When Fairness Matters, and When It Doesn’t
Published: July 1, 2016 • Updated: April 18, 2018 • by rigel
We often use the word “fair” used to describe our dating relationships. But our definition of fairness is unusually vague. Why? Because most of us use the word to describe a sort of healthy dating relationship ideal. Since we view it more as an ideal than a skill we never stop to consider what “fair” actually means. That’s a problem, because if you want to find, get, and keep quality partners, fairness is a skill you have to master.
The dictionary definition of “fair” is: legitimately sought, pursued, done, given, etc.; proper under the rules. That’s not how most of us use the word though. Many of us, either through upbringing or culture, conflate the words “fair” and “equal.” At first glance, this doesn’t appear to be a bad thing. After all, equality is a desirable quality. And when I hear the phrase “unequal relationship” the first thing that comes to my mind is the traditional religious household where the man is the breadwinner and rules his castle, and the submissive wife cares for the home. The religiously dictated gender roles make me throw up in my mouth a bit.
One of the many books I commonly recommend to those interested in polyamory is The Ethical Slut. The book is mainly focused on open relationships, but some of the best points it makes are equally applicable to and kind of dating relationship. One of my favorite quotes is the following, which is a great step in the direction of defining fairness:
Agreements do not have to be equal. People are different and unique, and what pushes my buttons might be perfectly okay with you. So one person might find it very important that his partner not stay out overnight, whereas said partner might actually enjoy an occasional opportunity to watch the late movie all alone and eat crackers in bed… Fairness does not mean perfectly equal. Fairness means we care about how each person feels and make agreements to help all of us feel as good as possible.
Once I considered this idea that equality wasn’t necessary for a healthy relationship, I found it amazing that I hadn’t realized it any sooner.For years, but the most blatant examples of unequal but happy relationships had been right in front of my face. I’ve spent a good amount of time in the in the kink community. BDSM play in general, and consensual power exchange in particular, are the quintessential examples of relationships where equality and happiness don’t go hand in hand. Overnight I re-wrote my personal definition of fairness”from “equal” to “what makes the people in the relationship happy and healthy.”
So if we’re redefining fairness, why does it matter?
Once you make the paradigm shift that happiness and healthiness are more important in a relationship than equality, the dictionary definition of fair starts to make more sense. The next logical question becomes: If you can have whatever you want as long as you can find someone who is happy and healthy providing it, why do you need to explore the concept of fairness any further? Well it turns out fairness is still critical. It’s critical not only for having happy and healthy relationships, but for even getting a date in the first place. It’s especially critical for kink and poly folks who have relationships where the idea of fairness is even murkier than it normally is.
Let’s consider the following scenario:
Jim is looking for a relationship where his partner supports him financially, gives him blowjobs twice a day, and does all the housework. All Jim is willing to offer in exchange is his company and his good looks. If Jim can find a partner who is happy and healthy in this arrangement, is that OK? Of course. But it’s not incredibly likely that Jim will actually find someone interested in what he has to offer.
Fairness bridges the gap between the ideal of structuring whatever kind of relationship you choose, and the reality of being unable to find a relationship if what you’re looking for is too unbalanced.
Three questions you should ask yourself:
So in order to help you better define fairness in your relationships, here are the three questions I ask myself when evaluating a potential dating arrangement:
- What am I looking for from this potential partner, and what am I offering them in return?
- Considering what I’m looking for vs what I’m offering, how likely am I to actually find someone who would be happy and healthy in this relationship?
- If I do find someone who says they will be happy and healthy in this relationship, should that send up red flags?
Let’s take the above points one at a time. I use a polyamorous relationship as an example below because it provides an extreme and unfortunately common example, but these questions apply to any type of relationship: dating or long term, polyamorous or monogamous, kinky or vanilla, even friendships.
What am I looking for from this potential partner, and what am I offering them in return?
Any evaluation of the fairness of your relationships begins with considering what you are looking for from the relationship, and what you are offering in return. How you should go about working this out for yourself is beyond the scope of this post, but I would suggest that you checkout this handout from our Bubbles class for ideas on how to get started. Sitting down and figuring out (preferably in writing) what you are looking for and what you are offering before approaching a prospective partner is important for many reasons, not the least of which is determining the fairness of your offering. Just keep in mind that this kind of exercise is a tool for self-knowledge and communication. It should never be a used as an attempt to stuff a relationship into a box.
So as an example, let’s say we have a couple named Dick and Jane who decide to open up their relationship. As with many couples, they start by looking for a girlfriend to date together. Dick and Jane come up with the following list of what they are looking for and offering:
- Dick and Jane want someone who is exclusive to them (not playing with, dating, or having sex with anyone else).
- The new girlfriend will not be allowed to have vaginal sex with Dick, because that would make Jane uncomfortable.
- Dick and Jane are fairly busy, and will only be able to see this girlfriend twice a month.
- Finally Dick and Jane have an agreement that the relationship with this new person will never rise to the level of a primary relationship: sharing a home, children, and all of those other relationship escalator things that are important to some partners and undesirable to others will forever be out of reach of any prospective partner.
This isn’t pretty common version of what a couple new to poly might be looking for. It certainly isn’t very fair, but Dick and Jane know what they are looking for and what they are offering. As long as they accurately and honestly communicate these things clearly to a potential partner, and they can find someone who is happy and healthy in that relationship, they should be good to go, right?
But how likely are they to actually find anyone who will be happy with what they are offering? This leads us to our next question:
Considering this, how likely am I to actually find someone who would be happy and healthy in this relationship?
Considering what you’re looking for vs what you’re offering, how likely are you to even find a partner? This is the gotcha that makes a consideration of fairness necessary in a relationship. The more unbalanced of a relationship you’re looking for, the harder of a time you’re going to have finding someone who that relationship appeals to. Jim? Our handsome blowjob obsessed example guy from earlier? For obvious reasons, he’s probably going to be lonely for a while.
Let’s go back to Dick and Jane. It’s not hard to find someone looking for an exclusive relationship, even in the poly community. However, the less you offer, the harder it becomes. The limited amount of time Dick and Jane have to spend with this potential partner. The sexual restrictions. The fact that the relationship will be capped at a certain level. These are all factors that may not be a problem for someone who is looking for a secondary relationship but may very well be a deal breaker for someone looking to be a primary partner.
Beyond these examples, there are a whole host of factors that can create unfairness in a relationship. It’s important to sit down and objectively evaluate your own relationships to see the fairness or unfairness of the arrangement you’re looking for. This is where a written list such as the Bubbles Chart I mentioned earlier can come in handy. Take a look at yours and try asking yourself the following questions:
- Is the list of what you’re looking for disproportionately long compared to the list of what you’re offering?
- Specifics such as sexual orientation or consensual power exchange aside, would you be interested if someone was offering you the other end of this arrangement?
Would you be embarrassed laying out this relationship arrangement to an impartial third party?
- If you’re putting a cap or restriction on this relationship, are you equally affected by the restriction? If not, are you allowing the partner to seek balance elsewhere? And if you’re not allowing them to seek balance elsewhere, what are you offering in return?
So at this point you’ve decided what you’re looking for and what you’re offering, and you’ve either designed a relationship that is balanced enough that it’s feasible for you to find a partner to date, or you’ve examined the difficulties with finding a partner and decided you’ll wait for your ideal potential partner to come along regardless. There’s one more question you should consider:
If I do find someone who says they will be happy and healthy in this relationship, should that send up red flags?
You’ve sat down and thought over what you’re looking for and what you’re willing to offer. Those things may be a little (or a lot) unfair, but you’ve communicated them to a potential partner who has told you that they could be happy and healthy with the arrangement you’re looking for. It may have taken you forever to get this far, so why look a gift horse in the mouth?
Let’s go back to Jim. Even though Jim seemed like a lazy asshat when we introduced him, we’ll be charitable. Let’s pretend that Jim has worked through this blog post with us. Jim evaluated what he wants versus what he has to offer. He realizes he’s going to have a hard time finding someone to date given the arrangement he’s looking for, but he decides to go for it anyways. Jim puts up a post on a personal website After weeding out Ashley-Madison-like robots, he’s still left with a couple of real potential partners who agree to the arrangement Jim desires. One even offers Jim three – count’em three – blowjobs a day. Jim has a nagging feeling in the back of his mind that this all seems a bit easier than he thought, and he’s right to be cautious.
The less fair a relationship arrangement is, the more scrutiny you need to give it to determine if your potential partner understands and wants the same arrangement you do.
You may be asking yourself: assuming there is no coercion, why would anyone agree to a relationship arrangement that they don’t want? Well I would first like to point out that you don’t have to be very observant to notice that people agree to be or stay) in relationships that don’t suit them all the time. Here are a few of way more reasons than we could cover here:
- This person is too inexperienced with this relationship arrangement to realize that it will be unhealthy for them, or won’t make them happy.
- This person is too lonely (read: desperate )to care about whether this relationship arrangement is a good fit for them. They just want to be in a relationship.
- What this person is looking for is also hard to find, so they’re willing to compromise more on their needs than is healthy for them.
- Perhaps most commonly: this person knows they’re not looking for the same arrangement you are, but enters into the relationship anyways with the idea of changing the arrangement down the road. How many people do you know how enter a relationship with the intention to “rehabilitate” or change their partner?
Figuring out the answer to this last question can be far more difficult than the first two. The first two questions involve critically evaluating your needs and what you have to offer. You then have to communicate those things honestly to a potential partner. That’s hard enough. The third question requires you to look beyond the face value of what your prospective partner is saying and decide if they can do the same. For better or worse, getting to know someone is the only way to figure this out. Here are a few pointers though:
- The less fair a relationship arrangement is, the more scrutiny you should give to whether the potential partner understands what they are being asked and offered.
- Find out what kind of experience this person has with similar relationship arrangements. The less fair the relationship you’re proposing, the more you should be concerned about someone who is new to that type of arrangement. I’m looking at you kink community.
- Don’t rush in. It takes a period of getting to know this person before you can properly evaluate if this arrangement is really a good fit for them. The more unfair the arrangement you’re offering, the more time it may take.
- Be wary of differences between what someone tells you they’re looking for and what they actually do. If that partner who said she was OK with being a friend with benefits and seeing you once a month starts calling every day and writing you love poems? It might be a sign you’re not on the same page.
This shit’s not easy. It’s hard. It takes a lot of time. A lot of communication. A lot of self work. But it’s worth it. It might be the difference between finding quality people who are happy to date you instead of settling for the crazies. It’s definitely the difference between a happy and an unhealthy relationship over the long term. If you want to find, get, and keep quality partners, fairness is a skill you have to master.
And remember, no matter what type of arrangement you negotiating: the people in a relationship are more important than the relationship itself.
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