6 Ways Relationships Can Quickly Become Unfair
Here are a number of the subtle ways habits and expectations can work to cause imbalances in relationships
The dividing lines between these categories, like with most categories, can get a little blurry. Some of them overlap with others or are subsets of others, but all in all, I believe if we want to suss out unfair conditions in our relationships, looking at these six structural factors makes for a good start.
When it comes to wants and needs, we all have particular degrees and frequencies that we need them met at in order to feel satisfied. For example, some people feel that sex once or twice a week in a relationship is sufficient, while others only feel sated if they’re getting it once or twice a day. Some people are perfectly content letting the sink fill up with dishes throughout the day, so long as they’re transferred to the dishwasher before they go to sleep, while others feel the sink should be clear throughout the day, so they believe it should be emptied after every meal. Lots of things in our life work this way.
All of these various thresholds are very important to recognize because dissatisfaction isn’t set around an objective measure. A person’s dissatisfaction is brought about when conditions don’t meet their respective thresholds, wherever those may lie. Not understanding this can cause situations that are unfair and work to hamper communication and empathy. If we’re not careful, we’ll unintentionally impose our thresholds on our partner. Maybe we think leaving the dishes all day is fine, but it really bothers them. They might end up doing all the dishes themselves each day in order to have things the way they like it, and that’s just not fair. Maybe we think we have enough sex with our partner, but they might feel deprived because their threshold is at a different level than ours. People don’t really choose these things for themselves, so if we want somebody to be happy, we have to recognize what their particular wants are around these various desires.
Other examples include things like spending time giving direct attention to one another, going out on dates, or just changing it up. An introvert might be perfectly content not leaving the house to go anywhere but the grocery store for two months at a time. Meanwhile, their socialization-craving partner might be dying inside because they haven’t gone anywhere lively in the last two weeks. Maybe having the same meal or engaging in the same activities over and over again works for you, but your partner might not have such a high threshold for repetition. It’s important we look at all the areas of our lives to find these cyclical desires and make sure we’re functioning in a range of frequency that keeps us both satisfied, even if that means putting in some extra effort.
Another structural factor in a relationship that can cause things to quickly become unfair is what behaviors get established as baselines. Our baseline behavior basically describes what is viewed as normal. Small changes can, over time, lead to a very asymmetrical relationship this way. For example, if one partner makes a lot of jokes about the other, it can be just a small step over until disrespect becomes normalized. The partner who doesn’t engage in the playful taunting might naturally refer to their partner in a much more respectful way, and any slight move away from that can seem like a larger violation than it is. Any behavior can fall into this, but some common ones seem to deal with communication in the forms of complimenting, complaining, joking, deference, etc.
We start establishing baselines right from the beginning of the relationship, so it’s important to pay attention to them. For example, let’s say we start going out with someone, and we really like them, but they start throwing out little complaints about our behavior. Maybe they don’t like that we use cuss words, speed while driving, or put our elbows on the table while eating. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these criticisms, or with receiving feedback in general, but maybe we don’t really agree with the need to alter these behaviors, but we change them anyway because they’re fairly inconsequential, and we don’t want any confrontational exchanges with the subject of our infatuation. Them dictating our behavior to us can become the norm and form a baseline. Eventually, it can start to feel like a big deal if we don’t oblige them when they point something out, slowly shifting the standard for what is expected of us.
For another example, in the early stages of a relationship, we’re more likely to be offering our partner a lot of compliments. We might find that as the compliments naturally become less frequent — after all, we can only comment on the same things so many times — it can seem like we’re not being as loving or are losing interest. The baseline was built early on, and it’s just not sustainable, which makes for an unfair expectation.
What we do or allow to be done today, sets expectations for what we’ll do or allow tomorrow and all subsequent days. Whatever becomes the norm will not only be expected, it will eventually be taken for granted. Whenever we’re moving away from the norm in a relationship it can bring with it some unpleasantness, which can be a barrier to change and make for dissatisfaction — as what someone has come to expect is no longer being offered. We have to be careful how we setup that norm and be conscious of what’s already in place that needs to be changed, so that we can manage it with as much consideration as possible.
In keeping with thresholds and establishing baselines, different people demonstrate different levels of sensitivity. Around some people we can make jokes that are as crude or dark as we like without shocking them, while others can be put off by a wide array of topics. Usually in a relationship one partner will be a little more sensitive than the other. If one is highly emotional or easily offended, they can come to expect that their partner act and communicate with far more attention to detail than they even practices themselves. It can make it so that one partner is very careful with everything they say and do, while the other partner is able to act in a way that is indelicate or even outright flippant. Just having differing levels of sensitivity is a natural consequence of being individuals, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but wildly diverging modes of conduct towards one another as a result can be really unfair. It’s a big topic that I delved into the various manifestations of in another article, How Highly Sensitive People Control the Rest Of Us.
Another big thing that can inform baselines are individual skills and resources. There’s an assumption that if you can more readily do something, or if you’re better at doing it, that you should do it. We make assumptions around these particulars, such as assuming that the partner who makes more money should pay for everything or the partner who knows how to cook better should take charge of all the meal prep. This is also where traditional gender roles are likely to unintentionally seep into a relationship.
This problem can be exacerbated by work schedules or a lack thereof. If one partner works at a company and is given a structured schedule, while the other partner is self-employed, a lot of the responsibilities outside of work can fall on the individual with more flexibility in their schedule.
It is logical that the division of labor be setup so that both of the people in the relationship benefit from each other’s individual strengths, but it should be done in a way that’s conscious and agreed upon. Just because you’re better at something, or better positioned to do it, doesn’t mean that your wants and what fairness calls for should be ignored.
One last particular that can work to establish an unwanted baseline comes when two people decide to start living together. We are each responsible for maintaining our own living space. If the person we’re dating comes over to visit, we probably don’t expect them to perform any of the household duties. However, over time the pair usually starts spending a disproportionate amount of time at one person’s place, and they might eventually both come to live there. The partner who first lived there can automatically be seen as the one who is more responsible for maintaining things, just because that’s how things always were. Moreover, there can be some of the “you’re better at it, so you should do it” sneaking in when it comes to things like cooking or cleaning, since they’re more used to where things go and the like. Your pet or garden might become our pet or garden, but the habit of you being the one who takes care of it can remain steadfast. It’s important to keep an eye out for this as we take our relationship to the next level.
For the last factor, we have a really serious one, and that’s how our self-care (or lack thereof) can put our partner in an unfair situation: It doesn’t typically seem selfish to fail to take care of ourselves. If we don’t put effort into maintaining our health, finances, or appearance, it doesn’t directly impact anyone else. However, being in a relationship can change that. Our partner not only cares about us, but a lot of what we do can reflect poorly on them or otherwise negatively impact them. For example, if you want to drink too much and embarrass yourself at a party that’s one thing. But if your partner’s friends or family are there, it might make it look like they’ve made a poor a life decision in the eyes of those close to them, since they’ve chosen to be with someone who seems to be making poor life decisions themselves. It can be difficult trying to discuss such things with your partner because it’s taken for granted that what we do to ourselves is of no concern to anyone else.
This grows into an even more damaging situation when it comes to bad habits. Since two people in a relationship spend so much of their time together, they tend to develop similar lives. When one partner has good habits that the other doesn’t, the example of the former can often persuade the latter to start doing a little better. When one partner has bad habits the other doesn’t, the same thing happens but for the worse. Unfortunately, bad habits are usually found along the path of least resistance, and this means that if there’s a tug-of-war between the two individuals — one demonstrating a bad habit and the other one a good habit — the bad habit is likely to win. It’s easier to eat junk food while ignoring a salad on the table than it is to stick to eating your low-calorie meals while your partner’s food fills the room with craving-inducing smells and visuals. It’s easier to join the love of your life on the couch for another episode of that great show you’ve started watching than it is to muster the energy to go to the gym, especially when you see the warm invitation that is them sitting there all cozied up. For this reason, it’s important that we intentionally try to assume better habits when in a relationship. Otherwise, things can quickly be reduced to the lowest common denominator.
One aspect of our self-care that can have particularly serious consequences for our partner is found when we don’t do what we must to sustain our own mental health. Of course, there’s only so much any of us can do if we’re suffering from something like anxiety or depression. However, there’re always small improvements to be made. If our partner is depressed and doesn’t have the motivation to do anything outside of what’s required of them, it can make for a series of frustrating interactions, as you try to not only find the motivation to do things yourself in a stagnating environment, but as you then try and convince them as well. It can feel very lonely and work to pull down our behaviors and mental health alongside theirs. If they can’t break the cycle, wherein depression forces them into leading a lifestyle that would make anyone depressed, it can be a bit like walking through quicksand every day.
However, the most difficult thing might be when their condition doesn’t directly effect you at all. It’s hard to watch the person you love suffer. You’re powerless to help, and every way that they hurt themselves, or simply refuse to help themselves, is another little heartbreak you have to deal with. A partner that’s dealing with suicidal thoughts can feel like someone has your loved one held hostage. A partner who is depressed can be like watching them slowly sink without anyway to help lift them up. When it comes to a partner who has intense anxiety, you watch them trapped in a sort of waking nightmare, and no outside logic or reassurance seems to be capable of making its way in.
I don’t know if “unfair” is the proper descriptor for this dynamic in a relationship, but it’s damaging for the partner nonetheless. If we’re not taking care of ourselves — in the thousand different ways that entails — we have to remember that our partner is bonded to us, and that what we fail to do for ourselves, we’re failing to do for them as well. Sometimes it’s really serious, and there’s no one to blame, but sometimes it’s just apathy, and we shouldn’t let a lack of care for ourselves become a lack of care for our partner.
There are a lot of things that can serve to make relationships unfair, and nothing more than the two personalities that come together to form them. Here, however, are six, particular, structural factors that we should all be aware of — and capable of communicating about — so that we can be as considerate to our partner and to ourselves as possible. More likely than not, if any of the unfortunate situations discussed are present in our relationship, we’re already well aware of them as the gnawing frustration can be unavoidable. However, putting the problem into words can be a relief in and of itself, so can knowing that other people get it and are going through it too, but most importantly, it allows us the ability to better communicate about the issue with our partner.
Love is as valuable as it is difficult to navigate. Every little thing we can do to fortify our relationship pays back its weight in gold.
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Author of a number of books, including "A Guide for Ambitious People" and "On Authorship."