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By Cassandra Vogeli, Psy.D. Candidate, M.A.
“Life isn’t fair. But Relationships can be.” – Janet Hibbs (2010)
In her book, Try to See it My Way: Being Fair in Love and Marriage, Janet Hibbs outlines the importance of fair give and take within relationships. We each come into life from families with various ideas about what is fair, what we are entitled to (constructive and destructive), and how to go about getting such needs met. Unfortunately, sometimes these ideas about fairness and the ways we go about meeting our own needs can end up working against our closest relationships and us. Nagy & Krasner (1986) suggest that in order to create healthy and balanced relationships as well as get our needs met in a way that is constructive within our relationships; we need to understand our own fairness model. Hibbs (2010) outlines four very useful and practical elements in the process of being fair within relationships; first I will outline them below and then use them in an everyday example so that you can see what they look like in action.
- The first is a concept called, reciprocity. Reciprocity as defined by Hibbs is, “The balance of mutual care and consideration.” Reciprocity is the act of giving to a partner or relationship with trust that they will reasonably give back in some way at some time. Be aware not to mistake this with tit-for-tat giving, where one might say, “I will do this for you (ONLY) if you do this for me”; this type of giving erodes trust.
- The second concept is acknowledgment. Acknowledgement, although often undervalued and overlooked, is kind of a one-two punch for constructively giving in a relationship. It serves to give credit to your partner, affirm their good intentions, as well as validate their reality. This means putting yourself in your partner’s shoes and recognizing their effort or positive intentions.
- Next there are (fair) claims. Fair claims are part of an earned entitlement based on past giving within the relationship, to ask for one’s needs to be met, or to request certain destructive behaviors to end. In order for a claim to be “fair” it should: (1) be realistic (2) not take advantage of your partner’s trust and (3) it must be earned between the two relating individuals.
- The last element outlined by Hibbs is trust. Trust is created through each of the aforementioned: reciprocity, mutual acknowledgement of efforts and intentions, as well as fair claims. Trust can be built or depleted through different acts of reciprocity, acknowledgment, and fair claims. Trust grows when needs are considered, even if they are not met, this is important to remember. The more trust that exists within a relationship, the more a healthy “closeness” can exist between the couple (Hargrave & Pfitzer, 2003). Hibbs’ summarizes trust beautifully: “In a healthy relationship, you’re able to give freely and trust that you’ll receive care in return.”
Now let’s see these four elements of fairness in action. In the first example I will outline a situation in which reciprocity, acknowledgement, fair claims, and trust are not utilized:
Consider the couple James and Sara, who have been married for 12 years. One evening Sara is working late, so James decides to cook dinner and have it ready when Sara arrives home. Sara enters and is so pleased to find dinner on the table for her. After the couple finishes eating, Sara enters the kitchen and James sits down on the couch to wind down from the day. Upon entering the kitchen Sara sees a gigantic mess awaiting her, dishes everywhere, food all over the floor and counter tops, pans coated with a layer of sticky residue, and all she can think is, ‘why does he always make such a mess when he cooks!’ Trying to hold it together, Sara begins to clean the kitchen silently hoping that James will join in to help her. By the time she wades through the mess by herself, she is fuming, and her attempts to curb her aggression are futile. Unable to ignore the bubbling aggression, she explodes at James. “You always make a huge mess when you cook! You never clean up after yourself!” Triggered by her aggressive outburst James retorts, “You never appreciate anything I do, nothing is ever good enough! I tried to make dinner for you as a favor and this is the thanks I get?” Sara, still fuming, shoots back, “I didn’t ask for this! I would have rather picked up a pizza on the way home then have to clean up this mess!” The fight escalates and the emotional “bank account” within the couple system is eroded.
Now let’s look at how this situation may have gone using the four elements of fairness Hibbs outlines:
This time when Sara enters the kitchen she decides to handle things a bit differently. Using acknowledgement, she states, “I appreciate you making dinner for me, I know you did it as a favor because I had a long day.” Not disregarding her own feelings, she makes a fair claim, “I am exhausted after today. Could you clean the kitchen for me?” James tired as well, acknowledges Sara and also makes a claim, “I bet you’re tired, I apologize for making such a big mess. I’m really beat as well, would it be okay with you if we left the dishes tonight and did them in the morning?” Sara acknowledges his effort and agrees while she also makes a claim for James to be more conscious of making a mess when he cooks and the couple leaves the situation having built trust and reciprocity, instead of putting more stress on their relationship. Following these guidelines may help to ensure that we grow from mistakes and shortcomings, rather than depleting our relationships unintentionally.
If you are interested in learning more about fairness within relationships, or about your own fairness model, I recommend checking out “Try to See it My Way” by Janet Hibbs. It is a wonderful book full of great resources and hands on exercises to really help your self-awareness and your relationship with your partner grow. Happy reading!
Boszormenyi-Nagy, I., & Krasner, B. R. (1986). Between give and take: A clinical guide to contextual therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Hargrave, T. D., & Pfitzer, F. (2003). The new contextual therapy: Guiding power of give and take. New York: Routledge.
Hibbs, J. B., Getzen, K. J. (2010). Try to see it my way: Being fair in love and marriage.
Penguin Group, New York, NY.