This isn’t fair, Spencer thought, as he cooked dinner yet again for his stay-at-home wife and kids. Alejandra ruminated after her partner called her a control freak: His characterization of me just isn’t right! We all want fairness in life, and especially in our intimate relationships, but sometimes we don’t get it. What’s the best way to respond to an unfair relationship, situation, or words, without behaving badly ourselves?

The inequity aversion

Humans develop a concept of fairness as young as three years old. We’ve all heard a toddler scream “it’s not fair!” In fact, this “inequity aversion” is a natural part of our psychology.

Put simply, our inequity aversion means we expect equal opportunities, treatment, and reward when we put in equal effort. If our expectation is violated and we’re subjected to an unfair relationship, situation, or words, we feel angry. It runs so deep that we even get upset on someone else’s behalf if they’re treated unfairly.

Why an unfair relationship makes us so mad

At its core, our inequity aversion is a protective mechanism that helps ensure our interests are met. When we experience an unfair relationship, we feel a deep compulsion to set things right. We may even punish the wrongdoer so they don’t hurt us again.

Our reactions against an unfair relationship may be especially big if we struggled to get our needs met or experienced unfair treatment in the past. Perhaps we had neglectful parents who didn’t take good enough care of us. Or we endured bullying or abuse. Experiences like this teach us that if we don’t stand up for ourselves and take care of number one, we won’t be ok.

The dangers of overreacting to unfairness in relationships

The problem with this reaction is that life isn’t always fair. Expecting it should be is a form of distorted thinking. At some point we will experience injustice, even from the people we love most. Other times, we’ll disagree with those people about what’s fair and what isn’t. The sooner we accept this reality of life, the sooner we’ll enjoy more peace.

Expecting fairness (or our version of it) at all times sets an impossible standard for our partner and sets us up for unnecessary disappointment. What’s more, our reaction is often worse than the original offense. Responding to an unfair relationship with intimidation or harsh comments will just cause more relationship damage and even harm our partner.

How to better handle an unfair relationship

Challenge distorted thinking

As with all forms of distorted thinking, challenging those thoughts gets us to a better, more accurate belief. Is the situation really unfair, or does it just seem that way to you? Sometimes all it takes is considering another point of view to change how we feel about an unfair relationship.

It may seem outrageous that Spencer cooks every night when his wife is a stay-at-home mom. He acknowledged, however, that she spends all day home schooling the kids, cleaning, shopping, and running other errands.

When he considered her point of view, he realized that picking up the cooking chore might not be so unfair. Spencer’s challenge to his thoughts immediately helped him feel less angry. If, after calmly weighing things up, he still felt unhappy, he could talk to his wife about sharing the household responsibilities more fairly.

Filter out unfair attacks

Sometimes we really are being treated unkindly, and it’s not fair. Alejandra’s partner should not have personally attacked her by calling her a control freak. However, it’s still within her power to get upset or not. Thinking “it’s a shame he sees me that way” produces much more manageable emotions than “that’s not fair!”

This comes down to a simple question: do we rely on ourselves, or others, to feel good about ourselves? When we have solid self-esteem, we can even accept the useful feedback—“sometimes I do try to control too much”—and let the rest go. By keeping calm and taking the high road, we maximize the chance that our partner will retract their attack and apologize.

Restore fairness, constructively

Sometimes an unfair relationship is consistent and damaging. If Spencer’s wife continues to avoid cooking after promising to do it more often, or Alejandra’s partner regularly uses personal attacks, they have good reason to act.

However, taking action does not mean giving our partner a taste of their own medicine, escalating the conflict, or resorting to controlling behavior. These actions won’t get us the result we want, but they will cause harm to our relationship and our partner.

Instead, plan a time to have a calm, respectful conversation about the issue. Explain your point of view using “I statements”—e.g. “I feel hurt when you call me names.” If your partner continues to treat you unfairly, the concept of boundaries can help you set appropriate consequences.

Maintain perspective

Ask yourself if whatever’s bothering you will matter in 5 days, weeks, months, or years. Did this incident or those words really alter your life or disadvantage your future? Most of the time we’ll conclude that the injustice counts very little and we’ll be ok in the end.

We may want fairness, but we won’t always get it. There is a silver lining, however. Every time we experience injustice, we get a chance to become more resourceful, level-headed, and resilient. Marcus Aurelius said not to think “this is misfortune,” but instead “to bear this worthily is good fortune.”

Faith note

When we consider what the purpose of our life is, there are two different perspectives we can take. One is seeing that our life is all about ourselves. In that case, our human nature says we need to get all we can, and defend ourselves from any unfair relationship, situation, or words.

But when we see our purpose as being part of something bigger, it dramatically changes how we see these injustices. For Christians, we start with the confidence that a good and all-powerful God is our defender and protector—the ultimate seeker of justice. There’s no reason for us to act to protect ourselves.

Then we can focus on fulfilling our purpose – the reason God created us – to love and care for others. This means we may be inconvenienced at times. That’s okay – it’s all part of the job. We find joy, however, in being part of this bigger plan despite challenges, including times life might feel unfair.