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"It's not fair!"

Below a certain age, we hear people say this all the time. Past a certain age, people rarely say it any more. It's not just because it gets beaten out with the litany of "life's not fair" that almost always follows "it's not fair!" (and in truth, I've always thought "life's not fair" is a pretty lame way to follow up a complaint of unfairness anyway); rather, as we get older, and our vision gets longer, we learn that fairness operates best on a global, not a local, scale. Sure, if you did the dishes last night and it's your sister's turn to do the dishes tonight, but she isn't doing the dishes because she just got back from the dentist, it may seem unfair to you from a purely selfish perspective...but really, would you want to trade places with her? And if you were the one who'd just been through the root canal, wouldn't you appreciate it if you could give the dishes a miss tonight yourself? These things tend to even out in the end; sometimes, compassion dictates that the rigid schedule of dishwashing responsibility should change.

By the time we're adults, we've all pretty much figured this out. That, or we've just given in to exhaustion and stopped worrying quite so much about what's "fair" on such a granular level.

Yet in relationships, and especially in polyamorous relationships, the little whisperings of our five-year-old selves sometimes poke through our consciousness and say "It's not fair!" when things don't go the way we expect them to go.

Even when we don't talk about our expectations. Even when we know our expectations are silly. Hell, sometimes even when what's happening is not only fair, but most excellent as well.

When you're dealing with human beings, issues of 'fairness' sometimes go right out the window. People change, needs change, but often our notions about what is 'fair' remain static. Sometimes, our notions of what's 'fair' become so deeply buried that we're not always even aware of them, or aware of the expectations we carry around with is in regards to what's fair and what's not fair.

It pays to remember this, especially when your inner five-year-old starts saying "It's not fair!" in your ear. Most especially when you're polyamorous.

I'm not even talking about the obvious situations that make people say "It's not fair!", such as situations where one person is an extrovert who finds it easy to meet new people and one person's an introvert who finds it difficult to meet new people, though I've certainly heard many folks cry "It's not fair!" in situations like that. ("It's not fair that he seems to have prospective partners lining up around the block and I can't meet anyone!") It's certainly true that some folks find it easier to go out and interact with people than other folks do, but that's something we all have a measure of control over, after all. At the end of te day, wht would be more fair? Forbidding one's extroverted partner from being an extrovert?

Nor am I talking about situations where a person who is perhaps of a more monogamous bent says of a polyamorous partner, "It's not fair that she gets to have two lovers and I only have one!" If you want more than one lover, that's up to you; if you don't want more than one lover, then it's hard to cry "unfair" when you're involved with someone who does; and in the end, it pays to start relationships with people whose goal in relationship is similar to your own.

I'm talking about the "It's not fair!" monster that's far more subtle, and wriggles its way deep into the murk of your default, unexamined assumptions and unvoiced expectations.

This sense of fairness can sneak up on you when you don't really expect it, during times when you feel that you've gone above and beyond the call of duty for a relationship partner and you think that either your own efforts aren't being rewarded the way you expect (even if you might think you don't have any expectation of reward at all!) or that someone else is somehow benefitting from your work in ways you didn't expect.

By way of one real-world example, many years ago I met a lovely young woman with whom I became close friends...eventually.

I say "eventually" because when I first met her, she was extremely introverted, had difficulty opening up to others, and had a lot of trouble communicating or trusting folks around her. She was unpartnered at the time, largely because of this. There were a lot of things about her I liked and admired, so I spent a considerable amount of time and effort in getting to know her and encouraging her to open up to me--a nontrivial investment in a relationship with a person who was never even a lover.

Some time later, at least partly because of the experiences she had with me, she found it much easier to talk to people and to extend herself to others, and she ended up finding a boyfriend. Would it have been reasonable for me to be upset, and to say "Hey, look, I put in all the work here, and now someone else gets the benefit?" No, but I do know people who seemed to feel that I should have responded that way.

Another real-world example: Some people I've spoken to online were part of a polyamorous triad that included a woman who was facing major upheaval in her life. She'd just come out of a bitter divorce, and was feeling emotionally and financially vulnerable. She needed, and asked for, a great deal of support from her partners, which they offered without question. Later, when she found herself on more solid footing and felt emotionally ready to engage the world again, she began exploring a new relationship, which made her partners feel put out; they felt that since they had supported her through her divorce, they should have some more input in how quickly and to what extent any new partnerships formed.

The common thread in these examples is the idea "I have done something for someone, and I should be the person who benefits from that work." Or, perhaps more simply, "It's not fair! Look at what I had to go through to get what I got; why should other people get it more easily? How come I had to do all this work and the next person to come down the pike didn't?"

And the answer, of course, is "nobody owes you for the experiences that you have had. In fact, you have done something wonderful; you have helped to bring down barriers in someone's heart, and helped that person find a place where they can now experience the world more fully and engage others in a way that they couldn't before. Go you!"

In other words, you've made a positive difference in someone's life...and you're now upset because you feel it's not fair that other folks get to benefit from that? Well, that's what happens when you make someone's life better; the whole world gets just a little bit brighter. Why would anyone want to be stingy about that?

I think, when feelings like this arise (and they do in lots of little ways, all the time), the key thing to keep in mind is this: "Have I done what I did because I expected something in return? Would I go back in time and tell the other person, 'I will only help you if you give me something I want'?" If the answer is "no," then let it go.

It's sneaky, sometimes, how the things we do can come attached to expectations we might not even realize that we have until they're not met. And it's important to guard carefully against these unspoken, unacknowledged expectations.

I'm not saying that issues of fairness have no place in relationships, mind you. The fairness that is important in relationships isn't the tit-for-tat "I did the dishes last night, and we're supposed to take turns, so it isn't fair that I have to do them tonight too!" or the "I worked hard to carry Sally through a difficult emotional time, so it should be hard for anyone else to get close to her too!" variety.

In fact, sometimes a tit-for-tat approach to fairness creates a situation that's decidedly unfair. Another real-world example, which I've used before: Many years ago, I knew a married couple that was exploring polyamory. The wife had a girlfriend for many years, but when he finally found a girlfriend, the wife became overwhelmingly, irrationally jealous. After dealing with this jealousy in the typical fashion for a while (you know, passive-aggressive acting out, that sort of thing), she finally went to him and told him, look, I want you to dump your girlfriend. I'll dump my other partner too, so it'll be fair.

Three broken hearts for the price of one is a peculiar definition of the word "fair" in my book; which illustrates yet another important point: symmetry is not the same thing as fairness.

Personally, the kind of fairness that really counts is the kind that begins with compassion. Doing the dishes two days in a row because your sister has just had a root canal is compassionate (I've had a root canal, and believe me, the last thing you want to be doing when the anaesthetic starts to wear off is standing upright). On the other hand, saying "I'll dump my partner of many years just to get you to dump yours" is hardly compassionate.

Fairness matters. Symmetry is not the same thing as fairness; fairness means saying things like "I realize that my own insecurity belongs to me, so I will not use it as a blunt instrument on you, nor expect you to plot your life around it. I may, however, ask you to talk to me while I'm dealing with it."

This isn't the kind of fairness our mental five-year-old understands. Our inner five-year-old is far more likely to be worried about someone else getting something that we don't have, or getting something for a lower "price" than we paid for it. At the end of the day, though, our mental five-year-old isn't really likely to make our lives better, no matter how much of a fuss he puts up.



( 41 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 1st, 2009 09:03 pm (UTC)
symmetry is not the same thing as fairness.

Brilliant. The rest of it is brilliant too, but this is something I can put into words now, that I wouldn't have known how to before.

I have to ask myself what I expect fairness to do for me, and it all seems to come down to trust-building. If I've been fairly dealt with, I'll trust the source- and I expect the same from someone who I deal with fairly.

If I don't receive the trust that I think is my due, it's not unfair of them to deny me, it's just an unfortunate waste of my attention, that I need to pay closer attention to next time.

Heh. I guess a certain degree of trust in the world is necessary for "fair" to even enter into the conversation.
Apr. 1st, 2009 09:12 pm (UTC)
I came across your lj today..and it caused an Ah Ha moment. I have been dealing with one of the issues you wrote about above and its been difficult to let things go - which have been unfair. The choice is to keep thinking its to unfair or to let it go. I'm going to work on letting it go.
Thank you.

Mind if i friend you?
Apr. 1st, 2009 09:30 pm (UTC)
issues of parity aside, it seems to me like the word you're looking for here is "entitlement".

"things aren't fair because I'm entitled to get something back/get what I want/get what I expect from the situation!"

things aren't fair when we don't get what we expect. we form expectations because we feel entitled to some form of recompense for some form out output on our parts; after all, we're taught from childhood to "share and share alike", so trying to break entrenched entitlement issues can be a lot like going up against a person's entire family of origin history - at that point, you're battling some deeply-entrenched personal values for fairness in the guise of equity and parity.

but you're absolutely right, in that our inner five year olds aren't particularly emotionally intelligent. some people never figure out how to get around those entrenched values. some do (eventually, more or less), only with a lot of struggle; i put myself in that category. like "love", "fair" is a word with a highly contextualized meaning, and it takes a lot of time and effort to learn how to understand the words in new contexts.

Edited at 2009-04-01 09:30 pm (UTC)
Apr. 1st, 2009 10:07 pm (UTC)
Seems to me "that's not fair" is another way of saying "I'm upset over that!" (with various undertones of entitlement or martyrdom or whatever depending on one's personal concept of fairness).

File under: emotions, not subject to justification, responsibility of owner. Cross reference actions: separate from emotions.

Apr. 1st, 2009 10:51 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this.
I have an LDR going...with someone who is only just starting to unwind emotionally, so I have thought about a couple of these things...
Nothing has come up yet, but I have found myself wondering how I will react if my hubby meets someone who lives near us.
He seems not inclined to look outside our relationship, so maybe it will never come up, but if it does, I hope I will remember this and react well.
Apr. 1st, 2009 10:57 pm (UTC)
It's certainly true that some folks find it easier to go out and interact with people than other folks do, but that's something we all have a measure of control over, after all.

Oh, no. For some people the inability to "go out and interact with people" can be a seriously debilitating thing. I'm not even talking about "social anxiety" or other recognised mental illnesses; I'm talking about people who can quite happily interact with others in a non-social setting (eg work) just can not easily socialise. Some overcompensate ("life and soul of the party" but no one gets close; always drinks too much) or become the ultimate wall flower.

I almost had a shouting fight with a psychologist over this last year.

I wonder if this is like other mental "conditions"; if you don't suffer from it then you don't realise just how bad it can be for those who do.

It's _hard work_ for me to socialise. Heck, I have enough trouble picking up the phone and calling a colleague at work! (But I'm OK if they call me :-))

I'm not claiming it's unfair, though :-) It is what it is. I've come up with a few compensating mechanisms (email and instant messenger technologies are wonderful!). You just pushed one of my hot buttons. Sorry!
Apr. 1st, 2009 11:40 pm (UTC)
I never got the impression that Tacit said anyone could easily control this, but it is controllable.

As someone who does suffer from a pretty serious difficulty with getting the motivation to leave the house and socialize, or stop hiding in the corner and actually interact with people, I have to chime in here and say that it is within our control, but that some people have better control over it than others.

I'll give an example. I have to interact with people at work, and sometimes I'll have a job that lasts one or two weeks straight with constant interactions of people - many of whom I don't like. It's so emotionally taxing for me that when I get home, I won't even leave my bedroom for days on end except to go to the bathroom and nuke some frozen food. I won't return phone calls, I won't chat online, I won't answer the door.

But these are all things I have "a measure of control over". When it's important enough, I can learn the coping mechanisms to get me back out my door and interacting with the world again. But I have to decide that it's worth the emotional energy it takes to get out there and it's a choice not to.

And the ultimate realization that it is a choice is what enables me to take responsibility for my choices and not shout "hey, that's not fair!" when my partners make friends more easily than I do. And the realization that it's a choice is what enables me to change the situation when I'm not happy with it. It takes effort, it takes hard work, but it is completely within my power to do so.
Apr. 1st, 2009 11:57 pm (UTC)
If you mean "undergo years of therapy" for "control" then I'll stop discussing this now.

If you mean something along the lines of "force yourself" then the side effects of that forcing can easily mean that you won't be presenting as the type of person that people will seek out to talk with. The strain I'm under when I do this mean that _I_ frequently don't enjoy the experience, and that discomforts anyone I'm conversing with (who wants to hang around with someone not enjoying themselves?).

For me, parties and socialising are chores; they're things I do for my lady. This is not a choice (maybe it was 25->30 years ago; it's not _now_). This is what I am. "Fairness" has nothing to do with it.
Apr. 2nd, 2009 12:29 am (UTC)
Yes, I've undergone therapy to deal with it. I also majored in counseling my first time through college.
Apr. 2nd, 2009 03:58 am (UTC)
Ahh, I think I see a miscommunication here.

When you say " I've come up with a few compensating mechanisms (email and instant messenger technologies are wonderful!)" you're illustrating my point when I say "that's something we all have a measure of control over." I don't mean that folks who find it difficult to socialize can just wave those difficulties away; I mean folks who find it difficult to socialize can gain some measure of control over those difficulties by developing compensatory strategies--like, for instance, using email and instant messenger. :)
Apr. 2nd, 2009 02:44 pm (UTC)
Hmm, communicating (which is what email/IM allows) is not the same as socialising. There's a qualitative difference between chatting in a social setting and reading/responding to an email, an IM, a TXT MSG, a twit... or even an LJ post :-) The level of interaction in the latter set is a lot less.
Apr. 2nd, 2009 05:01 pm (UTC)
Well, sure. But the fact remains that it serves as a way to deal with the issue, even if it's not as effective as what you might want. That's why I say some measure of control, rather than full control--we all have the ability to make choices and to work within our limitations, but I haven't yet met the person who can simply wave his arms and make all his limitations disappear.
Apr. 2nd, 2009 07:10 pm (UTC)
Introversion, for me, often feels like a disadvantage. In large part because I need people and they make me happy, but socializing is an energy drain and I rarely have sufficient energy. To be told that this is not a disadvantage is silly. It's true that it is not completely outside of my control, however it does seem to be an innate part of how I interact with and process the world. The slippery slope of feeling you have ultimate control over these things (I WILL be a hyper extrovert who can go out every night and party), ultimately just leads to feeling like a failure, which is dumb.

I feel sad about it sometimes, sad that maybe my life is not as rich because it is so tiring for me to socialize, but then I just figure that everyone has things they struggle with. I like to use my teeth as an example; I've never had a cavity despite only taking moderately good care of my teeth, while there are people who will be obsessive about oral hygiene and have one major problem after another. Sure, they have *some* control, but at the end of the day they either have strong teeth or they don't.

By the time you're an adult, you should have a pretty good grasp on your basic energy levels and ways of processing the world.. and it may be clear that some people have an advantage over you in these areas. It is what it is.
Apr. 2nd, 2009 12:02 am (UTC)

I found your LJ a few weeks ago and added you. I hope you don't mind - I enjoy reading your stuff. I'm so glad you wrote his now. I'm dealing with a problem in my marriage and, even though we're a monogamous couple, I think this beautifully illustrates the problem and presents a solution. Thank you!
Apr. 2nd, 2009 03:56 am (UTC)
Welcome aboard! :)
Apr. 2nd, 2009 12:10 am (UTC)
:-) Humans are just loaded down with this stuff, it seems.

My mother did a pretty good job with her four children, teaching us that fairness was relative and that entitlement is too, that we're responsible for our own emotions, and that we could do anything we set our minds to. I'm naturally introverted, I never made many friends until college. It never occurred to me to think of this as unfair.

Now, decades later, my husband has a girlfriend, after lots of years sharing me with my first husband - it is funny to me that he's discovering all these things anew that I've lived with for so long. Sometimes the time he spends with her seems excessive to me but I just mention this to him, and his innate sense of fairness does the rest. Our primary concern is that our son gets the amount of attention from his dad that he needs, and I am in the best position to keep an eye on that. He trusts me to tell him when I think he's falling short, and I trust him to understand. Trust has a lot to do with the stability of any relationship of any kind.

I also liked your pointing out that fairness is not symmetrical. That's so true. As a person who's lived in a big poly family for decades, I can say with authority that it all balances out eventually. Discussion of imbalance is way better than silent resentment, and it helps with small annoyances if you have someone you can vent to. :-) It is then easier to let it go.
Apr. 2nd, 2009 12:29 am (UTC)
i'm dubious of association of a sense of unfairness is immature or anything like that. it's a sense we have with many other social animals, and it's keyed to part of us that are not to be disregarded. a sense of unfairness is often a warning that something is of, and as such can be a useful intuitive signal. of course, we don't have to blindly go with it - but i'm concerned sometimes that poly overthinking buries/represses/encodes valid responses sometimes.
Apr. 3rd, 2009 01:59 am (UTC)
I agree with you on this. Feelings like jealousy and entitlement aren't something bad or immature one matures or evolves out of, or a sign there is something wrong with us. It's what we do with them, how we handle them, that shows our quality. By the way, I'm one of those extraverts with many friends and lovers, and little sense of jealousy/unfairness -- so I speak from that perspective.
Apr. 3rd, 2009 08:43 pm (UTC)
i'm dubious of association of a sense of unfairness is immature or anything like that.

I don't think that fairness, of and by itself, is immature; but rather that a sense that fairness must always be a fine-grained tit-for-tat thing. Genuine fairness is more complex than that, and must account for situations in which things change.

A sense of unfairness can be a warning that something is off, no doubt about it. But it can also come from an aggrieved sense of entitlement as well, and I think it's important to develop the ability to distinguish between them.
Apr. 2nd, 2009 02:00 am (UTC)
I hope that one day these essays make it into book form, something POD maybe. I enjoy your insights and having a collection of them would be great.
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 2nd, 2009 12:51 pm (UTC)
yeah. The "it's not fair" sense of injustice is similar to jealousy that way--useful as a tipoff that something's amiss. Where the amissness originates and what is best to do about it are separate questions that are best addressed after one recognizes that they are separate questions.

Sometimes the answers are respectively, "your own sense of entitlement" and "get over it"... sometimes they're more like "a pattern of subtly being taken advantage of that's only gradually become noticeable" and "stand up for yourself and take care of your own needs".

But it's damn hard to figure that out when stuck in the reflexive thinking that feeling things aren't fair means someone's got to do something to fix them for you.

Apr. 2nd, 2009 07:49 am (UTC)
...fairness means saying things like "I realize that my own insecurity belongs to me, so I will not use it as a blunt instrument on you, nor expect you to plot your life around it. I may, however, ask you to talk to me while I'm dealing with it."

EXACTLY!! This is how I try to operate (with varying success, I'll admit).

Thank you - that makes tons of sense.
I'll admit I've tended to be in the "why is it my job to make everyone else's life easier?" boat...but that's a long-time "first born child" issue ('cause you KNOW everything seems easier for those who come after...note the use of the word seems), and is only tapped into regarding polyamory in a "Yep, same old stuff..." kind of way. :) I figured out that such things are largely perception-based, not reality-based, a long time ago. :)
Apr. 2nd, 2009 11:10 am (UTC)
Thanks for the food for thought - I've been wrestling with my five-year-old self quite a bit lately.
Apr. 2nd, 2009 11:28 am (UTC)
Friended you, thanks!
What a great entry!

I often take an idea and expand on it as you have when one hits me upside the head...this is what got me about your entry:

"It's sneaky, sometimes, how the things we do can come attached to expectations we might not even realize that we have until they're not met."

Awesome! I friended you, hope you don't mind, and added you to a filter that would allow you to read about the particularly challenged poly individual I am...

Feel free...

~Chiron~ aka Doctor_Drone
Apr. 2nd, 2009 04:46 pm (UTC)
I admit to sometimes taking the " i did this to help you know i want something in return, that's fair isn't it?".

But i also try to remember that if i love something i don't need anything in return. Life doesn't have to be fair but work out right.

We can spend too much time and energy worrying about being fair and less time enjoying what we have. It's nice to try to be "fair" but it rarely works.
Apr. 2nd, 2009 07:13 pm (UTC)
Wow. Thanks for writing this. Some stuff in here that I needed reminding of.
Apr. 2nd, 2009 07:15 pm (UTC)
I have seen this problem most strongly when a relationship goes through a tough time, and is uncomfortable for a while. I think one of the ways that people get through this is by saying "If I can just get through this, then everything will be happy." But I think that's a bad idea. I think if things are so miserable that you cease to get any joy from the person you're with, then no matter how things turn out you're always going to feel resentful.
Apr. 2nd, 2009 09:27 pm (UTC)
Hi there. I found you through Wolfieboy after I realized that a high percentage of the links and articles I enjoyed from his friends list were coming from you.

This entry is wonderful. I especially loved the "symmetry is not the same as fairness" point. The next time I encounter someone using this tactic I'll have the words to express why it simply doesn't work that way! Thank you!
Apr. 3rd, 2009 08:45 pm (UTC)
Re: Nifty!
Howdy, and welcome aboard!
Apr. 3rd, 2009 02:07 am (UTC)
Thank you for this, and I have friended you. I appreciate your insight into this topic!
Apr. 3rd, 2009 08:45 pm (UTC)
Thanks, and welcome aboard!
Apr. 3rd, 2009 11:02 am (UTC)
Wow... you have been a powerhouse with amazing posts as of late.

Thank you yet AGAIN for this work!

Also ... I will be linking ... completely standard at this point with all your greatness! :)
Apr. 4th, 2009 03:40 am (UTC)
gaj! the timing of this in parallel to my pathetic poly/not so poly experience is very intriguing to me- making me wonder if you do *indeed* read my whiny posts & just not respond to them *lol*
Apr. 4th, 2009 03:42 am (UTC)
by the way- you so rock! & If I weren't so exhausted I
d devote moretime to read this entry than I'm currebtly capable of...
Apr. 7th, 2009 10:17 pm (UTC)
Aww...why, thank you! :)
Apr. 7th, 2009 10:07 pm (UTC)
Your writing is amazing and is provoking many interesting conversations...thank you. I'm adding you to my friends list if you don't mind...
Apr. 7th, 2009 10:16 pm (UTC)
Not at all--welcome aboard!
Apr. 11th, 2009 02:12 am (UTC)
This is a wonderful, thought-provoking post. Thank you for writing it.

nikitangel said I would enjoy your blog and linked me to this post; after reading through some of your recent entries (and seeing your "small-press publication" interest, which warms my heart; my former degree and career were in small-press publishing), I have to say she was absolutely right. Thank you for writing such illuminating things.
Apr. 13th, 2009 06:16 pm (UTC)
Do you remember the source of that demon-angel-human(?) sex image? That sparks on a project of mine.. I'd love to talk to that artist!
May. 5th, 2009 11:10 pm (UTC)
I was skimming your journal looking for this entry and I came upon this one instead, and it was actually more what I needed to read.

See, I'm currently struggling with one of my heretofore monogamous partners suddenly having a new love interest with tons of NRE. He was someone who it was very hard to get to know, our relationship took a long time to get off the ground. He hadn't been with anyone in four years before me. It took a long time for him to open up with me and for us to really click, but we now have a wonderful relationship that has lasted over a year.

I was really happy for him when he found someone new, it's put an extra spring in his step and I love seeing him this happy and alive. But he talks to her constantly over text and IM, and gushes about her in his journal in a way he never has with me, and it's hard to see someone else getting what I wanted and didn't. It hurts. The three year old little girl in me wants to stamp her feet up and down and go "it's not fair! you should be with her the way you were with me!" But every person is different, every relationship is different, and he's not the same person he was a year ago... and part of that is because of me.

Reading this really helped. I'm happy for him that he's come out of his shell and been able to find someone else. And I'm glad I could be a part of it. Me being excited about him finding a new wonderful person to share his life with, has made his experience of finding her even more beautiful, and brought he and I even closer together. I think people who get lost in jealousy (and I have myself plenty of times) miss the wonderful treasure of compersion they could be enjoying. My boyfriend is even more in love with me now because I'm happy for him, and he can share his happiness with me.

Thank you.
Sep. 1st, 2009 05:35 pm (UTC)
Re: symmetry is not the same thing as fairness

Probably my favorite example of this is the anti same-sex-marriage position of, "There's no anti-gay discrimination at work here. Why they can marry members of the opposite sex just as readily as straight people can!" Which is both perfectly symmetrical, and perfectly unfair.

A lot of it, I think, comes back to the problem with The Golden Rule. Rather than, "Treat others as you'd like to be treated," perhaps it ought to say, "Treat others as they'd like you to treat them."
( 41 comments — Leave a comment )