Sometimes it can feel like the rules are different for you and your partner.
As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I see many married couples and intimate partnerships that suffer from rules that are applied unequally. When I can help partners recognize those patterns, it’s a chance for them to improve communication.
The biggest stumbling block I see in these situations? Double standards that creep into relationships without us realizing it.
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A double standard is any rule in the relationship that applies to one partner differently than the other. Anyone can hold double standards. In a healthy relationship, partners discuss their expectations and strive toward equality. While being able to avoid double standards entirely is difficult, emotionally manipulative partners will avoid addressing them. They may even set rules that deliberately favor one partner over the other.
When couples have difficulty resolving conflict, sometimes they don’t treat each other the way they want to be treated. When one partner feels cornered, they may use double standards to point out the other party’s double standard behaviors.
Other times, double standards result in deliberate attacks. When a pair finds themselves at odds, they might poke at each other’s insecurities, even knowing how bad it feels on the other side.
It can be maddening when we feel like we’re not being understood, and sometimes people pick fights about something completely unrelated to the problem. Arguments can escalate until heart rates increase, muscles tense, and voices are raised. It can feel impossible to hear or be heard without doing something drastic.
If that is how you’re feeling, it may be time to take a break and revisit the issue later.
Choose a time to intentionally come together and discuss your feelings. Consider holding hands during the discussion. This kind of contact has been shown to increase feelings of connection and reduce heart rate.
Start with short statements about how you feel and why. Take responsibility for your thoughts, feelings, and actions with I-statements. Avoid blaming. Ask questions to show that you care about understanding your partner.
Soothing hurt feelings and showing understanding can reduce the need to put up a shield. At that point, you will both be more open to discussing your needs and making changes.
For most couples, one person is rarely in charge of all the chores in the house. But one person may take on lighter chores and avoid putting much effort into the more demanding tasks.
Work Together: Assign tasks not just by difficulty, but also by the amount of time they take.
Example: One person empties and fills the dishwasher, takes out the trash, and tidies the living room, which takes about 45 minutes. The other person makes dinner and updates the shared calendar, which takes about an hour.
I often see a double standard where one partner is allowed to make comments about the other’s appearance while the other partner is punished if they do the same.
Work Together: Compliment each other at least once a day, and set shared health goals. Feeling good about ourselves makes us more motivated toward health goals like getting more movement into our schedule.
Example: “You’re so attractive when you’re proud of the things you do. Would you like to go on a walk and tell me about your day?”
It’s easy for couples to pay more attention to the world around them than to their partnership. Between work, school, family, friends, and hobbies, it can be easy to ask for more time together without actually making time ourselves.
Work Together: The 2+2+2 rule encourages couples to go on a date every two weeks, spend a dedicated weekend together every two months, and commit to a weeklong vacation every two years.
Example: Try a new restaurant every other week, rent a hotel room in the next city every other month, and plan a week in a destination at least two hours away from home every other year.
Everyone shows affection in their own way. Often one partner asks for love in a specific way, but may not put equal time into doing the same for their partner.
Work Together: Learn how you give and receive affection. Talk about the things that make you feel loved. How do you like to be touched? How would you like them to show you they are thinking of you? Your partner can only treat you the way you want if you tell them how.
Example: “I feel loved when you bring me a smoothie on your way home. It shows me that you’re thinking of me, even when I’m not there.”
It can be easy to blame one person for not listening or being distracted. But it can be just as easy to split our attention when it’s time to listen.
Work Together: Set a specific time to talk about important issues. During this time, remove distractions: set aside your phone (consider activating Do Not Disturb mode). Use active listening skills to make sure you understand each other.
Example: Spend 20 minutes at the end of each day talking about something that’s been on your mind. It may be a problem you noticed in the relationship, something interesting from your day, or something you appreciate about your partner.
Sometimes, we want something done on our own timeline, but we can also fall into the trap of taking our time when it comes to requests from our partners because we have our own priorities.
Work Together: If requests are time sensitive, explain to each other about when they need to be done and why. If we don’t understand why something is important, it can be easy to procrastinate, even if we know when it’s due. Talking about why can help both of you understand each other’s priorities.
Example: “Can you please do the dishes while I’m out of the house? I need the sink cleared to prepare dinner tonight.”
Jealousy is often unbalanced in relationships. One partner may feel it’s okay to flirt, spend time alone, and make friends with someone of a different gender (or same gender, for same-sex couples), but think it’s wrong for their partner to do the same.
Work Together: Explore behavior that feels inappropriate and talk about why. (Remember to use I-statements and practice listening!) Make a plan to deal with those situations, together. Explore ways to reassure one another.
Example: Identify a specific behavior that makes you uncomfortable. Work with your partner to find some other way to interact with certain individuals.
If one or both of you have a lot of anger or anxiety about cheating, consider individual and/or couple counseling. Seeking professional help is always a desired solution for many reasons. And with platforms like Relationship Hero, you can get matched with a professional who specializes in the specific issue that’s bothering you and get help. Take this short 2-minute quiz to get started.
In many relationships, balancing time with friends can be tricky. It may be tempting to break plans with a partner to spend time with a friend who needs us, but feelings can get hurt quickly if we feel we’re second in line, or if date night often becomes time with each other’s friends.
Work Together: Relationships with friends are just as important as romantic relationships. Consider using a shared calendar to manage how you divide your time. With proper scheduling, you both can make sure you have time with friends and with each other.
Consider making rules about last-minute scheduling. Agreeing to go to a concert on the day of the date may not be a problem if it happens once, but if you’re canceling plans with your partner every week, that can be a problem.
Example: “Hey, I saw that you’re going out with the guys Friday night. Since we’re both free on Tuesday, could we go see a movie together?”
Many people want to make sure their partner is a part of special occasions and family traditions, but sometimes forget to balance that with their partner’s family time.
Work Together: Develop your own relationship traditions and invite extended family members from both sides to participate. Compromise with each other about special occasions to strike a balance when it comes to visits.
Example: Pick a lesser-known food holiday to celebrate together, like National Burger Day, and invite family over to celebrate.
Feelings can be hard to communicate about, especially if you’re feeling vulnerable or distressed. We often say “I’m fine,” when we’re not. At the same time, it can be frustrating to see that your partner is upset and get the same response.
Work Together: Take time each day to identify one unpleasant feeling from the day as well as one pleasant one. As you begin talking about your feelings, make sure you are listening to your partner just as much as you want to be listened to.
Example: “Today I was really frustrated at work because a project I was working on changed at the last minute. But I also felt really happy when I came home and realized it was movie night.”
If you’re a parent, you know that the kids come first. Even new parents feel the strain. The Gottman Institute found that 67% of new parents report reduced satisfaction in their relationships after the baby is born. If there is a double standard about who takes care of the kids and when, that can lead to conflict.
Work Together: Every parent gets tired. To support one another, try to figure out a basic schedule for each person to get some rest. Just like with chores, try to balance time and energy. Having a schedule will let you make adjustments in a fair way when something unexpected happens.
Example: One parent gets the kids fed, while the other helps with homework. They may alternate who helps the kids bathe and get ready for bed, and who prepares lunches for school the next day.
It’s important to recognize that there are healthy ways to argue, but a double standard often exists about following the rules. It’s not uncommon for couples to say things they would never want to hear from their significant other.
Work Together: When you’re upset, remind yourself that your relationship makes you and your partner a team. The two of you are approaching a problem together, so avoid blame and be ready to apologize when you’re wrong. If you’re feeling really agitated, set a time to discuss after you’ve gotten calmer.
Example: “I’m really mad, and I realize that I’m tempted to say something mean because my feelings are hurt. I think it would be good to take a shower and calm down. Can we talk about this in an hour?”
We often want our partners to connect with us physically, on our terms. But when we’re busy, moody, or distracted, we can send signals to our partner that we don’t want or don’t have time for physical contact.
Work Together: There are many forms of intimacy that don’t involve sex. Take at least 15 seconds at the beginning of the day for physical contact. That could be a hug, a kiss, or even holding hands.
Example: Set your alarm a couple of minutes earlier and have a good morning cuddle before you start your day.
One of the most common double standards in relationships is that one partner initiates sex and the other doesn’t. When one person is always initiating, they can feel unwanted or rejected.
Work Together: There are many ways to make the first move, so get to talking about what you both like. Together, figure out how often you want to have sex, and make a deal to have both of you starting things within that time frame.
Example: “I really like when you text me something spicy when you’re in the mood. Could we do that a couple of times a week and see where things go?”
It’s easy to be critical of another person’s spending habits without holding ourselves to the same standards.
Work Together: Avoid having one partner make all the decisions about money. Make a shared budget with space for bills, shared recreation, and personal spending.
Example: Set aside $200 each month, for each partner. Use these funds for “no questions asked” spending.
Sometimes, people get frustrated with their partner for not picking up the phone or answering immediately. But it can also feel like your partner is trying to control you if they have the same expectations.
Work Together: Explain what the purpose of communication is to one another. Listen and be ready to compromise so that both parties can have their needs met.
Example: “I would prefer if you called me when you were on the way home so I know to get dinner started, but if you’re busy, a text is just as good.
In a relationship, we expect our partners to be upfront and honest. At the same time, it’s easy to have double standards when it comes to something we’re sensitive about.
Work Together: Agree on a word or signal that there’s something delicate to discuss.
Example: Leave a sticky note on the bathroom mirror that says “I want to talk, but I’m nervous. I love you!”
Many people feel anxious discussing money, sex, or our physical or mental health. They might feel that it’s wrong to speak about it with others, but feel fine talking about a partner’s sensitive issue with someone they trust.
Work Together: Identify your support network and who is off-limits to talk to about certain topics. Know that sometimes we need someone outside of our relationship to listen to our concerns.
Example: “I know you tell your best friend everything, but I need this to stay between us.” Conversations with a therapist are confidential, so if you need support from a professional, it’s okay to touch on something more sensitive.
It can be tough on a relationship if one partner acknowledges that everyone needs personal space, but at the same time won’t leave their significant other alone.
Work Together: Both partners can set aside at least an hour a week (all at once or broken up) for Me-Time. Honor your own me-time as much as you honor theirs.
Example: Take a long shower alone three times a week.
It can be easy to judge your partner’s co-parenting experiences while being protective and defensive about your own.
Work Together: Make consistent rules for your shared home and discuss how to handle conflict ahead of time.
Example: “I know your kids and mine have different schedules, but let’s make sure we’re all eating together for dinner when they visit.”
If you have an activity you love to do, you may want to share it with your partner. But you may also find yourself making excuses to avoid joining them for their hobbies.
Work Together: Pick one activity to share that interests both of you.
Example: Go rock climbing together.
When it comes to careers, sometimes one person’s growth takes the front seat.
Work Together: Make a 5-year plan for each of your careers and identify where you’ll each need more support.
Example: “I know you’re working hard for that promotion, so I’ll take on dinner duty for this month. Next month, can you pick up the kids from soccer? It’s a pretty busy season for my business.”
If one partner feels that they can’t say no, but the other partner is always saying no, it can make a person tired, sad, and irritable.
Work Together: Remind each other that saying no isn’t a rejection, but a way to set, maintain, and respect boundaries.
Example: State a boundary about a certain behavior you see your partner engaging in, like ordering food when leftovers are in the fridge. Practice saying no when it comes up.
Double standards are any situation where we have different expectations for one person or group than another. This comes into play when partners do things in a relationship that they would be upset with their partner for doing.
Anyone can have double standards! When we want to control an outcome, we can fall back on bad habits (yes, even when we don’t realize it!). Partners who are manipulative may demand that rules be unfairly applied. Healthy partnerships address the issues to avoid double standards.
Take a break from an argument if you feel tempted to say or do something you wouldn’t want your partner to say or do. Take time to figure out the real reason you’re upset and discuss them with your partner calmly, using I-statements.
This is a rule for partners to prioritize their relationship with a date night every two weeks, a weekend away every two months, and a week-long vacation every two years. This way, everyone is prioritizing the relationship.
Communicate about your needs, and invite your partner to do the same. Make clear rules with each other about what you expect and be willing to compromise to achieve balance.
Double standards can pop up in a relationship at any time. In order to address them effectively, we have to be willing to commit to understanding and changing our actions, not just our partner’s behavior. By taking active steps, both you and your partner can have equal expectations of one another.
If you found the exercises in this article helpful, please share how you used them in the comments.