Beyond Equality


There is a useful term that one hears relative to investments but is rarely mentioned when discussing relationships. The term is “equity.” We more often hear people discuss “equality” in relationships. Unfortunately, equality is not nearly as constructive a concept for guiding a couple to creative solutions. When people discuss equality in a relationship, they usually ignore a basic reality: people are not equal. They are not equal in that needs and desires usually differ. If a couple focuses too much on trying to make things equal, they will miss opportunities for trading off their differences for mutual gain. Instead of equal responsibilities and equal opportunities in a relationship, a couple is better off strategizing complementary trade-offs:

Jack Sprat could eat no fat.

His wife could eat no lean

But in betwixt the two of them,

They licked the platter clean.

We all know that men are usually better at fixing tires and women are usually better at mending clothes. However, much more creativity and imagination are required to negotiate trade-offs such as different vacations or job relocations. The concept of equality has some connotations that do not encourage one to make strategic sacrifices. You make a strategic sacrifice when you willingly defer or give up a lesser interest of yours in order to enable your partner to pursue a major interest of his or hers. If you work it right, you can get your partner to make a similar sacrifice in the future that benefits one of your more important interests. In this way, both you and your partner come out ahead. Looking for constant equality in a relationship tends to limit one’s focus to the immediate situation. It also tends to limit one to advocating for self-interest alone, as if the relationship is a zero-sum game. The most useful connotation of equity is one involving time. You sacrifice and invest in the present so that you can profit at a later time. The concept of equality has no such connotation.

No doubt many readers of this article will abhor the notion of sacrifice after having felt victimized in past inequitable relationships. If you’re one of those people, please consider that what probably went wrong had more to do with faulty implementation. I have found that most people are very poor at explicitly negotiating reciprocity and would rather assume it. Unfortunately, if you only assume that your partner will reciprocate without getting an explicit commitment to do so, you will set yourself up for disappointment and resentment. Many people often will a) not remember when a partner is sacrificing a self-interest for one of theirs and b) not remember when a partner made a sacrifice in the past to benefit them. For these reasons, assuming your partner will notice and remember on his or her own is often naive. Establishing equity can require hard negotiating and bargaining. If you’re willing to relocate with a partner for his career move, it would be wise to extract an agreement that the next move after X number of years will be yours. If it’s not a reciprocal career move that you want, you can negotiate for something else. Maybe you want the next car. But get the agreement up front! If you don’t, it may be assumed that you went along with his move because you didn’t have much of a preference. In other words, your sacrifices (investments) will be minimized.

Of course, when we talk about sacrifice, we are talking about necessary sacrifice: the type that is required for either you or your partner to get something you want. For those of you who sacrifice yourselves with only magical notions that somehow it will benefit someone, there is a much more fundamental problem involved. If so, it would be handled best in a 12-step recovery group such as Codependents Anonymous or Adult Children of Alcoholics.