This belief hinges on the application of legal and contractual rules to the vagaries of interpersonal relationships. The idea is that there is some absolute standard of correct and fair behavior which people should know and live up to. The conviction that relationships must be fair reduces the complex give-take of friendship or marriage to a set of entries in privately held books. Your books tell you whether you are in the red or the black, whether you are getting as much as you give, whether you are owed something for all the sacrifices you have made. The difficulty is that no two people agree on what fairness is and in personal relationships there is no court or arbiter to help. What is fair is totally subjective and depends entirely on what you expect, need, or hope for from the other person. The word “fair” turns out to be nothing more than a disguise for personal preferences and wants. What you want is fair, what the other person wants or does is unfair.
When you say “This is fair” what you’re really saying is my needs are more legitimate than yours. No one wants to hear this. People resist and defend against such assertions. The better approach is to throw out the concept of fairness altogether. Reframe each situation as one of competing needs or preferences. Each person’s need is of equal importance and value, and is equally legitimate.
Once fairness is thrown out, real negotiation can begin.
Exercise: If you are struggling with the issue of fairness try reframing the problem as competing, but equal needs. Then attempt to make a clear, unbiased description of the other person’s need. Don’t try to evaluate whether it is more or less significant than yours.
1. “Our needs are equally important.”
2. “Each need is legitimate, we can negotiate as peers