When It Comes to Love and Romance, What’s Fair? What’s Not?

In the world of love and romance, does fairness reign supreme, or is fairness an illusion? It is a little of both. It depends upon your perception and perspective.

Kerry thought her marriage was perfect. Then, after fifteen years, her husband, John, told her that he loved his secretary, Jill. Kerry broke down in tears. The first words out of her mouth were, “Why me! I’ve put you through business school, raised our two children, moved five times so you could advance your career, and now you’re telling me that you’re leaving me for a younger woman. That’s not fair!” However, her insistence on fairness went unheeded.

Jill’s sense of fairness differed from Kerry’s sense of fairness. Jill wanted John for herself. Her mantra was the familiar “All’s fair in love and war”, which can be a rationalization for deception. She made sure she was sexually alluring. She strategically sparked ideas of discontent in John’s mind by supporting his complaints about Kerry. Jill was both subtle and skilled in bringing up new gripes for him to consider about his wife. She aided him with managing office politics to make herself appear indispensable. However, John was no innocent victim. He actively encouraged the affair. He was thrilled that a woman twenty years his junior would find him so appealing. When Jill timely insisted, “It is either Kerry or me”, Kerry lost.

Should Kerry have seen this coming? Perhaps. There were signs. In the previous year, John took more than a usual number of business trips. He stayed late at the office. He encouraged Kerry to visit her mother often so that “granny” could see the kids.”

Kerry does not need an answer to the “Why me?” question as much as to the “Why not me?”, question.  Before we explore that question, and how to protect yourself against unfairness, let’s look at what fairness and unfairness means.

Is Fairness Universal?

Fairness is a universally appealing idea that spans time, cultures, and continents. After all, most want others to treat them fairly. Perhaps for this reason, the word, fair, appears in practically every language.  (Click on Fairness for an example of fairness in different languages.)

When you act fairly, you behave according to conventional rules or standards. You avoid lying or cheating to wrongfully achieve advantage at someone else’s expense. You would normally anticipate that others—especially those close to you—would reciprocate.

Most prefer to live in a relatively fair world.  Otherwise, we’d have a situation where everything goes. Societies simply cannot survive without the majority making reasonable efforts to follow reasonable rules. However, dictionary definitions of fairness are not absolute. Fairness is sometimes relative. Depending on the situation, a fairness prescription for living may be interpretational; it may not be followed.

  • Your mate cleverly conceals on-going serial sex relationships.
  • A colleague gets an unfair advantage over you because of political connections
  • You do an excessive amount of work while others procrastinate.

Unfair generally refers to biased and deceptive actions. However, it doesn’t follow that unfair acting people eventually suffer penalties and punishments. That happens in children’s fables. Some get ahead. Some feel embarrassed, shamed, and disgraced when caught in a significant deception. Some don’t care if they are caught deceiving, as long as they don’t pay a price or can talk their way out of trouble. Some members of this latter subgroup may be psychopathic.

Antidotes to the Illusion of Fairness

The concept of fairness is more complex than first it might appear. Rules usually surface or shift according to a person’s age, education, psychological capabilities, and circumstances.

Our perceptions, interpretations, and adjustments to situations can and do vary.  Thus, depending on your perception and mood, you may have different fairness interpretations for the same situation. However, different interpretations are not necessarily equally valid.  Some will be specious because they percolate from psychological illusions. Some will be consciously self-serving. Some will be fact-based.

A  illusion of fairness is like other psychological illusions. There is something that you believe to be real and true, but isn’t as it appears. For example, you believe you are a good person and deserve an exemption from unfairness. Being a “good person” may be a fair statement. It doesn’t follow that others should treat you fairly. That’s an example of the illusion of fairness.  If you believe that whoever deceives you will voluntarily come clean, you’re also laboring under an illusion. Few feel obliged to correct their deceptions.

In the world of illusions, reality is different from what you think. But what if you don’t know if you are laboring under an illusion? You can tell an illusion by its results. If you keep repeating painful and disadvantageous patterns, suspect an illusion. If you see something happening that you didn’t expect (ie., Kerry’s belated awareness of John’s affair), face the facts and do the best you can to address the situation effectively.

By working to accept unpleasant realities, you move in the direction of an objective self-awareness. With a more objective outlook, you are in a better position to make reasonable decisions. You’ll have fewer self-deceptions to address. That opens opportunities for building on more of your finer qualities.

What might the founder of rational emotive behavior therapy, Dr. Albert Ellis, say about illusions of fairness and about your options?

  • Recognize illusions of fairness as irrational when such patterns obstruct your happiness, health, and care and concern for others.
  • Illusions of fairness can arise from believing that events should be fair, should be different from the way that they were, and the perpetrator(s) of unfair actions should roast in boiling oil.  This combination of anger thinking and anger feelings can distort your judgment and can lead to additional emotional and behavioral trouble.
  • You can change thinking that distorts judgment without giving up any of your rights and responsibilities. For example by softening your language, you can distress yourself less, think clearly about your options, and figure out how to execute the best. (Note: softer, straightforward language correlates with lower levels of distress and distress.  For example, “I don’t like” carries a different emotional tone than “I hate” or “I can’t stand this.”)
  • By acting in your enlightened self-interest, you put yourself first and others a close second. (Note: In a sense, enlightened self-interest is like following instructions for dealing with an emergency lack of oxygen on an airplane. By putting on your oxygen mask first, you are better able to help others.)

As the adage goes, you cannot control the cards you get in a particular situation. You can only control how you play them.

By accepting the idea, “Why not me,” Kerry quickly stripped away extra emotional baggage that came from her powerful self-deception that John would always be true to her. She considered what was in her enlightened self-interest to do. She chose to accept what she didn’t like, chose to stop looking at John through a distorted prism clouded by thoughts of unfairness, and she acted to move on with her life without him. By protecting herself from extra emotional harm, she was far better able to help her children through a major crisis.  She felt better about herself and better able to control what was controllable in this situation. Because she saw herself bouncing back from a high stress situation, she felt a growing resilience. (For more on the why not me intervention, see Knaus W. & Hendricks C. (1986). The Illusion Trap. New York: World Alminac pp 60-61.)

About a year later, John and Jill discovered that they could not trust each other, and broke up.  Did Kerry then take John back for the sake of the children?  No. She found someone whom she could trust and love. Was this poetic justice for John? Perhaps. It doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes it does.



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