Even-Steven…. That’s Not Exactly How Life Works


The expression “even-steven” is widely used to indicate a mutually beneficial trade or even match. The concept reaches into so many parts of our lives.   

You want the cake divided into equal slices with the same amount of frosting and roses. (Unless you’re dieting or watching those carbs.) You want the money for the job split equally since you’ve all shared the work and were there for the same number of hours. (Did you really count?) And if you’re in a debate, you want the same number of minutes allotted to make your points. 

Many couples try to work out an equal division of labor for household chores. One says, “You take out the garbage, rake the leaves, put away the garden furniture.” The other says, “Okay, and I’ll handle washing the dishes and loading and unloading the dishwasher, doing the laundry and making the beds.” They’ve mentally split tasks down the middle, so neither is burdened more than the other—at least in a perfect world, and we know there’s no perfect world. 

Kids do it, too. Some are taught from a young age or may know instinctively that each needs to help put away their fair share of toys or books. It may not always work out. “I’ve done a lot more,” one may say and stop. The other may quickly reply, “That’s not fair. We haven’t finished. You have to help more.”  “Life isn’t always fair,” we might say if we’re overhearing the conversation. 

People who work together also may function in a similar way and want their colleagues to contribute equally to the workload, so each pulls their weight. 

Is even-steven a panacea or is this kind of thinking like an itch that can’t be scratched? Life rarely turns out to be so cut, dry and equal, especially when we get busy, sick, have more energy, want to have more input because we like how we do something or have some other reason to cut back or not pay attention to who does what. 

Many of us may not comment and think that things will even out at some point, or the other person will offer a good explanation why they can’t. That’s until a tipping point occurs, an expression that writer Malcolm Gladwell described in his book by the same name. It’s a moment of critical mass, a boiling point when something tips over and causes the situation to change, sometimes for the worse. 

In such cases, without an even-steven division, we may seethe for a while, become annoyed or angry, then erupt and speak up or even yell. Sadly, when we do so, the other person might try to take up the slack in the short term. However, realistically, we rarely will change someone’s way of seeing such situations and having them change for the long-term. 

So why are we so intent on splitting life into equal portions? Maybe, it’s the messages from our parents, who often bent over to be fair not to show favoritism toward offspring, or our wanting everything to be the same so we’re not cheated or cheat someone else.    

The reality is that people’s lives are on unequal trajectories, spiking up and down at different times, just like a seesaw. The two of us think it’s better to lower our expectations that everything will always be shared equally. We have come to realize that it’s far more stressful to tally up that kind of list than just jump in and do our part—and sometimes more. Unfortunately, pent up anger can come out in passive aggressive ways. It’s better to speak up but to do so politely, rationally and respectfully. 

In fact, our partnership has lasted 35 years because we don’t count the hours each of us puts into shared assignments, who gets the assignments, who finds the graphics or photos, who does any revisions, promotions, and so on. We communicate and do the parts that we each enjoy more. In the end, we know it’s pretty even-steven and that’s equal enough. 

Here are other ideas on how to deal with the absence of even-steven in all parts of our lives. 

Children. Encourage children, possibly grandchildren, to share tasks. Don’t become a nag. Try to make it a game. Let’s count toys and each of you take half to put away. Or take a third and I’ll help, too, you might say. Same goes for setting a table. Give assignments. One can take care of cutlery, one the napkins and a third the dishes or glasses. Suggest doing something fun afterward to celebrate getting a task done together. Make it seem like fun. 

Grown children. We also address the even-steven issue when doing our estate planning. Do we divide our estate evenly so none of our children will be hurt by showing favortism.  What if one kid needs more funds than the other? Parents grapple with this all the time. We say if you’re going to divide unequally, let your children know ahead of time and why so they’re not blindsided after you’re gone. Then, there’s no chance you can offer an explanation unless you’ve written it into your will. 

Work colleague. If someone doesn’t pull their weight routinely, it may be appropriate to speak up before starting to resent the person. Make it nonconfrontational; say, “Do you think we might talk about something that’s bothered me?” You air your thoughts; they air theirs, and you see if you can come to some middle ground. Often, you won’t and then you know where you stand. At that point, you have choices to either lower future expectations or decide not to work together if that’s possible. 

Partner. We all have times when we’re less able to do what we’ve usually done, either due to work, personal challenges or busy schedules. Our partner may resent us, or vice versa. Acknowledge when these times happen. Try not to count or make a mental list. Speak up gently, and say, “I know I haven’t been making many of our dinners. I’ll try to do better.” Or, “I’m so sick of grocery shopping, would you mind taking it on for a bit or sharing it together, which might be fun?” Taking responsibility does wonders for shoring up resentment that might build in the other person. 

Friend. You’re always the one to call, remember a birthday or anniversary, say thank you, check up after a doctor’s appointment that the person’s okay or take the initiative on planning. Your efforts go on and on. There’s little reciprocated and often that’s fine but sometime when you need something—an effort or kindness--sent your way and it’s not, it may be time again to speak up or send a quick email. “Love to hear from you and do something together. What do you think? I miss seeing you.” 

Be honest, don’t get angry but share your feelings so the other person doesn’t become defensive. The friend may offer an explanation or none and just say, “I care about you greatly, but these are not things I’m good at doing.” That may be enough, or maybe not. You can pull back or have a friendship based on other factors. At least you’ve aired your feelings. Maybe, when you’re together you can broach the subject and find a solution that works for both of you. 

Rarely is everything even-steven over the course of time. If you’re doing all the heavy lifting and this sticks in your craw, you can end the relationship or accept the unevenness as a fact. However, if that’s not to your liking and you prefer to look at life in even-steven portions, you may find you’re missing out on much more that really can’t be divided and counted.

1 comment

  • Phyllis

    Happy thanksgiving to you both

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