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A few decades ago, a married couple composed of a psychologist and a sociologist decided to apply their expertise in learning why relationships end. In the course of their work, they heard couples refer again and again to a particular source of discord: inequity or unfairness. When the psychologist in the couple applied the same standard to her own marriage, she found she had the same complaint. They ended up getting divorced!

Fairness helps to maintain closeness; unfairness is a serious problem. It's possible for one person to be unfair in terms of words, deeds, or feelings. But perhaps the easiest way to assess a relationship's fairness is in terms of resources:

  • Financial resources: Who makes more money, and who contributes more money to your relationship-you or your partner?

  • Chores and labor: Which of you does most of the cooking? the cleaning? the child care? home repair? car care?

  • Social resources: Which of you spends more time maintaining your joint friends and family, such as by sending out birthday and holiday cards, or arranging get-togethers?

  • Intimacy: Which of you expresses more affection? initiates sex more frequently? arranges for you to spend time together?
Many valued resources don't fit neatly into categories. Your contributions may overlap: one of you may be a great cook, while the other springs for meals out. Further, most partners don't try to make the same types of contributions in every instance; one may do home repair while the other maintains the car; one does the cooking while the other does the dishes. What matters is not how others view the arrangement, and there is no absolute standard for calculating what each chore or skill is "worth." All that matters is how the two partners perceive the value of their contributions.

What, exactly, is "fair"? Before examining four common rules for keeping relationships fair, see if you can imagine how you would or do keep interactions with others "fair." For each of the following five scenarios, choose the response that best represents what you would probably do.

Imagine yourself in each situation. Choose the answer that is usually true for you, or the answer that you believe would be true for you most of the time, and record that letter.

  1. You and a good friend are meeting at a nice restaurant for lunch. The check arrives. You:
    1. review the bill and put in the correct amount for your share of the bill.
    2. suggest splitting the bill, even though your friend ordered a bit more than you did.
    3. offer to pay the entire bill, suggesting that your friend pay for lunch "next time."
    4. offer to pay the entire bill, saying, "Let this be my treat."

  2. You and your Significant Other (S.O. -- your partner, lover, spouse) are shopping for a video to watch tonight. Your S.O. picks out a video that you don't particularly like, and says, "I really want to watch this tonight." You reply:
    1. "Okay, but tomorrow we're renting one that I like."
    2. "Let's keep looking. Maybe we'll find one we both want to watch tonight."
    3. "Okay. We can get one I want next time."
    4. "Okay," knowing it will make your S.O. happy.

  3. Your S.O. is late meeting you, so you cannot attend a show or game you had been looking forward to. You say:
    1. "I'm disappointed. I've been looking forward to this. How are you going to make this up to me?"
    2. "Well, we have the time now, so let's do something together."
    3. "There's one more show/game this weekend. If you cancel your weekend plans, we can go then."
    4. "What happened? Did you forget about this? I think you owe me an explanation."

  4. Your S.O. gives you a gift that is far nicer than anything you had gotten for him/her. You think to yourself:
    1. Uh-oh, I'd better get something really nice to match this.
    2. Well, I've gotten him/her lots of little things, so it adds up to be about the same.
    3. Oh no, how am I supposed to top this?
    4. This is wonderful! I love getting a nice gift.

  5. You have had a really bad day. When your S.O. meets you for dinner, he/she is really upbeat and cheerful. You say:
    1. "What are you so happy about?"
    2. "Look, I've had a lousy day, and I want some sympathy."
    3. "First I want to tell you about my day. Then you can tell me about yours."
    4. "Hey, I could use some cheering up. Tell me something good."

Count the number of A's, B's, C's and D's you picked. Did you choose any one letter more than the others? Your one or two most frequently chosen letters indicates your most commonly chosen fairness rule:

A's are Exchange responses. Exchange requires score-keeping, and making tit-for-tat transactions to keep things fair. People who prefer exchange rules are often sensitive to losses and personal slights. They might give just enough to keep things fair, but not too much or the relationship could become imbalanced.

B's are Equality responses. The Equality rule is the easiest to calculate: costs and benefits split down the middle by the two partners. Those who follow an Equality rule seek to keep things fair by keeping each partner's inputs and outcomes roughly equal.

C's are Equity responses. In an Equity rule, a partner's outcomes are fair if they are in the same proportion as the partner's inputs. For example, if you invest twice as much as your business partner, you deserve twice as much as your partner in profits -- no matter what the precise numbers are. Equity is a more flexible rule than exchange, though it is more complex than equality.

D's are Communal responses. Communal rules require contributing whatever your partner or your relationship needs. This works for long term relationships where partners know each other well, in contrast with short-term exchange rules. Communal contributions may not be equal. They don't keep track of investments and proportions. But communal investments can promote sharing and closeness more than the other rules do.

We'll learn more information about what your selections mean (and don't mean) in the next section.

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