Like most people, you may think that a perfect relationship is one where each partner takes on their share of the work and the benefits as a 50/50 proposition. For a partnership to last, you may think that couples need to compromise in a relationship so that everything is “fair” to each person.
Yet, as couples therapists for over 40 years, we’ve found this almost never to be the case. When we ask couples, “What percentage of the work are you doing in your relationship?” their answer is rarely 50 percent.
So, in this sense, it cannot be “fair.”
Why 50/50 relationships don’t work
You want your relationship to be fair because you don’t want to feel used or exploited. You don’t want to give up too much. After all, you get into a relationship to have an equal partnership. So, you ask yourself, “What will I give up to get what I want?”
This is where compromise in a relationship can become problematic. You are two people with different emotions, thoughts, opinions, and perspectives.
If you feel you must compromise and expect your partner to compromise the same amount, but they don’t think you or they should have to, resentment can soon build and fester.
What does work instead?
What if you expected not “fairness” from a relationship but love, generosity, and respect?
When things are not fair, you feel disrespected to some degree. The thing about expecting things to be fair is that life is not fair. So what is there to do? What can replace compromise?
Being in a relationship doesn’t mean you must compromise; instead, you can approach conflicts and differences as a cooperative effort. Finding a resolution is not an obligation but a gift to you as a couple.
Cooperation is action without compromise. It’s not suffering, obligation, sacrifice, or even resignation. Cooperation is an act of generosity and commitment to the entity of the couple. It means committing to keeping at it until you create a solution that meets your needs.
When you’re in a relationship, you’re not just in it for yourself or the other person. A relationship has a life and identity of its own. It’s an entity. There’s always you, me, and the relationship.
You get together with the person you love, not just to have that person, but to have the feeling and power of a relationship. You fall in love with someone, but you also fall in love with love, with your relationship.
So what you do is not just for the other person but for the relationship.
So if 50/50 isn’t ideal in relationships, what is?
A great couple is one where each person is committed to the whole, not just their half. It’s a commitment to the relationship as an entity.
So, it’s not 50/50; it’s 100/100. That means that at any moment in time, each of you is committed to the entire relationship.
If one partner cannot hold up their end of the bargain at that moment, the other will do it knowing that if the roles were reversed, the favor would be returned.
If you’re the best partner you can be almost always, with love and trust, you can also believe the other person will be. Fairness, then, is not the issue. Every activity by each partner doesn’t have to be equivalent.
If one of you births a baby or makes the most money, there’s no way the other can make that up to be perfectly fair and equal. The goal is not to give the same amount as the other but to give everything you have to give at that time — this creates cooperation, not compromise.
It creates possibility rather than obligation. Everyone is trying their hardest no matter what each does in a given moment.
When cooperation is present more often than compromise, amazing things can be possible. This includes that your couple can take on what one of you might need or want at a given time.
Helping the individual gives the couple more power and effectiveness. If one of you needs time alone, at the gym, or to go fishing, the couple can make that happen.
This is given as a gift, not as a demanded obligation. Your couple can now be a help, not a drain to the individual person. So now, you can begin to imagine together what’s possible for both your relationship and each of you.
Think a moment about what that might be. Can you create more intimacy, more excitement, and more fun? Why not?
We saw a man once who came to complain that his relationship was falling apart. He no longer looked forward to coming home after work. His wife was already home but didn’t seem very glad to see him. Since he worked later than her, they had agreed that she would have a nice dinner prepared for the two of them. Instead, she was never “perky” or dressed up and was just tired and distracted upon his entrance. That’s not how he had imagined their relationship would be five years before when they got married.
“I don’t seem to be able to make her happy, and she is neither loving to me nor even very interested. I don’t feel like she is the right wife for me. That disappointed me because I wanted to be such a great husband. I have had to compromise, give up my hope for a loving relationship, and settle for just getting along in a boring way. It makes me sad to have given up on my dream.”
“What would the great husband you want to look like?” we asked.
“I want to bring her flowers and rush into her arms and hug passionately,” he replied.
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“So what keeps you from being that kind of partner?” we queried.
“I don’t think she deserves that kind of treatment the way she is acting,” he said. “She is not holding up her end of the bargain as a wife.”
In a 100/100 relationship, it’s not about how or what each of you does but how you both want the relationship to be.
We suggested that he act like the husband he wants to be even though his wife may not be holding up “her end of the bargain.” He began to bring her flowers and hug her when he got home.
In two weeks, he reported that “She has transformed! She is so happy to see me, and I am so happy to see her.”
While this is a small example of looking at the possibility, not compromise, it shows that you may have more power in creating the relationship you want than you think you do. Try it!
Drs. Peter Sheras and Phyllis Koch-Sheras are clinical psychologists who have enjoyed studying and working with couples for more than three decades and have been happily married to each other for just as long.