The modern two-career marriage mindset doesn’t work.
This was certainly our experience. As with most working couples, marriage posed an impossible question: How can we balance our individual professional ambitions and achieve marriage equality while staying connected and in love?
For about a decade we couldn’t find a good answer. So how many couples have we fallen into the trap of 50/50 fairness. For difficult marriage questions like “Who does the dishes?” “Who is planning our vacation?” Or “Who picks up our child from daycare?” We did our best to make sure everything was perfect, 50/50, fair .
Striving for fairness makes sense. It is the obvious answer to centuries of gender inequality. After all, fairness is the basic principle of movements for social justice and democracy. Why shouldn’t it be a top priority in marriage too?
There was only one problem. Fairness never seemed to keep his promise. For one thing, it didn’t solve the gender equality problem. Kaley did more. Nate still did less. On the other hand, it seemed designed to destroy our experience of love, friendliness and connection with one another at every turn. Instead, fairness created a very different atmosphere in marriage, a culture of constant tension, conflict and resentment.
At first we thought this was a strange quirk of our relationship. So we set out to interview over a hundred people from all walks of life about their marriages. What we found was that it didn’t matter what these people did, how much money they had, or who they voted, each was expressing a version of this constant struggle for fairness.
The specific content was different, but the result – that lingering feeling of resentment – was always the same. Some couples fought this battle for fairness over who was doing more and who was doing less in the house. Other couples fought for money who are spending more and saving diligently. Others fought for fairness in the bedroom as to who controls when, why and how often we put it on.
Eventually we realized that fairness is not real. It’s like a mirage in the desert. We think it’s there. We think if we could only find it, we would finally experience a state of conjugal bliss. But just like the illusion, fairness is an illusion, and the more we chase after it, the miserable we become.
Recent research in psychology helps shed light on the problem. As it turns out, our judgments of fairness are based on a somewhat delusional understanding of our partner’s contributions. It is a phenomenon that cognitive psychologists call “availability bias”.
When it comes to our own contributions, we have perfect insights. We have a full record of all of these trips to the store, the hours we spent helping the kids with their homework, and the meals we cooked. But when it comes to our partner’s contributions, things start to get blurry. Much of this information is simply not available to us. We often don’t even see their trips to the store and other random services. As a result, our calculations of what is fair or not often get infected with this tendency for availability. In the end, we focus more on our contributions and discount those of our partners.
However, suppose we could somehow overcome the “availability bias” problem. There is still one major problem that distorts our ability to judge what is fair and what is not. It’s the problem of overestimation. Jill Yavorsky’s longitudinal diary research at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte suggests that when it comes to housework, we are really bad at appreciating our actual contributions.
We can say we spent two hours preparing dinner or three hours watching the kids, but the data shows that we tend to systematically exaggerate these numbers. We asked Yavorsky why we so often overestimate. She said to us: “Our work around the house is not continuous. We estimate the time we spend in the office better because it is more continuous. On the other hand, childcare is often occasional and involves so many moving parts that it is difficult to determine how much time it actually takes to do housework. “
The result of all this is that we are apparently wired to underestimate our partner’s contributions and exaggerate our own, an outcome that makes it impossible to achieve fairness. When it comes to this conversation about who does more, who cares more, or who tries harder, the conversation about fairness itself seems to be the problem.
And that means that the path to reconciling equality and love, personal ambition and mutual success in modern marriage must lead us beyond fairness.
We believe there is a radical solution to finding that balance and changing the game of modern marriage. It’s a mindset that we call “radical generosity”. The idea is to contribute far more than your fair share and strive for a little more than 80 percent.
From a common sense perspective of modern marriage, this may sound like a crazy strategy. It could leave you with thoughts like, “Why should I do more than my fair share? Wouldn’t that just take us back to the 1950s, to a model of marriage in which one person, mostly the woman, does everything? “
In our experience and the experience of many respondents, radical generosity has the opposite effect. As you move beyond the well-known guard rails of 50/50 fairness, you begin to turn sources of tension and resentment on their heads. You don’t cook dinner because it’s your turn, but because it’s your gift.
This shift then becomes contagious. Your kind act inspires your partner to act radically more generously. It creates an upward spiral of generosity that gives us more of what we really want: love, connection, and deeper intimacy.
However, you might still worry that radical generosity isn’t working. You might fear that this adds to the all-too-familiar dynamic of over and under contributions, where one partner does almost everything and the other does almost nothing. Paradoxically, radical generosity is often the best way to break up this dynamic.
It turns out, after all, that berating your partner with fair criticisms about how they’re never doing enough often creates the opposite of what they’re supposed to be doing. This results in the underpayer checking out, pulling back, and doing less instead of more.
Radical generosity, on the other hand, reinforces this dynamic. It opens up the space for the sub-contributing partner to act out of a positive motivation (friendliness and the desire for consideration) instead of the negative motivation of criticism and resentment.
It’s radical. It’s extreme. It can even make you feel uncomfortable and uncomfortable at times. But this attitude towards radical generosity has changed the way we live together as a working couple with a young child. We believe it can do the same for you.
Do you like this article? Subscribe to our feed!
Author: Nathaniel Klemp
Nate Klemp is a writer, philosopher and entrepreneur. With his wife Kaley, he is the author of the newly published The 80/80: A New Model for a Happier, Stronger Marriage. He is also co-author with Eric Langshur of Start Here: Master the Lifelong Habit of Wellbeing and is a regular contributor to Inc. Magazine and Fast Company. He is also a founding partner of Mindful, one of the world’s largest media and education companies for mindfulness.