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Want a Happier Marriage? Stop Searching for Fairness and Strive to Be Generous

In their new book "The 80-80 Marriage," Nate and Kaley Klemp explain why the pursuit of fairness leads only to fights and why radical generosity is the answer.

There’s a short, famous poem by the Persian writer Hafez. It reads, “Even after all this time the sun never says to the Earth, ‘You owe me.’ Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky.” Beautiful as it may be — with a potent truth at its center — it’s a sentiment bound to make most modern couples roll their eyes so hard bystanders might hear their optical nerves creak. The issue of fairness — who does what, who doesn’t, and how often — dominates a lot of marriages. The sun might not gush about its glow to the Earth. But one partner will probably say to the other “Hey, I did the dishes yesterday. Now, it’s your turn.”

Nate and Kaley Klemp know something about this. As the busy parents of one who had carved out their own identities before tying the knot, they gravitated toward the even-steven model of marriage familiar to many modern couples: They believed each partner should contribute equally. But they soon found this approach was flawed — and it only led to fights and resentment, especially after they became parents.

“The more we realized that looking towards fairness and keeping this kind of mental tally of who does what, we ended up being in far more conflict,” Nate tells Fatherly.

They found this issue of fairness to be a common source of conflict for couples. So, Nate, an author and philosopher, with a Ph.D political philosophy, and Kaley, an in-demand executive coach, restructured their marriage around the concept of radical generosity. They set the idea of the 50-50 spilt aside and promised to each put in 80 percent to build their relationship. This shift, they say, completely transformed their relationship for the better.

Their book, The 80-80 Marriage, tells their story, dissects issues in modern marriage, and offers tools to help others reconfigure their relationships in the same style. Featuring interviews with more than 100 couples and lessons from a broad array of sources, the book provides a blueprint for restructuring modern relationships and stepping away from the idea of fairness.

Fatherly spoke to Nate about radical generosity, the problem with fairness in marriage, and why it’s often the smallest changes that make the biggest difference in a marriage.

So how did you arrive at the idea of the 80-80 marriage?

Well, I think it starts with a little bit about the story of how my wife and I met. We met very young, at 17, in high school, and we dated for a while, went to prom together — that sort of thing. But then we broke up for seven years and got back together. We got married at 26 and both came into the marriage with this idea that we were sort of coming together as two very separate individuals, both of whom were looking to make their mark on the world and achieve some sort of success as individuals.

And I think this really set the stage for everything that followed because as soon as we started to live together and as soon as our marriage started, we noticed these recurring fights and conflicts about a variety of things. Like leaving my shoes in front of the door. Or the balance of time we spent with my family versus with her family.

These patterns escalated, and it shifted from being an every-once-in-a-while nuisance to being almost the fundamental power struggle of our relationship. But the common theme that kept coming up again and again was the theme of fairness, that if we just made everything fair and 50-50, somehow we’d exist in this marital bliss.

That’s a guiding principle that a lot of couples look to.

Right. And the more we realized that looking towards fairness and keeping this kind of mental tally of who does what, we ended up being in far more conflict. And, also, ironically, things were less fair. My wife was kind of the over-contributor, at least at the start of the relationship. I was the under-contributor. And the more she, in particular, tried to make things fair, the less I wanted to do anything right. It just kind of completely dissolved any motivation I might have had to contribute. Fairness made things less fair and more unequal.

When you had kids, this was amplified. 

Absolutely. I think that anybody who’s had kids has had this experience of bringing a child into the world and it having these amplifying effects. Anything lurking beneath the surface, any tensions you had before? All of a sudden, the volume gets turned up on those and you see them more clearly. That was certainly the case for us, where we could no longer be two separate individuals living somewhat separate lives because we were both part of this crazy project of raising a human being. And so that reality really forced us to face this and brought the issue of fairness into the forefront.

So your solution was to rid yourselves of the idea of “fairness” and focus on radical generosity.

The alternative we began to experiment with was trying to shift the mindset that was underlying what we were doing, so that instead of trying to keep a mental tally of who did what to achieve this very loose of idea of fairness, we started experimenting with the idea of What if we were to view our contributions as something way beyond 50 percent?

And that’s where the idea of the 80-80 marriage came from?

Yes. Instead of looking towards fairness as the central mindset, we wondered, Could we do ordinary things like dishes or cleaning or picking up the kids from school from this standpoint of radical generosity, where I’m really thinking of this not as ‘It’s my turn. And now she owes me.’ But more along the lines of: ‘This is a gift to us in the marriage.’

That was one big shift. The other that goes along with it is what we think of as a structural shift of no longer thinking of success as me winning at work — and that when she wins at work, has an accomplishment, it diminishes me, and I lose. Shifting from that to a model where we both win, and we’re both sort of working together on the shared project versus I’ve got my little section over here and she’s got her little section over there, and almost trying to protect our territories from each other.

Some people might see the title of the book as radical or, let’s be honest, a little exhausting.

Yeah, it does feel radical sometimes. But it is radical generosity. We’ve been so habituated into this idea of only doing your fair share.

So what’s your pitch for the 80-80 marriage? How should regular couples strive to reframe their lives around radical generosity?

Well, there are two things that I think most couples are trying to balance. One is connection and love for each other. Intimacy. All those things that we want to have in marriage. The other is just the modern fact that we’re no longer living in the 1950s and most modern marriages are between two people who consider themselves to be equals.

So, there’s this balance we need to find between love and equality, essentially, and if you try to strike that balance purely through this kind of very crude technique of trying to make things fair, you might get the balance or at least some of the some of the equality out of the equation. But often I think what you lose is the love and the connection.

The reason we think radical generosity is a better alternative in many ways is that generosity is this quality that’s so closely connected to love and intimacy that when we’re giving a gift to somebody, it has this contagious effect. But if I do something really nice and kind for my wife, she’s more likely to do something really nice and time for me. And it creates this almost like upward spiral of generosity, which in the end gives us what we really want out of marriage, which is to be connected. We think that the pathway of radical generosity is a much clearer way to love than the concept of fairness is.

In the book you lay out three essential pieces of radical generosity.

Yes. The first is the idea of contribution. And it is usually what we think of when we think of generosity: doing things around the house, participating in domestic labor. But it’s through the mindset of radical generosity.

Then there’s the second piece which is about appreciation. Dr. John Gottman talks a lot about how our natural tendency is to sort of scan our partner for what they’re doing wrong and how they’re not doing enough and not contributing enough. But appreciation is really about changing the way you see your partner so that you’re instead scanning for the things they did right and then appreciating them for it. We frame it as a sort of call and response: one person says something they appreciate that the other did, then the other does the same. This increases in an upward spiral.

And the third element is about being upfront about the moments when you’re feeling frustrated, irritated, resentful, and so on, which I found interesting. I don’t normally associate that with generosity.

Everyone has times where there’s really no way to get rid of conflict. Explaining them is an act of radical generosity because research shows that the more you can communicate about those things early and often, and clearly reveal when you’re frustrated or when you’re angry, the more you can dissolve those moments of resentment and come back into connection.

Inevitably you’re going to get people who say, “I tried this, but my partner did not react. What the hell do I do now?”

Well, there are a variety of strategies. The shift in mindset to radical generosity can be powerful. But if your partner’s totally oblivious, as you pointed out, it can lead to this kind of heartbreaking situation where you’re like “Oh, well, I’m doing now 80 percent and he or she isn’t doing anything and that’s terrible.”

One thing you can do is what I discussed early: reveal your frustration in a clean way. We tend to lash out and say, “I’m doing everything” and it turns into this big drama-filled event.

But there are other ways to review that resentment that are that are done from a spirit of radical generosity and a spirit of ‘Hey, let’s figure out a way where we can make this work’ that I think brings awareness to the partner who’s not contributing. That can help set the stage for change. But then it’s also about really taking a closer look at who’s doing what and figure out together if there’s a better structure.

You point to research that shows that many people often misjudge the amount of work they’re actually doing in a marriage.  

Yeah. We tend to have these estimations of how much we do and how much are partners do. And the social science on this is pretty clear that these estimations are really pretty radically off, that we’re not actually that clear on how much are partners doing. We tend to underestimate that, and we tend to overestimate radically how much we’re doing.

So, we have these cognitive biases that are sort of clouding our vision of what’s actually happening. And I think the more we can bring structure to that and sort of put it out on paper and have actual data, the easier it is to begin to resolve some of these things.

Now, I think a lot of people right now are opposed to making big sweeping changes in their lives. And this concept of radical generosity, while certainly useful, is intimidating. What are some smaller things people can do?

I think the best place to start is with appreciation. For my wife and I, we’ve created this very simple ritual where before we go to bed, we have this habit of expressing one appreciation for the other person. These aren’t monumental but once it becomes a regular habit, it’s a great way of coming back into connection and adjusting the tone of your relationship.

I think the other thing that can be a huge win, especially now when like the whole structure of our life, has changed basically overnight is to just get a little bit more clarity on your roles and responsibilities around the house.

When Kaley and I went into quarantine lockdown, we went from one structure of life that where my wife was traveling a lot and we’re going to various events and things to a completely different structure of life where we were, like, all of a sudden, all at home all the time. And we needed to restructure: Who’s taking out the trash? Who’s doing what? They sound so simple. But just to get clarity on that, to write out a list and say “Hey, it makes sense given your skills and interests for you to do this, for me to do this. What do you think?”

What’s the big takeaway here for couples?

I think it would be that you have the power to change the culture of your marriage through shifting your mindset from fairness and scorekeeping to this idea of doing the things you already do, but through the lens of radical generosity, striving to give more than 80 percent.

The reason I say you have the power to do that, which I think is kind of radical, is that we’ve seen both in our own lives and in the lives of the folks we’ve interviewed that all it takes is one partner. In some ways, fairness is a dance and there’s two people holding that concept in place. If one person can untether themselves from it, often the whole energy of the marriage can change. The culture can change. And radical generosity has this contagious quality. You start to see a really significant shift in the health of your marriage and how much you’re connected to your spouse.