Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Is Your Relationship Fair?

If not, here are five steps to take before things get out of hand.

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Yes, I write about using persuasion techniques to get a date and influencing others to invest in a relationship with you. Nevertheless, I also discuss relationships as being mutually beneficial exchanges and ways of avoiding manipulation while dating.

Sometimes that juxtaposition of topics confuses people.

But while these concepts may seem at odds, they can be reconciled: The missing link is the level of fairness and equity in a relationship.

More specifically, you can use persuasion and influence techniques either to help promote a satisfying relationship for both partners or create a very lopsided trade.

In the long run, though, those uneven exchanges typically result in a lack of satisfaction and commitment. Therefore, if you want a relationship to go the distance, it might be best to balance what is in it for you with what is in it for them.

In real life, do both partners really care about fairness? We all probably all know at least one long-suffering martyr who has been persuaded to feel obligated to some ungrateful mate. Not to mention, the media often portrays dating couples and relationship partners more like predator vs. prey than as complementary collaborators.

So, what's the truth here? Are people fair or selfish in their romantic relationships? Does it really matter? And if it does, what can we do about it?

Equity in Love Relationships

Elaine Hatfield and Associates reviewed about 30 years of research to answer these questions (Hatfield, Rapson, & Aumer-Ryan, 2008). Specifically, they looked at a subsection of research on equity theory, which deals with relationships of many kinds. Essentially, the theory has four main propositions:

  1. People are generally hardwired to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Thus, there is an impulse to act in one's own best interest.
  2. Nevertheless, social groups tend to punish those who act unfairly and reward equitable behavior. This somewhat leads people to be more fair.
  3. Given that, people tend to be most comfortable when they feel they are getting what they deserve. If they are getting too much (over-benefited), they may feel guilty or shameful. If they are getting too little (under-benefited), they may feel anger or resentment.
  4. Therefore, people in inequitable relationships will attempt to feel better by actually making things more fair; trying to make things feel more fair; or leaving the relationship.

Hatfield and colleagues' (2008) survey of the research found support for these propositions in romantic relationships. Overall, both short- and long-term couples had better outcomes when they felt they were getting what they deserved and the trade was fair. Specifically:

  • Partners generally prefer and match with others who are of similar social desirability.
  • Dating couples are more likely to fall in love and become sexually involved when both think the relationship is equitable.
  • Those in equitable relationships are more satisfied, comfortable, and less likely to cheat.
  • Thus, equitable relationships are more stable over time.

A study by DeMaris (2010) which looked at equity in married couples over 20 years found similar results. DeMaris, however, found that perceptions of fairness had more of an effect on satisfaction and break-up than the actual objective measures of fairness (although both were related and important). Further, partners who were under-benefited tended to react more to the inequity. Women seemed to be more sensitive to these effects as well. In other words, overall, partners tended to care more about getting too little than getting too much.

Fairness in Your Relationship

Given the above, if you feel your relationship is unfair (in either direction), you might want to think about a few things. Particularly, if you feel you are being under-benefited in the relationship, then you are most likely going to have to advocate for yourself. Even well-meaning partners may not feel the problem as acutely as you do (while others may be less altruistic altogether). Nevertheless, over-benefited partners may want to take note too, before your partner gets upset, begins to withdraw their support, or leaves altogether.

In either case, you may want to consider the following:

1. To start, look at things objectively.

Try to take an impartial assessment of what both you and your partner give and get, across all domains of the relationship. What does each of you want? Is the exchange roughly even overall?

Remember, equity does not necessarily mean "equality"—each person does not have to do exactly half the cooking or pay half the bills. Complementary relationships, like traditional gender roles, can be equitable and mutually satisfying, too. The general question is simply whether both partners are getting a satisfying deal in exchange for what they are putting into the relationship, or whether someone is really getting cheated.

2. Manage the feelings.

This is particularly important when someone feels that the relationship is unfair, but the relationship is objectively equitable. In this case, the couple may need an exciting night out or an intimate conversation more than a shared chores list.

Specifically, the partner who feels under-benefited could use a little gratitude and appreciation to stay motivated, and perhaps some empathy and rapport building efforts too. Beyond that, both partners trying to build the feeling of a special connection may help increase commitment as well. Overall, try to uplift your feelings and those of your partner to start—and then see whether there is still a tangible problem to solve.

3. Balance the exchange.

On other occasions, the situation may be objectively unfair: Someone is doing most of the work, the other is getting most of the benefit. In these situations, the over-benefited partner needs to step up (or be motivated by the under-benefited partner to do so).

Particularly, the couple should address the imbalance, focusing on the needs that are not getting met. Giving gifts of appreciation that meet those needs and rewarding partners for their good contributions can help too.

4. Deal with lingering arguments and mistakes.

Even when you bring the good things back into balance, hard feelings can sometimes linger. Further, partners might still need to work on some bad habits or be argumentative about certain topics.

Addressing these issues and finding forgiveness for them can improve satisfaction and perceptions of equity too. Remember, these things are considered "costs" in a relationship, which offset the "benefits" you are both trying to produce. So reducing these costs and burdens can help the relationship fairness overall too.

5. End the relationship.

If the relationship is ultimately not a good deal for you both, then you might want to consider ending it. Whether you are sitting in the friend zone, a mismatched friendship, or a long-term romance, hurt feelings can grow on both sides. One side feels guilty, while the other feels angry.

If you are being under-benefited or over-benefited and cannot correct the imbalance, ending things might be the compassionate choice for all involved. In that case, at least you both have the opportunity to have other partners who meet your needs in the future. You may be able to stay friendly too.

Overall, equity and mutual satisfaction are important in a relationship—for both partners. So, it pays to keep the exchange a good deal for everyone, rather than slipping into one-sided manipulations and stress.

That does not mean that there will not be times of sacrifice and trust when one gives more than the other. Nevertheless, if that sacrifice does is not met with gratitude in the short-term and reciprocity when it is possible, you might want to consider other alternatives too.

Make sure you get the next post: Click here to sign up to my Facebook page.

© 2016 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.


DeMaris, A. (2010). The 20-year trajectory of marital quality in enduring marriages: Does equity matter? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27, 449-471.

Hatfield, E., Rapson, R. L., & Aumer-Ryan, K. (2008). Social justice in love relationships: Recent developments. Social Justice Research. 21, 413-431.

More from Jeremy Nicholson M.S.W., Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today