Listening to assertions of unfairness can be a daily occurrence for relationship therapists. Whether it is about household chores, how a decision was made, or how one’s partner reacts to them when angry, feelings of injustice are ubiquitous in close relationships.
At first glance, the concept of fairness can seem quite straightforward. In a narrow situation within a time-limited relationship, a fair outcome or fair procedure can be identified, and the participants can move on after the event. However, when it comes to long-term intimate relationships, perspectives on what is fair or unfair are complex and not easily resolved. Perceived unfairness can become such a point of contention for some couples that it has to be addressed head on or else therapy will hit a stalemate.
Fairness and its philosophical cousin justice play important roles in our thinking and decision-making from an early age. Any parent of a young child knows how attuned humans are to fairness, even before we have the language to articulate it. This is a clever evolutionary development for humans: the presence of fairness builds trust. Furthermore, attunement to fairness can serve as a signal of whether one’s relationship with a group or individual is cooperative or competitive. In other words, perceived fairness is an emotional shorthand to us regarding the safety of a relationship and tells us how giving or guarded we should be.
Whether it is about the other person getting more than the other (distributive justice), how a decision was made (procedural justice) or how one was treated as compared to how others are treated (interactional justice) our fairness antenna are finely tuned. We are ready to protest if we detect injustice at any turn, particularly if there are other indicators of disconnection or unresolved rifts between us. And, importantly, it is in our more significant relationships that perceived injustice alarms us the most.
At times when we are feeling disconnected or hurt by our partners, our guards are up and we may be more sensitive to perceived injustices. And why wouldn’t we be more sensitive? If we are already feeling hurt, our vigilance is up in order to protect our wounds, but this also means we are neurobiologically more likely to view neutral behaviors with a negative slant.
Our protests to these perceived injustices might manifest as blaming, criticizing, and disputing the facts of who did or didn’t do something. When partners complain about a lack of fairness, I find they are often protesting an absence of procedural justice and/or interactional justice, and doing so in a self-protective (angry, attacking) rather than softer or more vulnerable way, such as asking for reassurances. It is less about the facts of who did what when and how but rather how each person approached and responded to the other, held or didn’t hold them in mind, or owned their part.
Research has shown that across cultures people actually accept outcomes that are not in their own favor when they perceive that the process was fair. In other words, we are willing to accept not getting what we want if we believe the process that came to the decision was fair. This runs counter to the assumption that we all just want to get our way and that the root of our anger or discontent typically rests on the outcome. But that is often not the case. It is when we do not trust the fairness of the process that we feel cheated, disrespected, and angry with important others.
This is why Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples is particularly well-suited to help couples navigate unfairness: because it focuses on process.
The solution in EFT is determining how partners can talk about their emotional needs and longings in a way that is safe and gives space for them both to show up authentically and express their feelings. The solution, therefore, is determined by the particular needs of a given couple, taking into account each of their histories, personalities, cultural backgrounds, trauma histories, and how all of these elements inform their relational experience and worldview.
By examining the process that leads to hurt and disconnection and constructing (or resurrecting) an emotionally safe and affirming process, a couple can loosen from their locked positions. Why? Because the EFT solution means that the essence of the interaction pattern has shifted to one that privileges procedural and interactional justice. A couple might present a conflict and look to me as the judge who is going to determine who is right or wrong, but if I were I to fall into that role I would fail at helping them work through their disconnection and pain. If I focus instead on their strained and painful dynamics, we can work on shifting them so they can relate to each other differently. When that happens, the focus on fairness will typically fall away and partners can do the essential work of deepening their bond.