The Myth of Fair and the 50/50 Relationship Split

Summary: Fairness is subjective and not everything in life can be divided 50/50. What counts is you both feel your overall contribution is balanced.

Fairness issues are nothing new. In this painting a woman is contemplating the fairness of the relationship as a stressed out father waits anxiously for the verdict while their disgruntled child does her chores.

My partner and I have slightly different views on fairness. She’s more likely to favor a literal 50/50 split as a way to insure fairness. I’m more inclined to follow a “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” philosophy. That’s an over simplification but it illustrates our general tendencies.

One simple way to illustrate my viewpoint is to think of two people about to get dessert. When the desserts arrive one is creme brulee and the other is chocolate moose. One person loves creme brulee but also enjoys a little moose now and then. The other one loves chocolate moose but also appreciates the occasional creme brulee. If we were to split both desserts equally we’d have a situation where both parties would have too much of one and not enough of the other. Both would be dissatisfied. This is not fair. Fair would be a 80/20 slit of both desserts so each one get’s most of their favorite and just a little of their second choice. This is also how divisions of responsibility works in real life.

I am the sole income provider for my family while my partner, a say at home mom, has nearly 100% responsibility with running the domestic side. Is this fair? I think so. Is there any way to quantify and compare our individual contributions to the family? Not really. Our respective spheres of influence are so radically different that they have no real life correlations. But overall it feels right. I make all the money which is the foundation, the fuel, the raw material. She turns the money into something tangible, something that makes our lives pleasant and relatively stress free. The better she makes our home life, the more efficiently I can work, and the more money I can make. The more money she has to work with, the greater her resources to implement her ideas and the nicer our home life is. It’s like a modern-day cycle of life episode from “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom”.

The idea of fair changes over time as well. What may seem fair today may not seem that fair tomorrow. At one point my partner and I rotated evening dish washing duties. One night I did them and she got our daughter ready for bed and the next night she did the dishes and I did the bedtime duties. However I kind of like washing dishes. I find it relaxing and I like the immediate satisfaction of accomplishing something quantifiable. My partner would prefer to avoid the dishes all together. So I suggested that I just do the dishes every night. It was understood that meant she would do the bedtime routine now and she was fine with that. She’d rather brush our daughter’s teeth than do dishes. Now this isn’t set in stone. Occasionally, when I’m just too tired to do the dishes or I’ve just had my fill of the duty she’ll step in and do them. She can just tell when I’m at the point and I thank her for it when she does. I in turn do the whole bedtime routine from time to time. Most nights I help a bit anyway but I generally don’t do the full “ok, let’s brush your teeth and floss, now rinse, dont’ forget go pee, here’s your pajamas, make sure to put your clothes in the hamper, which book do you want to read” routine myself. Makes me tired just writing about it!

Fair also changes depending on circumstances. If my partner’s sick, it’s not fair for her to perform all her regular jobs. Her new job is to rest. So I make sure she has as little to do and our daughter stays out of her hair so she can rest. She in turn does the same for me, except I still need to work because there is no one else to handle that job. If I stop working, my clients are left hanging. But if I’m sick, I’m not really expected to do anything but maintain my business. Also if I have a particularly difficult week with lots of deadline and 14 hour days my partner also picks up some of my slack in the home and parenting department.

Overall we seem to be both getting what we need. But this is because we’re pretty forward about what our needs are and we try to be aware of the other’s situation. This is key. If your partner can tell you’re making adjustments, even if relatively minor, to accommodate their needs, it goes a long way in cutting of the build up of resentment. When people feel slighted, or put upon, it’s usually not because of the insult itself, it’s what the insult represents which is a lack of compassion, empathy and understanding.

When someone does a dangerous, boneheaded move on the road you get angry pretty fast. If the person doesn’t acknowledge their misdeed you stay angry for a while. You stew in it. You make all sorts of mental projections about their character and intelligence. However, if the offending party looks over and gives you the “so sorry, I fucked up” look, what happens then? You immediately calm down and your opinion of the person is no longer that of a selfish asshole. But really, what changed? You were still cut off recklessly and had to slam on your breaks. So that’s the same. So why were you in a rage and throwing daggers with your eyes in the first situation and the second instance you’re cool with it? I say it’s because the second situation is fair. A public and personal acknowledgement of fucking up is roughly equal to the offense. You are now even.

This principal of fairness is the one that drives all successful relationships. It’s not about cutting cookies exactly down the middle. It’s not about making the same financial contributions. It’s not about doing exactly half or the laundry or washing half of the dishes. It’s about the scale of life. Does it, taken as a whole, feel balanced. If so, then that’s all that matters.

File Under: Dividing Relationship Responsibilities – Fairness in Housework – Equal Contributions in a Relationships

9 Responses to “The Myth of Fair and the 50/50 Relationship Split”

  • Justin Says:

    I think you bring up an excellent point. The responsibilities in my marriage are very unequal. My wife and I both work, but she supported me all through my graduate program. Now that I’m able to pay for things again, I’m trying to do so as much as I can.

    As far as house chores go, my wife learned early in our relationship that I rarely will think of things to do. I will vacuum and dust, but only if the floor is noticeably dirty. She also learned that I don’t mind doing the work if she asks me to do so. If she leaves me a list of chores, she knows that I will do them without complaint. Without really talking about it, we’ve managed to come to an understanding about housework and taking care of our infant daughter.
    .-= Justin´s lastest blog ..Post-Partum Parting =-.


    Straight Dope Dad Reply:

    Nice solution.I’m clueless about cleaning as well. I just can’t tell that something’s dirty unless it’s REALLY dirty. Same with trash and recycling. It needs to be over flowing before I notice. If I can shove one more container or piece of trash in I will. Same with disorder. I have an extremely high tolerance for chaos. My partner is the direct opposite on all accounts. One method she uses is putting the trash and recycling by the door. If I see it there I know it’s time to take it out and I do without giving it a second thought. When it comes to cleaning and chores I need crystal clear directions. Badgering or general pleas for help won’t work – just tell me exactly what you need me to do and I’ll do it.


  • Andy Says:

    It is so irritating when people don’t understand this…

    My mother, for example, has done nothing but complain about the state of my last 3 relationships because of this. The current one, as well as the one before last, her complaint is that I do almost all of the cooking and cleaning. No matter how many times I explain to her that this is fair (because I don’t work and therefore don’t pay rent, and I like my kitchen a certain way goddamnit) she just can’t wrap her head around the concept that fair does not always mean 50/50.


    Straight Dope Dad Reply:

    True that!


  • Cheryl 'Cleaner' Jones Says:

    So I have a question – how would you apply such a theory on fairness if you had two children? Currently I have two kids – one buy (age 4) and one girl (age 2). Their concept of fairness is much different than mine – they would almost rather have the exact same desert as their sibling instead of the desert they prefer more.

    That same concept transfers over into everything – picking up toys, going to bed, etc…but obviously things aren’t always going to be 50/50 because that doesn’t work. So how do you teach them that sometimes one person needs one thing that is different than the other, and that is still ‘fair’?


    Straight Dope Dad Reply:

    I think you tell them exactly that “that sometimes one person needs one thing that is different than the other”. They’re too young to understand it completely, especially the two year old, but through repetition and increasing age, they will internalize that philosophy which will be one little step towards making them well rounded human beings. To each according to his/her needs and from each according to his/her ability is a beautiful (and realistic) way to view the word.


  • Markus Says:

    Fairness is difficult to achieve in any relationship. I remember living with my college roommates and we started off with all sorts of spoken agreements to equally divide the chores. After only a week, it was obvious that some people were not pulling their weight, and were simply not team players.

    At work, it is exactly the same scenario. New hires will always go the extra mile, but once they settle in, their true colors, for better or worse, begin to show.

    During my evolutionary psychology class, my professor said that humans have always cheated to get out of doing chores. But some humans feel more guilt and shame than others.

    Shame is a powerful motivator, and I suspect that many individuals that are ‘fair’ have a keen sense of how others view them.

    As for family relationships, the sense of fairness and fair treatment is a huge, huge issue going on for me right now. When you honestly believe that you are doing well beyond your share of the work, but others strongly believe otherwise, a lot of emotions can rise up! I’m dealing with this problem right now, and I wonder if it’s simply rooted in differing perspectives.


  • Alan Ishibashi Says:

    Finding a balance of fairness in any relationship can be tough. One prerequisite is that all parties need to be able to empathize.

    People’s capacity for empathy can differ dramatically. Some people seem to unconsciously place themselves in other people’s shoes every time they make a decision that could effect those around them — these are typically very fair people.

    Others, like psychopaths, have the ability to intellectualize what anther’s experience would be like, but don’t actually feel any emotions from it. They can make highly unfair decisions to suit their personal needs and still sleep like a baby at night.

    If you surround yourself with people that posses great empathy, you’ll have a good chance at finding fairness in those relationship.

    Easier said than done 🙂


  • Chris Child Says:


    I agree with your conclusion — everyone is going to weigh things differently if you attempt to break down life’s work into quantifiable bits.

    The most important thing is that everyone feels respected and appreciated for the work that they contribute.

    A literal 50/50 view of fairness would be difficult to put into practice, but I understand why some people aim for this goal. Anyone that has been burned in the past — perhaps from bad relationships — will be more sensitive to fairness.

    Thanks for your insightful thoughts,

    – Chris


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