It is human nature to want things to balance out in our lives. We appreciate justice and equality, and always have a sense of what is fair in the world around us. We learned about this at a very young age. Our parents taught us to take turns when we were little. It was always important that each kid got their fair share of food, toys, and attention. If you’ve ever doled out ice cream to kids, you know what I mean.
Fairness and equality is built into our way of doing things and viewing things in the world. Although as adults we might not be quite as attuned to whether someone at the table got a bigger piece of cake (in our house our 10 year old is watching like a hawk), we always have this sense of fairness at work in the back of our minds when it comes to our social lives.
“He would give you the shirt off his back”
This is the kind of thing people like to say about someone they feel is really kind and generous. And as a society, we admire this kind of generosity. It is considered a very respectable personal characteristic. It’s a little complicated, though, because sometimes the wonderful people giving the shirts off their backs may also be struggling with their relationships and feelings of bitterness and resentment.
Usually it starts very innocently. You want to be helpful and generous with the people in your life. You offer to do things or give things you know would make them happy. It can feel wonderful to help – and that person may really appreciate it. You’re feeling great! You are building your relationship with them, which could be a terrific relationship where you both help each other and support each other in life. But this isn’t always what happens. Sometimes you might give too much.
“I would do anything for my friends and family”
Some people go above and beyond and seem to have an endless ability to give to others. A problem arises when that overly generous person is matched with someone who isn’t. This is where Social Equity Theory comes into play. Social Equity Theory posits that when we see inequality in our relationships, we experience distress.
Since the generous person feels so good about helping, it might take a long time for this to come to light. It may take a lot for that generous person to ask for help and realize the inequality. Maybe he tends to deal with things on his own because he doesn’t want to “bother” or “trouble” anyone else. Maybe she gets so used to helping others that she doesn’t even ask for help when she needs it.
I’ve seen this many times with my clients, and experienced it in my own relationships. For example, a client may spend night after night talking to a friend helping her get through a breakup. Or maybe a neighbor watches all the kids every day because the parents next door don’t get home from work until after the school bus arrives. These are kind things to do, but what if they are not reciprocated?
What if the client calls her friend one night upset about her own breakup and that friend turns the conversation back around to herself? What if the neighbor needs those parents to watch her kids because she has an important meeting and the neighbor comes up with a thin excuse not to?
Here comes bitterness and resentment.
If you suddenly start to feel bitterness and resentment towards someone in your life, stop and take note. Are you thinking about all the things you’ve done for them, and feeling hurt they weren’t there for you when you needed them? Do you feel underappreciated for the things you do? Did you have to sacrifice something you wanted or needed so you could be there for someone else?
Stop it by evening things out.
If this is happening, it is a good time to set more limits in your relationship and pull back on what you are giving to a more even level. Without making changes, the bitterness and resentment only grows. Then one day you might find you blow up over that friend asking for anything. Or alternatively, if you ask for something and the answer is no – you may become furious and indignant with them.
Sometimes this means asking the other person for help more often in order to bring the relationship back to balance. Other times it means lessening what you are giving and offering to do. If you are overly generous, it is more likely that you need to pull back. What you give and do might be too much and not something the other person could match.
Can a healthy relationship ever be one-sided?
There are some relationships which are one-sided and that is expected and ok. The neighbor who shovels out their elderly neighbor’s driveway does not expect any reciprocity and won’t be at risk for feeling bitterness and resentment. A parent caring for and being there for their kids doesn’t expect the kids to be taking care of their needs as well.
Social equity is for our friends and partners. It doesn’t mean you have to reciprocate in exactly the same way, either. One spouse might be really good at managing the finances, whereas the other pitches in by handling the lawn maintenance.
Keeping that sense of balance and equity protects us from going overboard, and protects our relationships in the long run. Not being overextended in our relationships means we will have energy to give to others, and will feel good about it when we do.