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[This text is an excerpt from my book, Unequal Partnership: a dating guide for loving non-egalitarian relationships.]
I’ll give you my best talk about attempting an egalitarian relationship. Americans via polls say they want egalitarian relationships. That’s what they want. Research says that the more support that a couple has (paid leave, elder care, child care) the more serious both men and women are about working to maintain an egalitarian relationship structure. But, of course, American society at present offers very little support for working families. That fact alone contributes persistent stress on the love and commitment that all types of couples try very hard to maintain for themselves.
Egalitarian. I had to explain this concept to a dear friend of mine. “Egalitarianism” in an intimate relationship is understood as a belief system that says that there should be an equal split in finances and in domestic responsibilities. As such there is a visual and continuous assurance that power and control in the relationship are split equally. Given that understanding, if Americans are asked to imagine that which is not egalitarian they can only say to themselves NOT-equal, something is not equal. Some arrangement with my love relationship is NOT EQUAL. “Not equal” means a possible abuse situation? “Not equal” means not loved? “Not equal” means somebody is being taken advantage of? Call a therapist. Call the police.
What’s the underlying issue here? Let’s find out by examining a common situation that isn’t necessarily intimate but could be. How about two people dining together and the question is who pays? Well, the answer can be an even split. Sure. Fifty-fifty. Each can walk away without feeling loss. Each person can feel right and righteous and not taken advantage of. That’s key. Not feeling like a chump ranks high with Americans, even in their personal lives. It’s key because the real issue is fairness. Each person is protective of self. In dating or as part of a relationship, each of us wants to be sure that we have been treated fairly. How do we do that? How do you think about fairness?
In my restaurant scenario there are fairness options:
—Paying an unequal amount that’s agreed upon. There has to be a compelling reason to justify an uneven payout though or someone is going to feel cheated.
—Reciprocity. “I’ll pay it today. You pay for our meal next time.” “Okay. Great.”
Most modern couples have the burden or joy of supporting two careers. Even if one of them sets the career aside to stay at home and care for children or a parent they probably have near-future potential of being a two-income family. I am guessing that such an income-abled home climate breeds an expectation of reciprocity. Without mutually held rules and protocols around money issues reciprocity becomes the default expectation. With agreements about money in place then reciprocity still is probably the cultural default but now issues are manageable.
Let me be clear and say that the concept of fairness has no objective definition in reality. Instead, it’s a private determination made by the partners of any sort. They are the ones who have to feel right about what is fair to each of them. Believe me, this is no small matter. Singularly, the partners have to feel good and right. There’s that thing again: each wants to feel that they have been treated fairly. Okay. So, the reciprocity method probably covers the big items for the couple like how many times a week the partners can afford to eat out, how to get the bills paid, and how to save for a trip to the Caribbean.
It’s easy to imagine that the couple that has such an important agreement between them about money matters cannot help but to extend their feelings about fairness to domestic issues like their sexual activities and who takes out the trash or who cooks meals. Laundry might be on that list. In these matters, their feelings speak for them. Those feelings say that if the agreement is 50/50 with public activities like going out to eat then surely there is no reason to set different rules about private activities. It’s 50/50 all around and all the way through, right?
But what if it isn’t? What if in reality some things can be maintained at 50/50 but other things like care, kindness, and how much attention each person gets do not fit neatly into the Equal Every Moment expectation. What if one partner remarkably needs cuddling and to be listened to much more than the other partner? Is that person sucking up more than their share on the Equality/Fairness meter? Does each partner need to measure out a certain amount of sexual satisfaction and no more, just to be fair? Life doesn’t work that way as far as I am aware. Over time, what would you say is likely to happen? Couples, sometime, walk into horrendous fights because of an expectation of fairness that is being mitigated via reciprocity. Each person feels right and righteous and I can understand why.
In my opinion and in my professional experience our hypothetical couple is not going to stay egalitarian over time. Time is the in-your-face element that wears on people. Over time, power and control in an intimate relationship leans in the direction of one of the partners. Perhaps, it is a slight slant or a much stronger degree of power and control favoring one of them. It happens. Very few couples can ever stay truly egalitarian but, yes, there are some.
If egalitarianism slips then what do you think happens with this business of reciprocity? Well, somebody is likely to use their stronger degree of control to make sure that he or she gets their pound and a half out of the relationship. Still, the One Up person may or may not be happy no matter what they are receiving. Sometimes, either partner is likely to sneak to get what they believe is their due. Probably, the One Down person isn’t getting what they believe is fair and they resent it. I knew a wife who told me that she had no expectation of telling her husband everything: “you have to keep some things to yourself.” That wife was likely to sneak and keep some purchases in her car trunk for quite some time. I knew another wife who wasn’t getting as much emotional connection at home as she needed so her co-worker surreptitiously had taken on that responsibility.
In these unfortunate scenarios, conversations about getting one’s needs met usually happen only when one or both partners are quite emotional about not getting their needs met and not feeling fairly treated. Where are the positive and calm conversations that result in agreements about how to use their resources to meet each person’s needs? Where is the couple’s commitment to attempting to meet both partners’ needs on a continuous basis? —AG 2017