Fairness is Killing Your Marriage

By Nic Natale, PhD

Clinging to fairness will kill any hope of change in your marriage.

When things are difficult between you and your spouse, it is often tempting to focus on a try-and-true concept, fairness.  Your mind begins to race with all the different ways your spouse has not changed or done the things they said they would not do again. 

You begin to rationalize how you respond to your spouse through the lens of fairness.  You may say something like, “Why do I need to change if he hasn’t!” “I want to see that she's serious about this first.” “I always have to be the one to go first.”  Statements like these are called “fairness talk.” 

Fairness, the desire to be treated equally, has been shaped as a drive since you were in preschool.  Back then, you wanted to be treated fairly by your classmates, friends, and siblings.  You were even made to treat others fairly when you didn’t really want too.  Shared your toys, took turns, and played nice with everyone.  That was part of the pre-school social contract we all signed. 

As an adult, you still want things to be fair.  And, why not? It’s only fair that we are treated like we treat others.  You want to be treated fairly at work, on the team, at school, and in your relationships.  “Fairness talk” usually surfaces when you begin to feel as though you’re being treated unfairly by those close to you. 

The only difficulty with seeking fairness in marriage is that it can interfere with the change that's needed.   The reality is someone must begin exhibiting change before the other person will change.  Someone must go first.  It would be great if both of you begin to change at the exact same moment, but that is highly unlikely and almost never happens.  

After working with couples for over 15 years, I have learned that someone in the marriage must take the first step towards change and often, they must take it alone.

The temptation to seek fairness is so ingrained into our psyche that we may not see it when it begins to surface.  A friend of mine was discussing all the changes that she knew she needed to make.  As she began to talk, I could tell by her voice that she was becoming more and more upset.  I asked her, “Why are you getting angry?”  She looked uneasily at me and said, “Because every time something has to be fixed in our marriage, I have to do it.  When is he going to take responsibility for what’s going on in our relationship?”  That’s an excellent question and her frustration is justified.  He needs to take more responsibility for their relationship.

That is also a great example of “Fairness talk.”  Any future changes that she could make were dependent on his change.  She was holding out for him to change first. 

The more important question is, however, will she allow her desire for fairness to keep her from doing things that she knows she needs to do?

Someone must take the first step. And that someone maybe you.  Don’t allow your desire for fairness to keep you from doing the things that will make your life better.

Consider these questions to gauge whether “fairness talk” has begun to impede your relationship:

1.      Do I believe I’m being treated unfairly in my marriage?  How so?

2.      What changes am I hesitant to make?

3.      Could there be other reasons why I hesitate in making the changes?

4.      Why am I waiting to change?  What am I afraid of?

5.      How would our marriage improve if I took the first step?

Fairness can kill your marriage.  The steps that you take to improve your relationship is more important than holding out until everything feels fair.  Does it every feel like everything is completely fair?  No, it doesn’t.  Then why wait for fairness. 

Seize the courage to step out and make the changes that you need to make in the relationship.  It will empower you.  It will embolden you.  You will begin to live free from dependency of someone else for your own happiness.  To flourish, you must be free.  It’s time to free yourself from fairness. 




Dr. Nic Natale is a therapist and speaker at Palmetto Counseling Associates, Columbia SC.  You can reach Dr. Natale at nicnatale@palmettocounseling.com and nicnatale.com.