Let's Talk About Fairness

Learning to Balance

· Mike,Contextual Therapy,Therapy,Couples,Relationships

In The Office episode, "The Meeting", Michael, who is the manager in the office, is left

out of a meeting between the CEO (David) and one of his employees (Jim). Michael feels this is unfair and wants to try and figure out what is going on in the meeting. So, he begins to ask others in the office what they think, including Pam, who is married to Jim. Their conversation goes like this (I am cutting out a couple lines for brevity):


Michael: I just don't want you to lie to me. I don't want you to ever lie to me. Have I ever lied to you?

Pam: Yeah.

Michael: I just don't want you to.

Unfortunately, the humor of this moment probably doesn't come across, but this is a great moment to illustrate the role our sense of fairness plays in a relationship. All of us have an inherited understanding of fairness within relationships, and how we come to trust someone. This episode of The Office is in season 6, episode 2. Viewers have watched Michael, Pam, Jim and David operate under some assumptions about what is fair within their relationships (plus there are structural aspects of their relationships that we can't go into at the moment, i.e. boss and employee, and if it is fair that Michael brought others into his dispute with Jim). These characters have lifted one another up, and hurt one another along the way, but still find a way to work together. Now, we get a little glimpse into their sense of trust. Michael feels that he is entitled something from Jim and Pam. For him, it is unfair to him that he is left in the dark about this meeting. He feels he should be able to get the answer he wants. So, he confronts Pam, and later even harms Jim's opportunity for a promotion, because of this misguided sense of merit or take. He misses the information that he has not earned the merit to receive this honesty from Jim and Pam. The emotional balance between them is actually out of balance.


In relationships we have to have a close to balanced fairness to build healthy give and take. Kind of like how we may balance a budget. All of us have things we are obligated to give within a relationship. For example, Michael wants to think honesty, and transparency is something to give, but does not recognize that he has not been giving it. Equally, all of us have things we are entitled to take in relationships. Again, Michael wants to take all the honesty and transparency in this moment. Relationships will naturally develop the expectations unique to those relationships. A trusting and balanced relationship will have a natural give and take where both people in the relationship are able to give and take from the give and take balance ledger equally. This does not mean that the partners are perfect and give perfect honesty and transparency all the time, but it happens enough that the other partner can predict that their partner will meet their honesty and transparency somehow. For those who have watched The Office, Pam and Jim are a good example of a balanced, fair emotional relationship. The unique items in their ledger mostly remain in balance (even if it gets a little depleted in season 9). But Michael smacks into the unfairness wall abruptly. He shows how he primary takes in the relationship and has exhausted his funds between he and Pam and does not give enough to replace it. The ledger between he and Pam is off balance and distrust grows on Pam's side that she is not willing to be open in that moment.


Now this is obviously a bit of a stretch to show the point, that in relationships, especially spousal relationships which are between equals, these unchecked expectations of fairness can lead to a breakdown of trust and an unbalanced ledger. Often couples quickly get into patterns of unfairness because their emotional ledger is off balance and it is hard to see past the unfairness. Each person immediately finds themselves alone and any attempts to rebalance seems to create more hurt. Maybe you and your spouse, or sibling, or friend have run into an unbalanced ledger like Michael and Pam did. What are some of the expectations that exist between the two of you that should be recognized? What are some of the expectations that you have that maybe your partner does not share, and vice versa? What are some small ways in which you could rebalance the ledger?