5 Love Experts on What an Equal Relationship Actually Looks Like
Most people want a relationship where they and their partner treat each other as equals—and equality is especially important to be mindful of when there's a power differential in the relationship based on gender, race, or another aspect of your identities.
But equality can be difficult to measure. If your partner enjoys doing household chores and you hate them, should you still split them 50/50? If you make more money, should you be paying for more of your dates? If you're more of a giver in the bedroom, is it okay for your partner to be on the receiving end more often than you?
The answers to questions like these are rarely clear-cut, and equality is something each person has to define in their relationships, based on what feels good to them. However, if you're wondering if your relationship is equal, here are some questions you can ask yourself, according to experts.
Questions to ask in a relationship:
1. Do you respect each other's differences?
Treating your partner as an equal means you don't put your own perspectives and values above theirs. Instead, you give them the space to be themselves, even when that's different from you—and, of course, they do the same for you.
"50/50 means you both respect the other's interests, desires, hopes, and dreams, even if you don't share them," says psychotherapist Carolyn Karoll, LCSW-C, CEDS-S. "It means giving space for those things, showing interest, and encouraging them, to a reasonable degree."
One way to do this is to ask your partner to teach you about an interest or viewpoint of theirs. "Being open to actually learn or enjoy something that is important to the other helps couples feel that they're important and each member matters," says Karoll.
2. Do you listen to each other?
Equality is less about who pays the bills or does the chores and more about each person having an equal say in decisions like these.
"It's all about both parties feeling like they have equal rights and equal decision power in a relationship," says dating and relationship coach Karolina Bartnik. "They never need to do things just because they feel obliged to do them. It's also about never trying to manipulate your significant other into doing something by making them feel like they owe you."
You can tell whether you have equal decision power by how well you listen to each other. "In an unequal relationship, the partner who is in a disempowered position will always hesitate much more before expressing their needs or feelings," says Bartnik. "In an equal relationship, both sides will be much more likely to directly ask for what they want or bring up important but touchy topics."
3. Do you each get to be yourselves?
Rather than making sure each person plays their role in the relationship equally, make sure each person plays the role that suits who they are.
"Oftentimes, people focus on the tangibles that can be split: Who takes out the trash? Who does the laundry? Who cooks dinner? Who does the dishes?" says licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist Natalie Finegood Goldberg, CST-S, LMFT. "The aspects that often get overlooked when factoring who is contributing what in the equity equation are the intangibles. Who is the dreamer in the relationship? The planner? The executor? The organizer? The calm one? The emotional one?"
When it comes to sex, Goldberg often sees couples get caught up in who is playing the role of the initiator. Some people may be less inclined to initiate, but they can still please their partners and show their appreciation for them in other ways.
"Maybe they are not the sexual initiator, but are they the rock or the planner/organizer," says Goldberg. "I encourage people to reconceptualize that each partner likely won't do 50 percent of each 'job,' but rather, each partner contributes in different but equally important ways."
4. Do you respect each other's boundaries?
When it comes to your sex life, what's most important is not what exactly you do in the bedroom but whether you respect each other's desires, preferences, and boundaries. "There cannot be an equal relationship without sex being good for both of you," says Mia Sabat, sex therapist at Emjoy. "When it comes to a healthy couple, both know each party's wishes and limits, they never pressure each other, and they are loyal to the agreements they have made."
This applies outside the bedroom as well. "It is important that each person accepts and respects their own limits," says Sabat. "It is also important to respect the privacy and needs of your partner, and not to press them if you don't like or don't understand their boundaries. Neither partner should tell the other what to do."
5. Do you take care of each other?
Throughout a relationship, each person's capacity to contribute will fluctuate. When one person is feeling down or dealing with challenges in their life, they might not have a lot of energy to put into the relationship. Since both of you won't always be able to give it your all, what's important is that you'll each step up when the other person needs extra care or support.
"There will likely be times in your relationship when you feel as if you are pulling all the weight, and that's okay in moderation," says licensed professional counselor, Stephanie Strouth. "We all have days [where] we struggle and [where] we are strong. In a relationship, you can be someone's strength when they are weak, but there should also be times when that role reverses. This is the delicate dance between helping someone with their needs and having your needs met."
If it feels like you're always the one stepping in to take care of your partner, it's time for a talk about the balance in your relationship, says Strouth. However, she adds, "equality cannot be measured by a single point in a relationship. You must look beyond that to consider patterns."