The familiar Golden Rule -- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you -- has analogues throughout the world's cultures. But when we succeed in observing such a credo with our dearest loved ones, we're merely offering what we want for ourselves, not what the other person wants. A better version of the Golden Rule for couples -- and one of the secrets to loving in flow -- is to do unto your partner as your partner would like, not as you would like or as you wish he or she would like.
And that brings us to what I call the Couple's Manifesto of Love: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." For our purposes, "needs" equals "wants" (and "his" obviously equals "her"). In following such a manifesto, we forego a tit-for-tat mentality, what psychologists call an exchange orientation, to a focus on what's good for both of us, known as a communal orientation. Research has shown that such a cooperative attitude is far more likely to contribute to sustained satisfaction for both partners.
So: you scratch my back, I scratch yours? Not necessarily. Rather, when tonight's scratcher has a need, whatever it is, his or her partner will be pleased to acquiesce. And this is precisely the attitude I found prevalent in the most satisfied couples I interviewed.
WHAT'S FAIR IN LOVE AND WAR?
In struggling relationships, both partners often believe they've compromised, considered the other first when making decisions, put their own needs on hold for the sake of pleasing the other. And each may believe the other has not done so with equal consistency. It's easy to slip into such unconsciously biased thinking, especially under stress.
Here's an example from the life of Jorge, thirty-seven, who directs educational and career development for a medium-sized Southern California firm, and his Filipino-born wife Rosalisa, thirty-eight, a nurse. They've been married sixteen years and have two young children. He's an involved dad, but the majority of the child care falls to Rosalisa. He admits that he finds himself "keeping score" occasionally, particularly when tired. For instance, he says, "Sometimes she'll be in the kitchen and I'll be upstairs and she'll ask me to get her a glass of water. I'll get the water, but it bugs me at the time. Then it just fades away." While Rosalisa might feel entitled to this minor bit of caretaking, Jorge feels he's done more than half the work by putting in those long hours, and thus briefly resents being asked to do anything extra.
It comes out most evenly if the two of you accept each other's subjective analyses of how much is being contributed. It took me a while to trust, for example, that the many hours Stephen spends maintaining our garden is as valid a use of his time as is my reading of two newspapers daily. Actively supporting your partner's view of the world is a way of showing love.
Consider speaking to your mate about how various activities exact a different amount of psychic energy from each of you. You may be surprised to learn that one of you would prefer to give a half-hour massage than untangle one garden hose. Psychologist Andrew Christensen told me in an interview that his wife hates making business phone calls, so he makes them. "If I can do a thing easily," he explains, "then I do it. I think that's the best system because it's individualized. You can't just take a template and apply it."
If you both adhere to the Couple's Manifesto, you'll feel secure that you'll have your turn too. What psychologists call reciprocation wariness, in fact, inhibits strong interpersonal relationships. If each of you holds back from giving what might at any one moment seem like more than your half, that might lead to further wariness and less trust on the other's part, the very behavior that keeps you from getting what you most want.
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Laurie, for instance, expends much effort to cook what her husband likes and never thinks of complaining that most household tasks fall on her, even though she also works hard. She says it's because she believes Hamid tries equally hard to please her: "Anything I want, he'd give me."
If you espouse a philosophy of "only give when you have already gotten," it's as though you're standing there with your arms crossed, waiting for the other person to show goodwill. In the best relationships, goodwill must be taken for granted.
But say you've started taking out the garbage almost regularly without being nagged, and you're beginning to wonder when your spouse will start initiating hot impromptu sex, as you've been wanting? In distressed marriages, we feel "it's your turn to change," as though we're owed recompense because of the efforts we've made.
Some therapists go so far as to suggest that the partner who makes any small change should get a payoff of some sort. So, in an example given by psychologist Ayala M. Pines, if you talk to your mate for a half-hour as she's been asking you to do, you get to choose a movie that week. From my own experiences and those of others, I can tell you that such tit-for-tat efforts are ineffective at creating long-term change. Fairness ought never become a battle cry. If you're too busy tabulating every penny spent, every minute of effort, every compromise made regarding what to eat or watch, it's liable to slip your mind that you're on the same side in this relationship.
Peter D. Kramer points out in his insightful book Should You Leave? That men whose wives complain they aren't doing enough characteristically argue that the wife's standards are unfair and that he doesn't have a say in establishing them. And what if he does what she wants (i.e., becomes an ideal husband from her standpoint), is she willing to do the same from his standpoint? And what might this mean? Only in the best relationships are wives willing to look at themselves from a mate's point of-view: maybe I'm not giving up as much as he is, maybe I don't often play fantasy sex kitten, maybe I do carp on matters that are trivial to him. Or it might be the husband who is locked too tightly inside his own perceptions and unable, for a moment, to see through his wife's eyes.
Talk openly about what "fair" means to each of you, sharing incidents that exemplify or contradict the word. When my children were small and I spent a lot of time reading to them, taking them on enriching outings, playing with them and keeping them from maiming each other, my then-husband would have preferred that I get a paying job. He said, and I'll never forget this, "Anyone can do what you're doing with the kids." Our perceptions of the value of my mothering were at such loggerheads that we couldn't resolve this issue amicably.
MY MONEY, OUR MONEY
Christensen cites an old Ben Franklin story: a rooster wanted to make a deal with a horse -- "If you don't step on my feet, I won't step on yours." In actuality, some couples take such thinking to mean that if your husband spends $600 of joint funds on a pre-amp, then you get to buy several expensive pairs of shoes you hadn't planned on. But what if that leads to a more depleted bank account, which isn't pleasing to you?
Or what if one spouse works more hours than the other? Is it equitable, then, for the one who labors longer to get more of the benefits? What if the one who puts in more hours earns less? Or one spouse may make more money than the other for about the same number of hours of labor. Does that one then get more say in how the money is spent? In some traditional couples, that's the way it's done, but they've obviously eschewed the Couple's Manifesto altogether.
Pepper Schwartz, after analyzing thousands of couples, dubbed some of them peers, about whom she concluded, "Each partner can and should give in different coin." True peers agree that money isn't the only coin that counts. Still, money does matter, and couples choose a medley of accommodations in the pursuit of fairness.
In my own marriage, as in the marriages of many of the couples I interviewed, we commingle all our funds. Back when Stephen worked two jobs and earned a lot more than I did from my freelance writing, he never hesitated to turn over his pay-checks to me, knowing that a large chunk of them would go to pay for private school for my son that lived with us. Now that I'm making more, it's fine with me that Stephen spends less of his time producing income. We believe that each of us has the inalienable right to pursue our own goals and that the unit has to create a way to make that possible.
Still, when one of us acquires "extra" money, we have very different thoughts on where it should be used. I add mine to our joint funds, whereas if it's fallen into his hands, Stephen considers it bonus money with which to buy flowering plants (his passion) or to add to his computer equipment. We communicate, we struggle, we make deals. There is no one right way to handle money. A few of the couples I interviewed separate their financial affairs in the interests of their own notion of fairness, with some switching systems over the decades.
Bea told me, "For years, it was my business that supported everything. And now it's Herb's. At one point, I kept my money separate. But it was also my money we used to remodel this house. Every time it would come up and feel negative to me, I'd push it aside. And then you'd have the fleeting thought, 'If we were ever to split up, I'd never get that back.' You have to override that: you can't handle every situation like that, as though the worst thing that could happen is going to happen."
Tina Tessina told me she and her husband each have their own money, and they divide expenses in half. She pays for all the food, he pays all the utilities. They tracked it for the first couple of years, finding it came out sufficiently even. But if they go out to dinner, they split it fifty/fifty.
Why such a strict division? Not only does Tina remember her mother standing with her hand out asking for money to buy Tina's clothes for school, but Tina and Richard relate to money very differently. "We wind up in the same place, approximately, but he balances his checkbook to the penny, and I'm slapdash. This way we're not struggling with each other all the time."
Laurie also insisted on separate bank accounts when she married Hamid. "We split the rent, because I wasn't young when we got married, and I thought, my God, I'm not going to support him. If one of us can't pay our bills, though, which just happened a couple of months ago, I paid the whole rent for three months, but he paid me back."
BUT YOU OWE ME
In the working world, you put forth effort with the expectation of getting paid -- that's where exchange relationships are the most prevalent. It's different at home. In communal relationships, the kind between family members, we not only don't expect repayment for favors, but it might dilute our warm feelings if we are treated on a tit-for-tat basis. Of course, this makes perfect sense when you consider all that is now known about rewards and intrinsic motivation. In a loving relationship, you're not expecting some additional reward beyond the love itself; the more you move that relationship to a reward-based footing, the less likely that flow will prevail.
Even so, playful point systems aren't unknown among intimates. Naomi, in her late forties, has been with her partner Janice, in her mid-fifties, for eighteen years. They have evolved an informal routine in which, when one mock-grudgingly accommodates to the other, she gets points.
"Janice has a very high need for order and routine," explains Naomi, "so that if I leave my mail out for more than one day, it starts to bug her. I tell her, 'That's too bad, I live here too, and I get to do this." Here Naomi laughs at the silliness of such an interaction, then continues: "She'll get to a point where she says it's getting to her, and I don't think it's worth having World War Three over, so I just bitch back a little bit and then I'll say, 'Well, sure, I'll go take care of that, but I just want you to know how much I hate it.' And while we're being mad at each other, we joke about a scorecard.
"Or, every now and then when one of us does something really good for the other one, like cleaning up sooner than I want to, or leaving sooner to go out than I think is necessary, those kinds of things, I'll just say, 'Okay, but I get points for this."'
Naomi explains that what's most important about such interactions is that the partners are communicating to one another that they know themselves and each other, that they're willing to do some compromising, but that they also want to make sure that each respects the other's independence. "When we were younger and hadn't had as much therapy, etc cetera," concludes Naomi with another laugh, "those were bigger battles. And now they're not battles at all. They're almost like scripted exchanges."
Some couples even play around with outright barter: I'll have sex with you later if you wash the windows now. So long as your bond is a healthy one and you both see the humor in such play, occasional stylized deals will do no harm.
"What we call love," suggests author Phyllis Rose, "may inhibit the process of power negotiation. If the impulse to abjure measurement and negotiation comes from within, unbidden, it is one of life's graces and blessings."
If you find yourselves scorekeeping seriously, then it means that something's already amiss. Let it serve as a warning that, uh oh, somebody's going to start withholding, and then severe conflict is sure to follow. If you deal constructively with dissatisfactions as soon as they appear, there's no need for the relationship to tilt toward a tit-for-tat, and less caring, direction.
Frank's resentments, for example, would be over trivial things, such as when the couple had a garage sale and he felt he had to sell his favorite popcorn popper. He didn't have to, insists Margie, but at the time he felt obligated, and that stuck in his mind. When such feelings would eventually emerge, Margie would tell Frank, "You have a resentment book."
Couples design their own ways to achieve a feeling of ultimate fairness, whether they use the word or not. For instance, Teresa told me that when Derek raises his voice at her, she feels attacked. Then, a couple days later, "to get back at him, I won't fix him something to eat that he wants for supper. He'll just look at me and go, 'Okay.' It's a kind of teasing that says you're over the anger, but you want to press the point and say, 'You hurt me, see?' It feels more like we're even then." If such minor vengeance served cold two days later were to become a substitute for communicating frankly in the moment, only then would it be time to have qualms.
One woman told me she'd figured out a way to even things out when she gets disappointed. Say her husband isn't able, at the last moment, to take her somewhere she'd planned on going due to the demands of his job. "Then I tell him to go buy me a candy bar to make up for it. Or this chocolate cake from the bakery. I think it's just that I want to feel like he's done something for me. It's like buying my friendship," she says, laughing. "Then he'll rub my back."
ME, MYSELF, AND I... OH, AND YOU
Buying into the Couple's Manifesto does not mean that each partner gives up a "self" in the interests of the union. A marriage needn't be oppressive to your personal growth. I can't forget my former husband telling me when I wanted to go back to school, "I don't want you to grow. I want my children to grow." What a contrast it was, then, when Stephen said to me, "Be who you want to be."
Yet sometimes sacrifices are necessary. Not every marriage will permit each partner to have everything each of them desires, whether due to time or money constraints, or some environmental consideration (he wants to live in the city and she prefers suburban life). What do you do when your goals aren't the same, when you and your partner are competing for free time, use of funds, sympathy, or some other scarce resource? In the most long-lasting and satisfying marriages, a Dutch social psychologist and his American colleagues found, both partners are willing to sacrifice for each other.
Address what you're each willing to give up for each other or for the unit. See if you agree upon when an action feels like sacrifice and when it doesn't. Among the couples I talked to, I found that some of them endured stages where an exchange mentality was later replaced with one that was more communal and more contented. Mei-Ling says, "The one thing I did come up with when we were going through therapy was that marriage is never equal. What's important is that with the two of us together, the life we create is more than just the sum of us."
Eric J. Cohen and Gregory Sterling suggest in "You Owe Me" that when you let go of an artificial effort to make things equal at every moment, "the spontaneous flow of giving and receiving can take place with both parties maintaining an internal sense of everything being fair." The authors explain that what you end up with is a whole wide base of evenness. So that when your interaction moves too far outside what feels fair to one partner, threatening the balance of the relationship (leading one of you, no matter how generous you are, to feel taken advantage of, it must be dealt with to restore the sense of flow. When you're feeling even again, you can start anew, if need be, without counting. I might liken it to changing your accounting method mid-year, and then when the accounts are balanced, throw away the books and don't look back. (Better yet, burn them so you can't dig them our later for a big argument.)
We all prefer when we get what feels like "enough." Make a point of telling your partner what essential needs are met by your relationship, needs that are not based on actions but on who the other person is. For example, I've often told Stephen that he makes me laugh, and that's enough. But what I mean by that is so much more than finding his jokes ha-ha funny. It's about his sharing my existential aloneness, joining me mentally and emotionally in the ideas that dominate my life. It's about being part of a family -- in the deepest sense of the word -- a family that crosses all the usual borders of birth and background.
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About the Author
Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is a social psychologist with a special interest in positive psychology. She is the best selling author of six books and the award-winning writer of more than 800 articles, essays, and advice columns. Her most recent books include Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity; Playing Smart: The Family Guide to Enriching, Offbeat Learning Activities; and Catch the Spirit: Teen Volunteers Tell How They Made a Difference. An adjunct instructor of psychology at Woodbury University (Burbank, California), she has also taught at UCLA Extension and other university extension divisions. She is a writing consultant, as well as an instructor for Writer's Digest Online Workshops. Her Internet home is www.BunnyApe.com . She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Stephen, a New Yorker-published poet.