recounted his complaint for what sounded like the umpteenth time: “The spark is gone. I want passion and romance, someone who wants me. I want the woman I fell in love with. I’ve been unhappy for a long time. I don’t think Michelle can meet my needs.”

Michelle retorted: “I’m so sick of those two words, passion and romance. I think if I hear them again, I’ll scream. We have two little kids. I feel like a cow, always breast-feeding, or changing diapers, wiping noses. Have you ever considered that helping me, like doing the dishes or cooking dinner, might be a form of foreplay? You’re totally oblivious. You have no idea about what I go through every day. How could you treat me this way and think I’d have mad passion for you? I don’t think you love me. I don’t even think you like me, and I’m not sure I like you anymore, either.” Michelle then broke down crying, as Jim stared blankly, at a loss for words.

I wondered if their marriage was in trouble simply because they were overwhelmed by the overload of child care demands. Was this yet another well-worn scene from the chore wars? Clearly, division of labor was a problem area, just as their sex life was. But my hunch was that there were other barriers to a loving relationship, or as Jim put it, romance and passion. In my experience, most problems in relationships, whether small or large, have issues of fairness at their core. Similarly, the resolution of conflict requires that partners feel fairly treated. Yet fairness goes beyond simply reassigning chores, communicating better, meeting each other’s needs, or adding romance. Fairness is the silent working model that guides couples’ expectations of each other and underlies every interaction between them. You need fairness to build trust, feel close, and make your marriage work. Yet, how do partners decide what’s fair to give and to get, and who gets to decide?

I stopped their argument, and challenged each of them: “Jim, not having romance and passion is merely a symptom of something deeper going on. So instead of thinking this is simply Michelle’s problem, let’s look at what the problem is between the two of you. And Michelle, help me understand how you’ve asked Jim for help, because blaming him, or telling him he’s oblivious, won’t work. Tell me more about what you expect from each other, and where you learned those expectations. Tell me what you learned about love and fairness from your families growing up. Tell me when it broke down for the two of you.”

Michelle began: “Fairness didn’t matter in my family. My mother was a doormat, and my father was a bully. Sounds a lot like Jim and me. I have a hard time standing up for myself, with Jim or really with anyone. I know this comes from my growing up. But knowing it hasn’t helped me. The only way I got around my father was by being pleasant and giving in. I did the same thing for years with Jim.” Michelle addressed her next remarks to Jim: “I used to try so hard to please you. For years I went along because if I didn’t, you’d get angry. Arguing with you is like being in a boxing match with a heavyweight champ. Even if I win, I’m beat up. Now I don’t care what you want, I don’t care about your so-called romance. I’m out of energy.”

Once again, Jim sat stunned. He was used to her accusations. But he wasn’t prepared for her hopelessness, or for her willingness to take some responsibility for her part of their problem. I prompted Jim to tell Michelle if he could see some truth in what she’d said. Finally, Jim spoke: “Michelle, you’re right. I do have a really short fuse, but for me it blows over. I didn’t know I had shut you down all these years. And maybe I have expected you to do more than your share.” Then Jim turned to me: “Michelle isn’t the first person who’s told me that when I think I’m right, I don’t budge. I’m used to being in charge—since I was a kid. Maybe that wasn’t as good for me as I thought.” He paused, and then turned back to Michelle: “Michelle, I’m really sorry I hassled you so much. I guess I knew it in some sense, but I hadn’t put two and two together—about me and your dad.”

Jim had begun to see Michelle more sympathetically. Then he asked Michelle to try to see it his way. “But you know, I feel rejected by you. How many hundreds of times can a guy hug his pillow instead of his wife without feeling hurt? I guess I turned my rejection into a demand and a put-down of you. I helped create my own rejection.” Jim was beginning to realize how each fed into the cycle of unfair expectations, rejection, and hurt between them. Jim’s expression of acknowledgment and remorse, and his own display of vulnerability moved Michelle. He added, “I hope it’s not too late.” She slowly smiled and took his hand. Now for the first time after months of tension, they felt more hopeful. The couple had begun the process of learning to be fair.

In this brief scene from a marriage, we glimpse how a couple’s distinct disappointments are rooted in both past and present unfair patterns of relating that fuel their quarrels. Their imbalances of give-and-take created a withholding cycle between them, in which neither felt cared about. Like Michelle and Jim, most couples don’t present their problems as fairness issues. Fairness problems come disguised in loyalty conflicts: Why do we have to go to your parents for the holidays? Remember, I have a family, too. Why don’t you take my side when your mother puts me on the spot? You choose your kids over me—but I didn’t marry your kids. Fairness conflicts also pop up in the everyday abuses in relating: It was your turn to clean the kitchen. Why didn’t you fill up, when you were the last one to use the car? Fairness concerns also underlie the growing pains of life: Why am I always the one getting up in the night with the baby? Why are you supervising what I spend money on? I earn money, too, you know. And the lack of fairness is at the heart of the enduring injustices of a relationship, such as affairs, alcoholism, a secret life, financial infidelity, and other massive betrayals.

Yet couples don’t intuitively think in terms of fairness. They say there’s not enough love, or they say they’re unhappy. They ask me, “What’s fairness got to do with love?” When people first learned that I was writing a book about fairness in love and marriage, I got a variety of responses. “Is it fiction?” one joked. “Good luck,” another quipped, “it must be a small book.” But for many it struck a serious chord. “Absolutely, you can’t have a loving relationship unless people are fair-minded.” Several others agreed that “couples struggle with problems of fairness all the time.” A mother of young children challenged, “Marriages with children can’t be fair!” Others zeroed in on the core questions: How do you decide what’s fair? And who gets to decide? This book shows you how love crucially depends on fair treatment. Fairness helps you resolve conflicts, enables you to give and to get what you deserve, and is the key to a healthy, happy marriage. Try to See It My Way offers a fresh way to understand fairness in the world of intimate relationships, while providing a road map for creating a more loving relationship because it is based on fair relating. Let’s start by looking at the importance of fairness in sustaining love.

What’s Fairness Got to Do with It (Love and Happiness, That Is)?

There are two conditions for enduring happiness. One of these is relatedness. We are wired from birth to respond and to engage in a primary relationship. Humans, second only to ants, are a hypersocial species. Relationships can make us feel happy and cared about over time. That’s why couples still seek the secret of lasting love, hoping to defy the odds, even as more and more relationships fail. But it’s not any kind of relationship that makes us happy. After all, an unharmonious relationship, the kind I treat in my clinical practice, is one of those noxious stressors that couples never get used to. Interpersonal conflict makes us unhappy. Not only are couples stressed by conflict, but those negative stressors can also contribute to heart disease, depression, and a lower rating on that elusive goal of “happiness.” So what is the other condition for happiness? Fairness. Fairness is that enigmatic, critical component of an enduring, loving, happy relationship. Unromantic as it sounds, it takes fairness to sustain love. Your own understanding of fairness in the world of close relationships begins with the decisive first step of acknowledging that fairness is at the heart of all healthy relationships and that imbalances of fairness underlie many problems that ail relationships.

This book begins by asking you to explore your own “take” on the fairness issue. While everyone, even kids at the playground, thinks they know what’s fair, have you ever bothered to thoughtfully state and then evaluate what you expect from your partner? Have you ever named what you expect from your marriage as a whole? Do you know what disappoints you? Do you know what you owe your spouse, and what you deserve? In other words: do you feel that you are treated fairly or unfairly? Some relationships feel fair. In others, partners are seething with resentment. And in many, there’s a mixture of satisfied feelings and anger at unfairness. To see how fair relating can enhance and sustain your relationship, you must first understand your own expectations for give-and-take, and how they developed.

Fairness is so deeply felt that our guiding intuition about what’s fair is impossible to ignore, though it’s often hard to define, and at times even more challenging to agree upon. You only have to observe a few couples to conclude that partners often disagree, sometimes chronically and most unhappily, about what is fair. That’s because fairness is a curious blend of universal rules mixed up with variations you learned in your family. I think of this blend as the two realms of fairness.

The first realm is universal. Everyone has access to it. This realm of fairness is made up of your gut feelings—telling you right from wrong, fair from unfair. You expect others to share these basic rules with their implications for intimate relationships: It’s not fair to cheat on your partner; it’s wrong to take more than you give; it’s right to take care of your children; it’s important to treat each other with respect. If everyone agreed on universal principles, there’d never be a divorce. But relationships aren’t that neat. Sometimes even when spouses do agree in principle, they find themselves doing something that offends even their own moral sensibilities. They break their own fairness rules. That’s where the second realm of fairness comes into play.

Complicating your innate, universal imperatives are fairness rules learned in your family growing up (your family of origin). Not only do families embody vast differences traversing culture, ethnicity, religion, behaviors, and traditions, but each partner also brings a unique experience of fair or unfair treatment from his own family. Each couple imports these differing and sometimes opposing directives from their families of origin into their intimate relationship. Those dictates might include: Men take care of women, and women take care of kids; women take care of almost everything and get the deciding vote; marriage is monogamous; marriage is serial; marriage is unnecessary; family meals are eaten together; it’s no big deal if we eat separately; partners should be co-parents; mothers are better at parenting; Sunday is a day of rest, so we go to church; Sunday is a day of rest, so I play golf; it’s important to see extended family often; the fewer visits the better; parents can never do enough for their children; pleasing your parents trumps what your partner wants. Some differences are merely preferences, but others feel like moral imperatives. You have the task of negotiating your differences to arrive at what’s fair between you and your partner. This second realm of fairness, learned in your family, is an idiosyncratic and messy blend of perceptions, assumptions, and expectations for give-and-take. It is this second ambiguous and crucial realm that Try to See It My Way sets out to explore and map. Let’s briefly survey these two domains of fairness as we turn to the questions this book will answer: just how important is fairness? How do you decide what’s fair? Who decides what’s fair? When the relationship’s not fair, how do you repair it?

Just How Important Is Fairness?

Fairness is recognized as part of ancient wisdom that reflects an innate aspect of the moral code that makes us human. The universally shared motivation for fair treatment is so elemental that even animals are capable of protesting an unfair experience. In a recent study, chimps that were “stuck” with nonreciprocating chimps became so angry that they hurled their feces at their unfair partners. Fortunately, human couples are typically more sophisticated in their responses to unfair treatment. But we are almost all instinctually sensitive to unfairness, even if we each act unfairly at times.

This innate sense of fairness exists in children as well as in adults. As a result, fairness is an organizing principle of life and is the basis for trust throughout our lives and in the world at large. Research proves that the biological indicator for our gut feelings about fair and unfair treatment is located in the right prefrontal cortex of the brain. Neuroscientists have traced our intuition for fair dealing to an electromagnetic pattern. Some have even suggested from recent studies that there is a fairness “organ” in the brain—by which they mean a strong system for tracking give-and-take. Because humans have lived in groups from the earliest times, the ability to track reciprocity was likely a key to survival. Various studies confirm that participants will punish a group member who isn’t playing a game in a cooperative manner—even when the punishment disadvantages the avenging player. But wherever scientists pinpoint the biological impulses guiding fairness, partners intuitively register and respond to fair and unfair behavior. And like the chimps, most of us feel a spontaneous rush of righteous indignation when our partner treats us unfairly.

At that moment of unfairness, you have a strong certainty that you’re in the right, and protest, “That’s not fair!” In day-to-day life, these fairness skirmishes for a couple might sound like this: It was your turn to take out the trash; you owed me a call—you knew I had to take my dad to the hospital; I went out of my way for you this morning—the least you could do is help me now; we have two kinds of money—yours and ours; you never ask me how I am; the household and kids shouldn’t just be my job; you put your family first—what about me?

Emotional battles also erupt over major breaches of trust as well as patterns of unfairness: I worked all day and came home to the kids hungry and you drunk; you forged my name and withdrew money; you treat me like dirt; when we argue, you throw in everything but the kitchen sink; our marriage is a cesspool after your affair. As significant as these problems may be, they are only the oblique indicators, the symptoms of relationships that are out of balance because they are plagued by real or perceived unfairness. Our innate sense of fairness must be off-kilter when partners are more motivated to harm each other than to play fair. How did it go so wrong?

While our gut feelings about fairness instruct us in the moral code of not harming another, as the above violations of fairness indicate, those instinctive feelings take us only so far. That’s where the second realm of learned fairness takes over. We each bring our unique familial “script” or model, full of unexpressed beliefs (reasonable or not) to our relationships. Your fairness model isn’t formally taught but, more powerfully, is learned through growing up in your family. Family relationships forge expectations for give-and-take that are handed down over many generations. The understanding of what you owe your family is called loyalty. Loyalty is the payback system for how a child (over a lifetime) gives back to parents and family. Each partner brings familial loyalties to their marriage, and layers them onto the model of what a couple owes each other. Family loyalties, even more significantly, instruct an individual in the “who comes first” in a marriage. Does what you owe your parents trump what your spouse wants? Does spending time with your extended family create conflict with your partner? Do you expect a partner to mirror the give-and-take you learned in your family? Or, more subtly, do you have a distant or an estranged relationship from a parent, but expect your partner to make up for your losses? There are as many loyalty variations and expectations as there are families.

Your familial fairness model, of which loyalty is a part, is so deeply ingrained that by adulthood, your beliefs about fairness feel like objective truths that are automatically (often unconsciously) brought into all of your relationships. Yet fairness between partners can’t be decided based on only one partner’s understanding of fairness, no matter how good or fair a person he or she may be. When partners transfer their differing familial “truths” of fairness into their intimate relationships, conflict is inevitable. True fairness, then, is a process that is lived out and has to be discovered between partners, rather than a truth imposed by one on another. And although we may never consciously label or scrutinize our fairness creed, it rules our lives and shapes our patterns of relating in our most intimate relationships. Try to See It My Way helps you analyze the fairness models you “inherit” from your family and then bring to your marriage. But most important, this book shows you how you can apply this knowledge to create a new working model of fairness with your partner. Learning a new fairness model is the key to resolving everyday conflicts and loyalty clashes, and to repairing major violations of trust in order to make your marriage thrive.

How Do You Decide What’s Fair?

Once you accept that fairness is at the heart of relationships, and that unfairness creates many problems for couples, you’re still left with the dilemma of how to agree upon what’s fair. Couples often arrive at my office in distress over money, bad communication, infidelity, in-laws, housework, parenting, and sex. These troubles are obvious and tangible, unlike fairness. Yet to resolve these problems, couples need to understand their direct link to being fair. Otherwise, couples may get temporary pain relief by focusing on the predicament at hand without a long-term cure for the underlying problem of unfair relating.

For example, a Band-Aid solution for Jim and Michelle, our opening couple, could have been a deal where Jim would do more housework and Michelle might feel a bit more amorous if she weren’t so exhausted. They’d get short-term symptom relief without understanding their underlying fairness models at play. But the new fairness model we’re building isn’t a quid pro quo negotiation: If you have sex with me twice a week, I’ll do the dishes every night. Such an arrangement feels stilted. It coldly reduces love to a business formula that substitutes rigid rules in place of basic trust and a commitment to become fairer. This tit-for-tat economy leads couples to keep score and focus their reactions on isolated, observable offenses, while overlooking the underlying and fundamental fairness models that motivate their behaviors and drive their problems. Instead, the new fairness we’re constructing thoughtfully takes into account the familial learned realm of fairness that Jim and Michelle, like many couples, unknowingly replicate in their marriages.

Your learned fairness model reflects your inherited family script—a governing, but largely unexamined set of beliefs and possibly irrational expectations, which leads you to think that you’re accurately judging what’s fair. Your loyalty to your family’s model gives your script an extra moral punch. That makes it difficult for partners to recognize that their host of perceptions reflects their family model, rather than an absolute objective truth about fairness. Fairness can be hard to agree on because while everyone has a strong, even moral take on fairness, it’s not always the same take. So how do you come up with a practical way to decide what’s fair when partners disagree? You begin by taking an honest look at your underlying assumptions and perceptions.

Since fairness isn’t an objective truth, but the often-muddled mix of partners’ views and expectations, you need a way to unpack those competing perceptions. The building blocks of your intuitive fairness “script” are the expectations for what you owe and deserve. You assume the job of an ethics expert when balancing your sense of obligation to another against both your sense of deserving from them and their sense of deserving from you. Partners often appeal to me: Tell her she’s being unreasonable! Tell him he only thinks of himself! Yet in a loving relationship, no one person can dictate expectations or the terms for give-and-take, because fairness requires mutual care and consideration of another’s point of view. You and your partner must each discover the familial fairness models (which feel like truths) that you bring into your relationship. Then you have to negotiate your differences and decide on the new governing values. Your decisions will shape the give-and-take between you and determine how the relationship feels. To illustrate this, let’s take a look at the conflicting convictions a couple holds about what each owes the other, as they engage in a skirmish over an e-mail exchange.

Bill insists that Sandy, his wife of two years, stop e-mailing her former college boyfriend. Bill wants her to cease the contact and end the friendship. Sandy refuses, and feels mistrusted and controlled. As the exchange between Bill and Sandy heats up, Sandy defends her innocence, while Bill becomes more frustrated and demanding.

Bill: “I can’t believe that you’re still e-mailing your old boyfriend, even though I’ve asked you not to.”

Sandy: “And I’ve told you it’s nothing. He’s just a friend. I married you. You have nothing to worry about.”

Bill: “But when I’ve asked you to stop e-mailing him, you’ve just blown me off. You have to choose him or me.”

Sandy: “You sound just like a child. Frankly, I’m insulted that you don’t trust me.”

Bill: “And I’m outraged that you’d put our marriage at risk.”

Sandy: “It’s not me putting it at risk—it’s you, being so controlling.” Bill: “It’s him or me—I mean it!”

Sandy: “That’s your choice, then!”

Who Decides What’s Fair?

If you’re wondering who decides what’s fair here, you’re asking the right question. Individual perspectives are just the starting point for determining fairness. In our couple above, Bill and Sandy have competing perceptions and beliefs. Bill is sure that Sandy owes it to him to give up the e-mail exchange and all contact with her old boyfriend. Sandy is convinced that he’s being unreasonable. Is it fair for Bill to insist? Is it fair for Sandy to refuse? Neither seems particularly aware of the fact that they are hurting the other person and the relationship, too. Both defend the right to their own positions.

Meet the Author

B. Janet Hibbs, Ph.D. , is a psychologist and marriage and family therapist with more than twenty-five years of experience. In addition to her private practice, Hibbs lectures at academic conferences and to other groups across the country. Dr. Hibbs has been married for more than twenty years and has two teenage children.
Karen J. Getzen, Ph.D. , is the author of Resilient Marriages. Dr. Getzen has been married for thirty-five years and has two adult children.

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