The Marital Virtue of Fairness

When partners share goals, they also share the work it takes to make them happen. Working together as a team can be a great part of marriage, but can bring up questions of fairness—who is doing more or less? Fortunately, we are making some progress in fairness between husbands and wives in our society, though we still have some way to go. Too often, however, people talk about equality in terms of dividing up the work and the benefits so that each spouse has his or her “fair share.”‑In a character friendship marriage, fairness is more than equality through division, it is equality through teamwork. In other words, fairness is not so much about separating the work into fair portions, it’s a fair approach to doing the work together.‑It’s better to think of sharing as a verb that describes our combined efforts; we share the work and we share the joy of marriage.

If we get too caught up in our rights, prerogatives, and happiness as individuals, we will be tempted to practice a kind of “grocery-list justice”:‑we mentally or even physically list everything that has to be done to run a household and try to divide it right down the middle.‑This approach to fairness tends to divide spouses rather than unite them, because it’s virtually impossible to divide things evenly.

Character friends cultivate fairness in their marriages by each doing their best to take care of the marriage and the family. Partners contribute to their shared life in different ways and in different degrees and over time the balance fluctuates. I call this flexible fairness.‑Flexible fairness takes two things: trusting that your partner is doing all he or she can, and making sure that you are doing all that you can.

Trust comes naturally when couples are confident that they share the same goals and focus on one another’s strengths. Good partnership blends the different ways each spouse contributes to the marriage. Learning what those differences are and being grateful for them will build trust. Overworked and sleep-deprived parents may begin to question whether their partner is giving all he or she can.‑They might start keeping score of what they do and their partner doesn’t do.‑This can be a‑breeding ground for mistrust.

The second part of flexible fairness involves taking a regular look inside ourselves to evaluate whether we are really giving our best.‑Doing this naturally leads to readjustments in how we share the workload.‑Sometimes we need to talk openly about what’s working and what might need to change. The best way to begin these conversations is for one spouse to ask the other how things are going and how we can make adjustments to make things better.‑We offer ourselves because we want to reach our shared goals and because we want the best for our partner.

When couples become new parents, though, the responsibility to make adjustments may fall more on husbands than wives because mothers’ daily lives usually change more than fathers’ lives do. And, an important thing for both fathers and mothers to keep in mind is the importance of fathers being involved in caring for the child. Sometimes couples divide the work such that mothers do all of the child care and fathers focus exclusively on providing economically for the family. Specialized roles are fine, but the research tells us that fathers need to be involved with their young children, both for the well-being of their children and for their own personal development. There are many parts of caring for a child that moms and dads can share, even when the child is very young. Sharing the work and the joy that comes from jointly caring for a child can greatly strengthen the sense of character friendship and partnership between husbands and wives.

Cultivating the marital virtue of fairness will give your marriage more than equality, but it will require you to continually work both on your own and together with your spouse. The activities below will help get you started.

Further Reading

Beyond the Myth of Marital Happiness, Chapter 9

Personal Activities

1. Dependability Detail

Consider the following question:

What makes my spouse feel like he/she can’t depend on me?

Now identify one specific thing you can do differently to increase his/her trust in you on this point of dependability. For this week focus on being 100% dependable in that area.

MY DEPENDABILITY DETAIL:______________________________________________

If you are comfortable, use this activity to open up a discussion with your spouse and tell them what you are working on. Let them help you become 100% dependable in this area.

2. Note of Commitment

Write a note to your spouse expressing your commitment to doing your part in making sure she or he feels a sense of fairness in your marriage as the baby comes. This may be easier to do after completing Partner Activity #1, below.

Partner Activities

1. Expecting Changes

Imagine your married life together six months from now. What do you think will change in the fairness of the things you have to do? Think about it from your point of view, then from your spouse’s point of view. Now discuss your thoughts by doing the following:

Husband: For one minute describe what thoughts and feelings your wife may have about what will change in fairness in your marriage. Then let her share how she really feels and what she suggests you could do to prevent any unfairness she might anticipate.

Wife: For one minute describe what thoughts and feelings your husband may have about what will change in fairness in your marriage. Then let him share how he really feels and what he suggests you could do to prevent any unfairness he might anticipate.

Then spend some time talking about what you have each shared and considering some different options you can both take to create fairness in your marriage during this time of change.

2. Together Work

Not all work in the home needs to be divided. Doing some tasks together can be a great way to strengthen your relationship. Think of areas in which you and your spouse divide the work that needs to be done now. Talk about which activities that you could actually do together and pick one that you will start sharing now as a symbol of your fairness. Write it in the space below. Then think of some of the areas you might divide when the baby comes and identify one you could do together. Write it below. You may have to be creative.

SHARING NOW: _____________________________________________________

SHARING WHEN THE BABY COMES: ________________________________________

3. Fairness Adjustment Code


This code can help to open up helpful discussion,
but only if you really honor it by following
it with real discussion when either of you says
it and sticking to it over time. During discussions,
be sure to discuss things in terms of how you
can make adjustments to keep things fair instead
of holding a gripe session in which you detail
what your spouse should be doing differently.

Create Your Own Activity

You may have even better ideas than these for
activities that will work in your particular
relationship to build fairness in your marriage.
Be creative! Think of something you can do either
as individuals or together and write your activity

Fairness Activity:

Printable version