"I Married Beneath Me"
The importance of equality in romantic relationships
Posted July 9, 2013 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
“I married beneath me. All women do.” —Lady Astor
Some people become aware during their wedding ceremony that their partner is inferior to them. This kind of awareness can prove to be disastrous for their future relationship. Can such awareness be tolerated, and can it be avoided? Can people live happily with such inequality?
The comparative value of the partner
"Comparison is the death of joy.” —Mark Twain
In his excellent book, Passions Within Reason, Robert Frank tells the following story about a woman who asked her colleague the following question: "Why is it that the people I fall in love with are never interested in me, whereas the ones who do fall in love with me are never the one I care about?" Her colleague replied: "You're an 8 constantly chasing after 10s, and constantly being chased by 6s." How could this woman know that she is an 8, and not a 7 or a 10? And should she stop dreaming about 9s?
Once you evaluate your partner to be inferior to you in an overall manner, you are faced with making a profound romantic compromise in terms of the partner's value as a person who exists independently of you. This evaluation might also be made by other people, and the results might be compatible, as they often are. Thus, there might be wide agreement about whether the person is handsome or ugly, and whether the person is intelligent and has a sense of humor. We may think that we are superior to our partner in all aspects, or just in some significant ones. The compromise here does not refer to whether the person is suitable as a partner, or whether the partner loves you, but whether the partner is, generally speaking, above, below, or equal to you or to other available partners. Marriage to a significantly "inferior" partner is a compromise that often leads to low marital quality and to divorce.
In this kind of compromise, you acknowledge the partner's inferiority compared to you or to other people, and this is very painful and insulting for both of you. This is often a non-starter for a long-term, loving relationship, and such cases typically end in divorce after a relatively short time. Considering your partner to be inferior to you injects lethal poison into the relationship.
Quite often, in order to maintain one’s love for the inferior person, people (more so women) lower their own value, thereby facilitating their admiration for the partner, which is an important aspect of love. Such lowering may be a temporary, superficial remedy, as the real compromise on the overall value of the person is likely to re-emerge soon.
Calculating the comparative value of a person is complex as it involves many features that all carry different weights. The comparison can refer to the perfect prince mounted on a white horse, or it can be to the next-door neighbor. Moreover, in evaluating the partner’s "score," we have some choice in allocating the relative weight of each characteristic, and hence the overall picture of this person can be positive. If this is not the case, and we feel we are compromising on the overall value of the partner, it expresses our sense of the profound inferiority of this person. It indicates that the partner “is not in our league.” Such an expression, which grades romantic partners like we grade beauty queens and football teams, is degrading and contrary to the great admiration of the beloved that is typical of profound romantic love.
Despite the complexity in calculating the comparative value of a partner, people are typically aware of it. When there is a dissonance between the one we are with and those we believe are feasible for us, we feel we are compromising and that we have got a raw deal. This negative attitude creates many difficulties in the relationship.
The equity theory
"If I were to begin a new serious relationship, I would go for the guy who could give me intimacy and some laughs." —A married woman
The equity theory postulates that those involved in an inequitable romantic relationship consider themselves to be undeserving of the situation. This is the case both for the “over-compensated,” who feel guilty for receiving more from the relationship than they feel their partner does, as well as for the “under-compensated,” who feel indignant at being unappreciated or inadequately treated by their partner. Involvement in extramarital relationships can sometimes serve as a way of compensating for such inequity. The under-compensated may perceive extramarital relationships as something they deserve, because their spouse gets more from the marriage than they do, and in this sense, they compromise. The over-compensated tend to be involved in extramarital relationships in order to: (a) escape the unpleasant state of inequity, and (b) prove to themselves and to their partner that they actually are deserving and attractive to the opposite sex, and in this sense, their partners are not compromising by being with them.
Consider the following true story of a young married woman.
“I looked down on my first husband. We only made it three years, but I resented him because I felt that being married to someone who was so much less than me was holding me back. We got married when I was 19, and I married him knowing that I didn't love him. Later on, I was discussing my ex-husband with my current husband, and he asked me why I ever even told my ex that I loved him. All I could say was, he said it first, and it seemed like the nice thing to say. I have gotten much better at expressing my proper emotions now. :)"
Even if a person decides not to make the comparative calculations, or at least not to behave according to them, the calculations can haunt her (or him) and prevent her from being satisfied with her love. As Miriam, a single woman, said: "I was in three long-term relationships, and there were always some discussions about marriage, but I always got out of the relationship before getting married. In the last case, it was about a month before the wedding date (and after the invitations had already been sent). In all these relationships, I felt that my partner was inferior to me. Now, I am merely looking for the 9s."
The main issue concerning romantic compromises is not merely, or even mainly, whether one is superior to the other, but whether one can get a better deal somewhere else. Romantic compromises are mainly about giving up pursuing more alluring options. In focusing upon those who are equal to you, you know that you will get the best for you. There are, of course, other people "who are objectively better" and whom you may adore more. However, these people will probably not love you the way your equal will do; accordingly, they are likely to be less satisfying romantic partners for you. Yearning for them is futile and destructive. Marrying your equal may prevent this type of compromise, although other types may still be present.
The sense that we deserve each other is important to avoid the feeling that we are making romantic compromises. In the short term, the inequities might give rise to great admiration, and hence may increase love and sexual desire. Thus, people who can provide us with social status, such as the rich, the famous, and the powerful, will generate more intense sexual desire and sexual satisfaction. However, in the long term, significant inequalities become problematic for both sides, whereupon superficial short-term goals (such as associating with a famous person) become of less importance. For example, the "higher-status" person may begin to show a lack of reciprocity, which will eventually damage the "lower-status" person’s love and could even generate negative emotions, such as envy, jealousy, and anger.
Compensating for a certain inequality
"Okay, so you're a rocket scientist, That don't impress me much
So you got the brain but have you got the touch
Don't get me wrong, yeah I think you're alright
But that won't keep me warm in the middle of the night
That don't impress me much." —Shania Twain
Inequality in a certain domain, such as intellectual capacities, can be compensated for by an opposite inequality in another domain, for instance, kindness and caring. Consider the true story of Mary's parents.
Mary believes that intellectual inequality does not necessarily ruin marriages: She said that she knew her father was not her mother's intellectual equal. She asked her mother why she married someone who was not intellectually equal to her. Her mother's response was: “If I need friends, I can find some. If I need money, I can get a job. If I need intellectual stimulation, I can go to college. However, your father took care of all my intimate needs—he never turned away from me in bed. I did not want to have to go out of the house to get my intimate needs met, and he met them.” The marriage lasted 32 years until her father's death.
The value of equality in intimate relationships is clear, but its determination may be complex. In some cases, the gap is obvious, and both partners are aware of it. In other cases, where love is absent, each partner thinks that she (or he) is the superior person and therefore the one who is making the compromise. In many cases of profound love, each person adores the partner and considers her/him to be almost perfect. Self-deception may be common in all cases.
It seems, however, that your comparative value is of less importance when the differences are minor and refer to different domains. They are disturbing only when they fill your mind and heart to the extent that you believe you are making a profound compromise.
"If you have an old habit of competing and comparing yourself with others, then you are still living your life like a sperm. GROW UP!!” —Saurabh Sharma
Having equal standing in a relationship is important for the long-term quality of the relationship. However, since there are various domains of comparison, e.g., kindness, attractiveness, wisdom, social status and a sense of humor, and since it is up to the lover to decide on the relative value of each domain, not considering your partner to be inferior to you depends, to a certain extent, on your values. Those values are not identical for all people. In genuine love, the comparison does not exist; you love the person because of what she (or he) is and not because of her comparative standing.