[This text is an excerpt from my book, Unequal Partnership: a dating guide for loving non-egalitarian relationships.]
Unequal partners create and maintain fairness by aiming themselves toward equity, not equality.
Recently, I saw a poster that graphically explained “equality” versus “equity.” Stylized drawings of people are standing on boxes in order to see a ball game on the other side of a wall. Since, in this scene, distribution was mandated to be equal each person has received the same size box. However, the three persons are not the same height. More height gives someone an advantage to be able to see over the fence. That’s the equality case. Everyone is given the same amount of any given resource; that’s the measure for fairness. Remember, by this way of thinking, we must begin with an insistence of fairness. Fairness becomes the upfront-and-always goal to reach. Equal distribution of resources is the chosen vehicle for delivering fairness and the measure of success. If it’s equal then it must be fair. But what happens to the unasked question of whether each person received what he or she needed?
Now, what about equity? If the goal is to make sure that everyone can see the game on the other side of the fence—meeting each person’s need—then we need to give each person a box that’s the right size to compensate for their particular height. The taller person gets a shorter box than a shorter person who needs to receive a taller box. The point is to make sure that everybody gets to see the game. That’s the question to ask: did everyone get their needs met? That’s the question that an Unequal Partner would constantly hold as most important. Meeting needs becomes the measure of fairness.
Unequal Partners make deliberate, agreed upon assignments of resources (the height of the boxes but also other elements like bringing water for themselves and enough to share). As the relationship goes forward (that is, as the game goes on and they are observers) the couple (the people standing on the boxes) check on each other and make whatever modifications that need to be made (like adjusting the position of the boxes, distributing food or more water during the game). The only goal, and it is a shared one, is the happiness of the participants. I think my analogy works best if we regard the people on the boxes as having agency in their lives and, specifically, in the pursuit of their own happiness. For instance, they probably brought their own food so that they are eating exactly what would please them. Perhaps, the equality dictate would garner them the same number of sandwiches of the same sort for each person. Otherwise, someone might feel cheated because equality is the determinant of fair treatment. As agents in their own lives the Unequal Partners are likely to innovate: maybe, additionally, they brought chairs for their comfort. Maybe they constructed boxes that were wide enough to perch a chair on top. Of course, Unequal Partners would think to check on each other’s comfort throughout the game.
In an Unequal Partnership fairness is certainly desired. It is part of any pursuit of personal happiness. But the goal where asset allocation or distribution of resources or delivery of personal services is concerned is always meeting all needs (in pursuit of happiness). I want to make sure that my partner’s needs are met first and foremost. My partner is thinking the same in my direction. The Unequal Partners are assessing their needs all the time. Equity is the concept that is used as the moral means toward the goal of meeting all needs. Equity is applied to all aspects of the partnership, including very personal ones like receiving emotional support, for example, or really slowing down and listening to one’s partner. The only question on the table is whether each partner’s needs were met at any particular time. Delays might be inevitable, adjustments or even deferments might be necessary but if it is a partner’s need then the aim is to fulfill it. The Unequal partners can be relied upon to check and re-check to be sure that the answer to need fulfillment is yes. Yes, indeed.
Who gets to say what is fair? Only the partners get to assess their needs. Only the partners get to say how they will address their needs. Their motivation is always their couple happiness. The individual focus is always on their partner’s happiness as the highest priority. Unequal Partners expect to create personal happiness through their own efforts. They are the actors. They are the determiners of their happiness. This is radical thinking, to be sure. Unequal Partners refuse to leave their personal happiness to the ravages of romantic fantasy or the roll of the dice from their families’ expectations or from society’s cultural pressures. Not that Unequal Partners aren’t influenced just like other people but having a commitment of making your partner your highest priority goes a long way toward aligning who and what you will allow to influence you and to what degree.
Unequal Partners want equity, not equality. Equity is the natural offspring of their commitment to each other’s happiness. Any logical pursuit of their happiness must focus on the partners attempting to meet all needs. They don’t care about equal portions of this and that. They are not counting to see how much their partner received of whatever. The partners are not keeping track of who did or did not do the laundry as a matter of fairness. Their thinking is “we have leading partner needs + implementing partner needs that we must try to meet as best we can.” Whether the issue is handling their money and other assets or the issue is how to meet one of the partner’s need for cuddling and to be listened to, either way, the partners will apportion the needed resources as best they can to make everybody happy.
As far as the laundry is concerned, the partners make agreements about how responsibilities are to be dealt with. Unequal Partners make their overall goal of attempting to meet all their needs in pursuit of their happiness as the basis for their decisions about who does laundry or, otherwise, how chores get done. Unequal Partners would not start with “the laundry needs to get done.” If they did the only answer discussion and agreement would net them is who does the laundry (this time). The Unequal Partner way of life asks, “Who gets to be happy?” The answer is “we do (because we saw to it) and the laundry got done (by one of us who likes doing laundry or both of us or by arranging to have someone else do it).” —AG 2017