To Meet in the Middle, First Define “Middle”

What if, for couples, 50/50 isn’t equal after all?

Posted Mar 06, 2019

Pixabay Free Image
Source: Pixabay Free Image

All committed relationships are characterized by a certain fluidity. They’re ever-changing, dependent upon the partners’ oscillating moods, emotions, and state of mind. As a result of such a fluctuating dynamic, relationships demand flexibility. If they’re governed by hard-and-fast rules, and both partners strive to loyally adhere to these rigid regulations (versus guidelines), the relationship can easily — and unpredictably — go astray. Couples may assume they’ve resolved the conflict between them by complying with their pre-arranged edicts. Yet one or both partners may feel disgruntled with whatever “principle-governed” accord they came to.

Which is to say that it’s futile for a couple to attempt to settle their differences by fiat. Their search for objective criteria to reach a resolution mutually regarded as fair frequently won’t be enough to get them beyond their stalemate.

It should be noted that in intimate relationships, as psychologically complex as they are, just about everything is relative. And what couples need to develop greater awareness of is the fact that the whole concept of fairness is predominantly subjective. What’s fair, or equitable, to one party may feel totally unreasonable to the other. That’s why mutually acceptable compromises, as crucial as they are for any relationship, can be so frustratingly elusive. What one person regards as meeting halfway simply may not feel that way at all to the other. It would seem that the more objective the two parties can be about a conflict the better. But too often that’s just not the case.

Here’s the rub. All of us have different notions about what constitutes fairness, each of us with a particular bias — almost always more beneficial to our own interests than to the other’s. Consequently, the challenge is for two people, with inevitable discrepancies about what they perceive as just, to somehow come together, while yet remaining ideologically, or practically, apart. As paradoxical as this may sound, there’s simply no better way to forge an agreement that both parties can regard as equitable.

To resolve such disparities, the first step hinges on the couple’s willingness to grant that the other person’s vantage point has, from their particular viewpoint, as much validity as yours does from your point of view. And that means that neither of you are fighting for superior moral authority and (even more importantly) that neither of you feels obliged to invalidate the other’s perspective in order to validate your own. If you want your relationship to be egalitarian, a relationship between equals, you have to give your partner's perspective equal value or “legitimacy." And that, for most couples, is no easy task.

Let’s take a common example: Betty feels oppressed by how much housework she does, even though she holds a full-time job. Her husband, Bill, earns vastly more income than she and so believes he shouldn’t have to do much around the house, other than once a week mow the lawn and take out the trash. To Bill, it’s “only fair” that Betty handle all the cooking and cleaning (and, after all, he does occasionally load the dishes into the dishwasher).

Betty sees it differently. She thinks she deserves as much time after work to rest and relax as does Bill — who, in turn, has developed the “restorative” habits (once he arrives home depleted by all his professional responsibilities) of playing video games, or decompressing from work-related stress by smoking marijuana.

So, do you think he has an “objective leg” to stand on?

Obviously, any answer here would be based on personal values. Think about it: There’s probably no one who could talk you out of your values. For, after all, they reflect not only your innate constitutional predilections, but also your unique interpretation of the sum total of your lifetime experiences. And neither of these two powerful influences can coherently be viewed as “objective.”

Betty’s own position on this matter of domestic chores is not, and couldn’t be, any less subjective than Bill’s. Yet it’s certainly no less legitimate than his, either. She’d likely contend that her job takes just as much out of her as Bill’s, and that, independent of their earnings differential, she shouldn’t be discriminated against solely because she earns less income. That feels like a sexist distinction to her, especially since she's already discovered at work that a man doing her same job would be paid at a higher rate. So Bill’s position feels almost like an assaultive “double whammy."

Ultimately, such a dilemma lies in its “argumentation.” At bottom, the couple's disagreement is grounded in a (supposedly) irresolvable discrepancy in their values, ideals, priorities, and formal/informal learning. And as already indicated, such differences typically can’t be remediated through simple, or standard, dictates set up by them in advance. Rather, these divergences need to be negotiated. And to be effective, such problem solving must be tailor-made, based on each couple's priorities and preferences.

If partners can adopt the attitude that both their positions are “subjectively right,” then resolution becomes a whole lot easier. For such a broadened perspective offers them the flexibility to transcend the fixed moral positions that may have defeated their problem solving in the past. Acknowledging that to debate about who’s right or wrong can’t work, they can abandon their prejudicial shoulds and refocus their dialogue in much more productive ways.

As it’s well summarized in the ground-breaking book, When Anger Hurts, 2nd ed. (M. McKay, P. D. Rogers, & J. McKay, New Harbinger, 1989):

     "The key attitude for successfully resolving conflicts with your spouse is problem solving. You’re not trying to make your spouse feel bad. You’re not trying to prove your spouse wrong. You’re simply trying to fix what’s wrong. The problem-solving attitude assumes that conflict has no moral dimensions. Instead, conflict is a matter of opposing needs. Disagreements are best resolved when each person’s needs are assumed to be legitimate and important."

And this is where creativity, or brainstorming, comes in, and why allegedly reasonable 50/50 compromises so often turn out not to be tenable. Sure, on paper they might look fair, but if one of the two parties doesn’t experience them as fair, the previous tension between the two will remain intact. Any agreement — or better, acquiescence — begrudgingly made by one party will fail to end the friction between them.

Image Point Fr/Shutterstock
Source: Image Point Fr/Shutterstock

So this is where a couple needs to come from the premise that almost all their conflicts are resolvable once they adopt the attitude that discussing their differences cooperatively — versus competitively — will eventually lead to an outcome with which both of them can be happy. Bill, for example, might propose that he’d be willing to perform substantially more household tasks if Betty were, say, agreeable to stepping up the frequency of their lovemaking. Or Betty might be okay with pretty much continuing to do most of the domestic chores if Bill stopped criticizing her so much, or loosened the reins on her discretionary spending. And so on, and so on. Until, that is, both of them are satisfied with their (subjectively reached) compromise.

And that’s called working together to find a solution that — somewhere out there — existed from the very start.

Four other posts I’ve written for Psychology Today complement, and expand upon, this one:

© 2019 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.