10. Equity & Allocation Consensus - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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10. Equity & Allocation Consensus

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Roles Rigidity Repair in Relationships

Roles, Rigidity, Repair, and Renovation in Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Many individuals, couples, and therapists hold a value of egalitarian-based relationships.  However, rather than operating from the principle of equality, many relationships operate in reality from the principle of equity.  Equal treatment and equal sharing of resources does not take into account the individual needs and personality of each individual.  In addition, equality in the couple may not account for partners' differential contribution to the relationship.  There may be gender differences in how heterosexual partners perceive and determine ones rights to authority, status, and resources in the couple.  "…men are more likely to allocate on the basis of equity (rewards proportional to inputs) and women on the basis of equality.  One important exception to this pattern is when a female allocator has lower input, in which case allocating equally would indicate selfishness" (Burgoyne and Lewis, 1994, page 101).  Social/economic gender differences in financial compensation have long historical precedent and are often still relevant in many relationships. In many heterosexual couples by virtue of the male partner contributing greater financial input into the family, based on an expressed or unexpressed calculation of equity, he assumes a greater allocation of tangible and intangible benefits.  If on the other hand, the couple operates from the principle of equality, then consideration or calculation about each partner's contributions to the family becomes irrelevant.  Equity theory sees interpersonal relationships in terms of exchange of various types of resources.  Contribution implies accrued entitlement and rewards.  Partners may draw equally from communal resources but only if they have contributed equally to the resources.  The assumption that normal relationships should be based on equity principles implies that seeking equal dispersal of benefits, in particular by the female partner of a heterosexual couple who has not contributed in the same quantity as the male partner is somehow unreasonable if not immoral.  In the couple there may be significant differences in what is considered equitable contributions.  If they make less income than their female partners, strictly traditional financial calculations of input would thus put men in a culturally untenable position.  Income differences would also skew supposedly egalitarian relationships for many if not most couples, including same-sex couples.  Individuals, couples, and social considerations of calculable contributions to the relationship, couple, or family can vary greatly.  Household work, childcare, social and extended family relationship maintenance, and budgeting are inputs that are more or less valued in addition to finances.

Men and women tend to have differences in how they perceive and behave about finance relative to equity as a couple.  "Explanations for sex differences include the idea that men and women develop different interaction goals, with men being more 'agentic' and women more 'communally' oriented" (Burgoyne and Lewis, 1994, page 102).  Social status of men versus women may influence the differences.  Women tend to have different implicit rules for various calculations.  They pay themselves less than men, are not as comfortable paying themselves, and look to external cues rather than an internal sense for how much they should be paid.  Although they try to see incoming producing work outside the home and household and childcare work as having equivalent value, partners including women may have an implicit exchange model of the couple.  Household work is consciously, semi-consciously, or unconsciously not perceived as equal to earning an easily measurable income.  General perspectives socially tend to see the homemaker role being low status.  "Fethke and Hauserman (1979) specifically addressed the invisibility of the 'housewife,' noting that she is not even acknowledged in the Department of Labor statistics because she has no income.  Without an 'occupation,' the housewife is not eligible for benefits such as disability, unemployment, vacation, or sick leave.  Alimony or maintenance has decreased across the country to about two years, often leaving stay-at-home mothers unable to effectively support themselves after a divorce.  In addition, spending years as a homemaker can make women vulnerable to age and gender discrimination if they decide to work outside the home later in life (Andre, 1981).  If families value the at home spouse equally with the career spouse, therefore not following society's lead, they may be far more effective at balancing power" (Zimmerman, 2000, page 340).

While women and many men clearly experience and consider household and childcare responsibilities as work, society often does not.  Since it is unpaid, it is difficult to calculate a concrete value to the couple, family, or household.  "…thus the women have few external cues with which to evaluate their entitlement to personal reward" (Burgoyne and Lewis, 1994, page 110).  This creates fundamental problems for women who are "domestic engineers" and anyone else of either gender with lower income than a partner to assert "rights to ownership and control, even when these rights were, in theory, set aside in a context of sharing" (page 109).  For the most part, overall control is kept by the wage-earner (or higher wage-earner).  In the case of discretionary expenditures, "some men simply assumed the right to spend joint money without consultation, as a consequence of being the breadwinner."  On the other hand, the lack of having earned income caused the other partner to hesitate in making purchases.  The women as would be expected from social norms and traditions often accept these rules regarding the right to spend or the need to first get permission or consultation.

Whether based on equity or equality principles, men rather than women in heterosexual couples tend to maintain control of financial decisions, are less financially deprived when income is restricted, and have more access to personal spending money.  If the consensus between partners sees the couple as a pair of equals, then allocation should not require calculations about individual contributions.  Even if male versus female interactive goals differ, rewards should be equally allotted in the end.  Hypothetically, rewards can still be equally shared even though in the discussion, men prioritize avoiding conflict, while women prioritize promoting harmony.  However, inequality would be expected if the distribution of personal spending money is made on the basis of equity based on inputs rather than equality.  "Differences may arise here, either because inputs are deemed to be unequal or because of the 'cause of performance' (e.g. the amount of effort invested), is somewhat ambiguous and difficult to assess.  In the case of ambiguity, the preferred principles of equality for women and equity for men may come into conflict.  The outcome of such conflict is likely to depend upon which partner is most favoured by the balance of power in the relationship.  Where the partners are not equal, then the partner who is more dependent on the relationship (i.e. has more to lose by its dissolution) can be expected to yield more to the wishes of the other, and this may result in inequalities of various kinds (Emerson, 1981).  However, even when men and women interact on an ostensibly equal basis, they carry with them their knowledge of belonging to unequal social groups.  Thus, they are inevitably 'doing gender' (Fenstermaker, West, and Zimmerman, 1991).  If a woman perceives herself as a member of an inferior social group, she may feel uncomfortable about claiming her 'rightful' portion.  Thus, unequal allocations may result, even when everything else appears to support the idea of equality" (Burgoyne and Lewis, 1994, page 103-04).

The discussion of money and income for individuals or a couple can be challenging.  Burgoyne and Lewis found that the couples in their study did not readily own an exchange model of marriage, but preferred to conceptualize their relationships in terms of equal sharing.  This can be another reality that needs to be challenged.  Holding onto this idealistic egalitarian value caused couples to deny or minimize unequal financial outcomes, which can lead both economic and psychological costs for the women.  In the case of divorce for married women, their economic contribution is often underestimated in the financial settlement.  This does not even take into account women's lower level of consumption during the marriage.  Men may take away an enhanced investment in market capital for what may be considered to their property alone (page 110).  Traditional financial values can fundamentally shape the relative authority of partners.  The inconsistency between professed values and actual behavior of partners can corrupt the relationship.  Mutual authority proves to be a false value rather than concretely activated in consistent behavior.  While one partner supposedly has the authority to make financial decisions, reality may be such decisions must correctly anticipate agreement or pass muster from the other partner to be followed through on.  The head must be in agreement with the neck!  While income is often a major issue in the couple's dynamic, it is also one of many issues where authority conflicts between the couple may manifest.  The calculation of financial input and resultant allocation of rewards, status, or resources may be mirrored by a calculation of gender supremacy for example.  A partner may assert that being the male (or in some cases, by virtue of being the mother) is greater input or creates superiority by default.  Henceforth, the partner will further assert a right and practice of greater allocation of status in terms of relationship, couple, or family authority.  As noted with financial considerations, many couples overtly resist seeing their relationship as an exchange model while suffering the implications of operating at least in part within it.  The therapist may expore:

When partner or parent authority or the explicit expressed hierarchy is ineffective, it may be indicative of ineffective roles or inconsistency between values and practices in the between parents or in the relationship, couple, or family.  It may not matter who should be the boss, but rather that the members of the relationship, couple, or family have consensus about who is the actual boss.  And, that the boss is consistent and effective rather than illusionary.  The therapist should attempt to uncover expose the real equity and allocation practices in the couple.  If the reality is ineffective authority from a lack of consensus about inputs and equity, then the therapist should work to establish overt and functional practice and subsequent authority in the between partners and in the relationship, couple, or family.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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