The illusion of fairness

I had a professor once tell me that marriage isn’t 50/50, it’s 60/40—a constant back-and-forth of one partner needing more. I can’t remember why I was getting one-on-one relationship advice from my advanced personal selling instructor but apparently I did. I was 21 at the time, 2 years into my relationship with Jesse, and I didn’t agree with him. I always strived for things to be fair between us. If she worked all day, I needed to make dinner. If she did a load of laundry, I should do the next one. If only one of us was working, the other one did everything at home. When this impossible balance of fairness was disrupted, I either felt bad about myself or angry with Jesse.

I came to the conclusion that this is what a relationship should look like by way of a few different perspectives. By that time in my life, my parents had been divorced and remarried six times collectively. I knew plenty about relationships. One partner always seemed to do more, was underappreciated and it was always the woman. Either my mom was up at 5 a.m. making breakfast for her husband before she went to work a 12 hour shift as a nurse or my stepmom was at home with all of their kids while my dad was out playing music every weekend. I saw these problems, I listened to the woes of all the mothers in my life and I marked “fairness” down in the “how to be in a relationship” file.

It’s been said that autistic people are very black-and-white minded and I’ve found this to be mostly true about myself. Once I know a thing, I generally don’t question it anymore. I knew that relationships had to be fair, I shouldn’t take my partner for granted and I shouldn’t be a doormat and that was that. These rules had no nuance, no room to bend or evolve so they eventually broke. But I saw every argument about responsibility within our relationship as a testament to our failure to maintain a 50/50 balance. I was seeing a micro view of our life together, as bits and pieces that we had to fit together to achieve a completed whole. If we struck the right balance, if we settled into the right routine, then we would be perfect.

It took a ridiculously long time for this to change. It actually didn’t happen until I started accepting that I needed accommodations and it wasn’t until I recognized my own limitations that I started accommodating Jesse’s, as well. We started using the spoon theory and practicing self-care and we really put the brakes on tending to one another’s needs intuitively because that had been nothing but a disaster for half a decade. Learning to take care of ourselves really taught us to respectfully care for one another.

Once I acknowledged that we’re human beings with needs and emotions that refuse to be regulated and divvied up at the most appropriate times, I started dismantling this ridiculous notion of fairness that I had held onto for so long. When I was growing up I wasn’t seeing unfairness, I was seeing inequality. My mom or stepmom(s) were consistently doing more for their homes and their relationships than their partners and that consideration was never returned.

Relationships really are 60/40. There are times, days, weeks or months even, that Jesse needs more from me than I need from her. She suffers from depression and sometimes I have to take on the bulk of managing our lives. And there are times, during burnouts or meltdowns or periods of poor executive functioning, that I need her to shoulder our shared responsibilities. There’s no running tab or turn-taking because that’s unrealistic and inspires stress inside our home. Sometimes we both need 60 from the other and we just don’t have it. It’s during these times that we put all of our energy into taking care of ourselves as best we can and worry about everything else later. Sometimes we both only need 40 from the other and these times are some of our most productive. And sometimes it’s not even 60/40, it’s 70/30 or 90/10 (This one was hard to understand because I was trying to turn the 60/40 combination into a new Very Strict Rule).

I’ve started to take a more macro view and not see our life as being made up of tiny parts that follow a schematic. Our relationship has its own balance and rhythm as we shift together to make each other as happy as possible. There’s no right answer and nothing is fair and that’s okay.

Read Jesse’s side: The 50/50 Fairytale