Selfish Unconditional Love: The Dance of Fairness

Joyce and I have a real thing about fairness. It’s very humbling to admit this – sometimes embarrassingly so. I remember when our three children were young and we would have dairyless ice cream for dessert. It was my job to dish it out into five bowls. The catch? Joyce and the children got to pick theirs out first, and the last one remaining would be mine. There might have been some history about me occasionally taking too much for myself. I admit the possibility. So, giving these conditions, was I compulsive about exactly measuring the amount of ice cream in each bowl, in case I ended up with the smallest one? You bet I was!

Then there’s exercise. Joyce and I love walking our dogs on the multitude of trails around our house (mostly built by me). Our preference is to go with each other, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that we can walk together at the same time. It feels fair for each of us to take the same amount of time. Even being outside, particularly on a sunny day, doesn’t feel fair if the other one needs to be indoors, counseling for example. We take turns writing these monthly columns. It wouldn’t feel fair for one of us to write two consecutive months. Recently, we were invited to be guest speakers at a local church. We were informed we had fifteen minutes to speak. Joyce spoke first, and kidded with the congregation that she would be speaking for exactly seven and a half minutes. And she did!

Yes, you’re right, this might come across as petty, the opposite of spiritual generosity. Sometimes we do feel a bit like two little children, making sure the other one doesn’t get more than me. And certainly it seems to have its origins back in our childhoods with our siblings. I have clear memories of demanding fairness, especially with my younger brother. It was completely unacceptable for him to get more of my favorite foods, desserts, toys, or attention. Joyce was the same with her older brother. This is normal sibling rivalry.

But is this insistence on fairness healthy as adults in an intimate relationship? It can be, especially if it is done with honoring and humor. If I’m heading off for an afternoon of counseling, and Joyce has no one scheduled, she might teasingly ask, “Barry, it’s such a glorious sunny day. You don’t mind if I garden this afternoon?” Then we both laugh. I know she’s just teasing me. She understands my leading a group requires intense focus and energy, and she honors me by sharing that focus and working in the office. I do the same for her when she is the only one scheduled with sessions.

Is insistence on fairness an aspect of conditional loving? Yes, of course. Unconditional loving, on the other hand, involves complete generosity, without any concern about fairness. Do Joyce and I strive toward unconditional loving? Absolutely! Are we there yet? No. Are we trying to have compassion for the little boy and girl inside us that still acts out with sibling rivalry? I believe that’s part of the path of spiritual growth, which includes accepting all the parts of ourselves, the human as well as the spiritual.

We know too many couples who don’t demand fairness, who seem to endure unfair conditions in their partnership. There’s the man who works long hours at a stressful job and comes home exhausted and hungry to find his wife on the couch watching TV, without even a thought about dinner. Rather than say anything, he grabs a box of snack crackers, sits down at the table, and starts munching. Or how about the young mother, stuck at home with two small children, who doesn’t say anything when her husband comes home late from work and immediately goes out with his friends to the local pub. She really needs him to be with her, the children, or both, but she doesn’t address the blatant unfairness.

Perhaps underlying both these situations is a partner who doesn’t know what he or she deserves, and is therefore unable or unwilling to speak up about unfair conditions. Demanding fairness is in fact a way to stand up to your partner. It is the same as a union demanding fair working conditions for employees, or a race of people speaking up about discrimination. Unfairness in a relationship means one person has the power, and the other remains passive and powerless. It also means neither partner is happy. How can you be happy if you have power over another? A bully is never truly happy or at peace. How can you be happy if you accept unfairness and don’t stand up for yourself? Resentment builds and erodes your love.

There are many ways Joyce and I rise above personal fairness and touch upon unconditional love. We each receive the greatest joy by giving love to each other. When we appreciate one another, we don’t keep score. Hmmm. Today I said twelve nice things to Barry and he only gave me nine appreciations. We don’t do that. When we make love, I feel the greatest joy and receive the most pleasure by giving to Joyce. Is this unselfish? Not really. If I focus my energy on making Joyce happy, I feel the happiest. Perhaps I can call it “selfish unconditional love.” You just can’t give love without receiving huge benefits. So, in this sense, giving love may be the highest fairness, because you always receive just as much as you give.

It is really the human part of us that is concerned about fairness. The word fairness doesn’t even exist in the spiritual part of our being. Is it possible to accept the two parts of ourselves, the human and the spiritual? Can we accept our inner child who sometimes intensely feels sibling rivalry with the inner child of our lover? And at the same time, can we give our full heart’s love, just for the sheer joy of giving? If we can do both, we can learn the dance of fairness.

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