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Why Romantic Partners Need to Play Fair

... and why it doesn't have to mean keeping score.

Key points

  • Healthy intimate relationships include a balance of give and take, where both partners contribute and compromise.
  • Almost from birth, babies and then toddlers recognize the importance of treating others fairly.
  • Although balance is important, couples shouldn’t keep score or argue about fairness.
  • In healthy relationships there is a value of both parties, including negotiation that is free from pressure or punishment.
Source: Pexels/Bolovtsova

The golden rule: We should treat others the way we want to be treated. We all want to be treated fairly, and this comes up frequently in intimate relationships. It isn’t cool if one does all the dishes while the other plays on the X-Box and no one wants to be the only one putting the kids to bed or apologizing after a fight. Abusive relationships are fundamentally unfair, because one person expects a servant or a target instead of an equal partner.

We recognize injustice, almost from birth. In one study, Paul Bloom showed babies a series of animated shapes and figures. Some shapes were “helping” others up a hill, and other shapes were being obstructive and getting in the way. When the shapes were presented to the babies as blocks, the babies nearly always reached for the helpful ones and rejected the hindering shapes.

This moral sense continues as babies become toddlers who complain that things aren’t fair, and then become adults who don’t like injustice much either. One study found that employees who felt they were being paid fairly compared to their colleagues were more motivated, happier, healthier, and more satisfied with their personal lives.

Of course, exact fairness in a relationship isn’t possible, and there are always differences in what partners think is fair. It isn’t helpful to keep score and argue about fairness. One couple would argue vehemently about whose turn it was to change their toddler’s diaper. They would sometimes wait until the other was home if it was their “turn,” which ended up punishing the soggy kid for the adult’s pettiness.

This is a selfish focus: “What’s in it for me?” Rather than: “What’s the right thing for us?” Marriage scholar William Doherty calls this a consumer marriage, where the partners approach the relationship with an attitude of getting the best deal. They become dissatisfied if they think they could do better, and instead of committing to the process, they consider trading up for a new model. This is not fairness but an immature debate.

In contrast, healthy partners both contribute to the relationship. They are willing to give extra and rebalance when needed, even when it involves being unselfish. For example, one partner may not feel like listening to the other when they want to talk. But if they do, it is likely to be appreciated. One may not want intimacy when the other does, but compromise and willingness often generate a good experience together.

This doesn’t mean spouses always have to do what the other wants. There should always be freedom and negotiation without pressure or punishment. When partners consistently make an effort to be fair across all dimensions of the relationship, relationships thrive. Buddha said, “Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise one, gathering it little by little, fills oneself with good.” Small efforts to be fair have big benefits in relationships.

Facebook image: CucuMberStudio/Shutterstock


Brian Jory, Debra Anderson, and Cassandra Greer, "Intimate Justice: Confronting Issues of Accountability, Respect, and Freedom in Treatment for Abuse and Violence," Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 23, no. 4 (1997): 399-419.

Paul Bloom, “The Moral Life of Babies,” New York Times, 2010.

Rena Rasch and Mark Szypko, "Perception is Reality: The Importance of Pay Fairness to Employees and Organizations," WorldatWork Journal Q 3 (2013): 65-74.

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