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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.



( 40 comments — Leave a comment )
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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.
(no subject) - sweh - Apr. 1st, 2009 11:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - joreth - Apr. 2nd, 2009 12:29 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Apr. 2nd, 2009 03:58 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sweh - Apr. 2nd, 2009 02:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Apr. 2nd, 2009 05:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - aclaro - Apr. 2nd, 2009 07:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
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 12:29 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.
(no subject) - tacit - Apr. 3rd, 2009 08:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
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.
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