An Unrealistic Expectation: Fairness

It is wonderful to engage with someone who has worked their way out of despair and become optimistic about the future.

The enthusiastic woman I met with was preparing a counter-proposal for her husband, after completing several months of obviously useful therapy. She had given up lamenting the past and was facing her impending divorce with newfound courage, determined to convince her soon-to-be former spouse to amend his most recent proposal for support.

The story: this wife had earned a library science degree a decade ago, but now that her status as the stay-at-home parent was ending, she had a new career goal, one that required a return to school. To implement this plan, her husband would need to contribute to her support for a longer period than he had offered.

Her plea to him some months ago was: before the kids were even born, we agreed that I would leave work and stay home full time, to give them a good start. Now it’s only fair for you to pay for my return to school.

His response at that time was: true, that was the agreement we made, but it was never contemplated that you would switch careers. The fair thing is for you to help bring in income now.

When fairness is the goal and each party asks the other “to be fair”, what they really are saying is: if you saw the world as I do, then you would agree with me. Since you don’t, you’re unfair.

Pleas for fairness typically fall on deaf ears. Bargaining for subjective concepts of fairness simply pushes people further apart, less likely to reach agreement. The conversation ends. So, when you know where you want to go but keep tripping up along the way, it’s time to take a different tack, to be strategic.

This newly empowered woman was no longer stuck in the fairness trap. Still legitimately negotiating to meet her self-interest, here is what she now said to her husband: would you be willing to consider this: I know I could return to work in the library, but with additional training, I could achieve a far better salary and feel a sense of real satisfaction in my work. If this is something you’d be willing to help me accomplish, I’d be willing to commit to paying a portion of the kid’s future college tuition, as you’ve been asking.

Maybe we all regress to some extent when life is turned upside down, and as a child might whine, with the stamp of a foot, insist: it’s just not fair.

But, once it is clear what it is you want and why, the strategic approach is to state what you are willing to offer in return, for example to say: if I offered you ABC, would you be willing to consider giving me XYZ? This latter approach has the added benefit of suggesting an interest in consulting on the solution, which acknowledges that the other person has a position worthy of respect. A genuine show of respect always keeps the conversation moving forward.

And a reciprocal offer trumps a plea for fairness every time.