Fairness Rules

Fair allocation of resources is important to assure partners feel the relationship is just. You will feel cheated if your partner regular takes advantage of your generosity or good nature. Conversely, if you regularly get away with taking advantage of your partner, you may feel you've benefited in the short run, but over time you're likely to feel guilty, and disdainful of your partner for being a "chump" and letting you get away with it. Whether cheated or guilty, such feelings indicate that you two are not partners -- literally not "on a par," not peers. The power distribution is uneven and out of balance, like master and slave, or boss and employee. Such roles may be familiar and scripted, but they are not intimate. If what you want is intimacy, to know and be known, you must work for fairness.

There are four types of fairness rules commonly applied in close relationships. Let's take a closer look at these:


Social scientists have suggested that every human interaction is based on some form of exchange, a trading of resources or services. Many idioms and aphorisms illustrate the importance of exchange relationships:

  • You scratch my back, I scratch yours.
  • Tit for tat.
  • Quid pro quo.
  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Exchange rules in close relationships are most common in casual or superficial relationships, connections that are infrequent and not close. For example, if a close friend borrows a dollar to get something from the vending machine, then promises to pay it back, you might wave it off by saying "Forget about it" or "It's just a buck." But if a classmate or coworker asks the same favor, you're more likely to await and expect repayment. Quick repayment keeps things "square" between you, which is important when you are not close and there may not be a "next time" in the more distant future.

Exchange rules are also applied in intimate relationships, during the early stages, as eventual partners are getting to know each other. Early in your relationship, for example, you pay your own way, so neither of you will feel you "owe" the other anything. Indebtedness can feel uncomfortable or inappropriate with a romantic partner, and can even block the development of true intimacy. If the guy has bought the girl an expensive dinner, she might feel pressured to provide sexual "payback." But as time and closeness progress, each person can signal to the other a willingness to quit "keeping score," to postpone payback, or to do favors as a way to increase good feelings. Shifting from exchange to another rule signals a less superficial, more intimate connection.

In the same way that exchange and scorekeeping mark the shallow beginnings of a relationship, the exchange rule is called upon when a relationship is ending or becoming less intimate. Imagine a couple breaking up, sorting through their CDs and books:
X: "Is this my copy of Catcher in the Rye or yours?"
Y: "It's mine, I loaned it to you, remember?"
X: "Okay, what about this Best of Engelbert Humperdinck
Y: "Definitely yours."
Scorekeeping returns when some basic trust between two formerly close partners has broken down. It has become necessary for at least one of them to clear the accounts. Generous gestures are costly, and if there is no future together, even pointless.


I once gave talk at a statewide conference of CPAs. After my talk, about 20 of them took me out to a nice lunch. The restaurant's policy for large parties was to issue a single check to simplify the server's task. When the huge bill came for our lunch, to my surprise, they argued excitedly over which of them would get to figure out individuals' shares of the total due. It was the kind of moment I suspect you'll only experience with professional accountants! For several minutes a friendly debate ensued about who was best equipped to compute totals quickly and accurately. The competition was won by a woman who reached into her handbag and whipped out a fully-functioning calculator complete with register tape, so each person there would get an individual breakdown. Now that's fairness!

For such acquaintances, who know but only see each other at seasonal conferences, precise accounting makes sense. But in normal social networks, we have many friends who are closer than that but not true intimates. A simple fairness rule in such "in-between" friendships is the equality rule. For example, my department colleague Allan and I have a long lunch together once a semester. Instead of calculating the tab, we take turns paying the bill. I pay in the Spring, he pays in the Fall. This accomplishes two goals: first, it simplifies the bill-paying portion of the lunch, keeping a friendly time from breaking down into an awkward discussion of who had what; and second, it guarantees that there will be a "next time" lunch, since we are obligated to continue the exchange. Of course, each of us feels obligated to order a meal close in price to the other's. But asking "What are you getting?" solves that problem easily and gives us something fun -- food preferences -- to talk about.

Alternating who pays is one way to apply the equality rule. The most common way, of course, is just to divide the bill down the middle. Again, this is fine as long as the two persons' costs are not much different. If you get the $30 steak and I get the $9 rice and beans, I'll be annoyed if you suggest splitting the tab!


An easy fairness rule to adopt as you become more involved with someone is equity, fairness based on a comparison of two people's inputs and outcomes. Equity makes sense because two different people seldom have the same resources. One person has a higher income, or more time, or more skill. An equity rule takes into account how much each person contributes and how much each person benefits. As long as the proportions are kept the same for the two partners, equity -- proportional fairness -- is maintained.

Suppose you and your partner decide to go to a gambling casino one evening. You play together, and agree to pool your money to have $100 "starter cash" to spend or blow. You make less money than your partner, so you contribute $40 to the pool, while your partner contributes $60. You pay, lose, and win for a while, finally ending up with total winnings of $50 in addition to your original $100. You get your $40 back, your partner the other $60; how do you divide up the $50 winnings? The equitable solution is for you to get $20 and your partner to get $30. The solution is reflected in the basic Equity Equation:

Your outcomes
Your contributions
= Your partner's outcomes
Your partner's contributions

What matters in equity is a comparison of outcomes to inputs. This is a handy rule for couples in which partners are unable to make equal contributions. Make different contributions based on what you can afford; then control the benefits you each reap to keep benefits related to inputs.

For couples, fairness in life may be less a matter of money than of time, effort and immeasurable gestures of love. Some things -- time, maybe effort -- could be assigned value. Other experiences are harder to evaluate. Incalculables such as emotion, pleasure and commitment may matter more than payback or proportion.

Communal Fairness

When two people are very close, they don't keep score, at least for some resources. If your partner usually does the dishes, but has a cold, you know he or she needs a hand. You do the dishes happily to help your partner relax and get better, without keeping score or expecting favors. You do this to meet his or her needs. Such gestures reflect communal rules of fairness. In communal relationships, partners see their relationship as something they value in common, investing what they can as it is needed, in order to build intimacy and a shared future.

Not only are communal contributions given without strings, with no expectation of payback, they are often made invisibly, even secretly. You fill your partner's car with gas, knowing this will make life easier, although he or she might overlook it and forget to thank you. You don't do it for thanks-you do it because it will help the other person. Communal relationships have an element of selflessness but it stops short of becoming self-demeaning. If one person gives all for the other, uncomplainingly, it leaves nothing for the other to give. This doesn't foster intimacy, because it guarantees an imbalance. Two-sided communality does yield benefits for both giver and recipient, since helping improves the quality of the relationship overall, which both partners get to enjoy.

Communal relationships thrive on spoken and unspoken communication with each partner "listening" to the needs of the other and responding to them. But oftten conflicts arise when communication breaks down. And communication breaks down when conflicts arise.

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