A person I will identify only as “RC” recently had this inner monologue: “What’s she so upset for? Yes, she did make dinner, and there are dishes in the sink. But I worked hard all day, too. And, do they have to be done right now? Anyway, didn’t I do the dishes the last two nights? It’s just not fair.”
Because RC makes his living talking to couples about their relationships, a bell went off in his mind as he listened to himself complain: This is a version of a complaint clients bring into therapy and mediation, and one he regularly advises clients to give up in the interests of the personal happiness. “Would you rather be right about how unfair it is, or be happy in your relationship?” he sometimes asks couples in his work. RC is sometimes surprised by the answer couples give him.
A sense of what’s unfair is a deeply ingrained part of being human: We know a surprising amount about this thanks to a decade of intense study in the fields of economics, psychology, ethology (animal behavior) and neuroscience. A trendy term borrowed from economics — inequity aversion — has spread to other disciplines as a description of the special behavior exhibited by humans and some primates when they feel that either they are getting a raw deal, or someone they care about is getting a raw deal. Among humans, inequity aversion is universal across societies, according to at least one recent study.
Why is this important? Because it tells us that our sense of unfairness runs deep. It arose in primate ancestors before monkeys and chimps scooted out on their separate branches of the evolutionary tree around 25 million years ago. The monologue running in poor RC’s head, for instance, is anchored deep in his evolutionary past, not just in the cultural history of humans. Beyond that, brain scans tell us that unfairness responses are built into our neural apparatus.
“It’s not just the application of a social rule or convention; there’s really something about the basic processing of rewards in the brain that reflects these considerations,” says John O’Doherty, professor of psychology at Caltech and author of recent brain scan studies of inequity aversion in humans.
This explains RC’s inability to easily set aside his ruminations about being treated unfairly. It’s built into the cells of his brain and body. No wonder it doesn’t yield to easy arguments or rational explanations like: You’d be happier, RC, if you would just stop complaining about life being unfair.
But the story of equity aversion doesn’t quite end there. Because, from the viewpoint of modern western culture, some things in life — big things particularly — are unfair. Not only that, but among our noblest instincts as humans are those that pull us to treat each other fairly, and to fight for people’s right to a fair shake in life. Wars are waged, leaders elected, revolutions fought, murders committed, arias and teenage pop songs inspired — humanity from Gandhi to Lady Gaga is motivated to action under the banner of “it’s just not fair.”
This is a deep, instinctual aspect of human feelings and behavior. And it creates a terrible problem for anyone trying to solve issues of human conflict, whether those are interpersonal or international or somewhere in between. Are the parties’ complaints about inequity or unfairness just the result of a reflexive self-centeredness (in which case we resolve them through increased mutual understanding, mediation and compromise), or are they issues of human dignity and justice (in which case we take a stand)?
This is a global issue, obviously, but a personal one, too — for RC, with his complaint about housework, for instance. Is he fighting for justice, or just whining? I don’t think dismissing RC as a mere whiner helps much, but to think of his monologue as a struggle for justice isn’t useful either. Yet partners engaged in unfairness conflicts often see themselves as defending important moral principals.
“She woke up grumpy, not me. Why should I be the one to accommodate her? No way!” Tiny disputes are elevated to issues of personal worth and dignity. “He’s the one who raised his voice. He needs to apologize first.” Weeks can go by in a silent standoff between partners who both feel abused. It’s tempting to characterize these arguments as either whininess (your point of view) or a principled stand (my point of view), yet neither description gets you closer to reconnecting as partners.
How do you deal with unfairness between partners, then? Well, for me as a therapist it means that feelings of unfairness need to be taken seriously, to be deeply listened to and honored by both the therapist (if the couple is in therapy) and the partner. It means that the issues of fairness are beyond logic and will never be resolved by logic or argument. It means that feelings of unfairness need to be examined and explored to understand what triggers them in a particular couple — notice I didn’t say what causes them: human nature causes them.
For couples not in therapy, it means recognizing that arguments (and internal monologues) about what’s not fair are a part of life, that any two people are going to have conflicting perceptions about vital topics. Your happiness as a couple may depend on listening to and accepting your partner’s experience of unhappiness, while at the same time trying not to load up your own complaints with too much outrage.
Like most advice, this may be easy to give and difficult to take. But as I voiced to RC in a rare moment of clarity after one of his monologues, “There is no one up there keeping a scorebook, RC. Your inner monologue may satisfy some ancient longing in you to be indignant. It feels good to be righteous, and to win, even if it’s just in your head. But it can be lonely in there, too. Be careful what you wish for.”
— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.