Editor's note: This column is the first in a three-part series.

"It's not fair!"

"Okay, I guess we're even."

"You've got to do your share."

Much of life, especially family life, is governed by a multitude of unwritten and, often, unspoken rules. One of the most important of these rules has to do with the "family ledger."

The phrase "family ledger" was introduced by family psychologist I. Boszormenyi-Nagy to describe our sense of just how fairly the family is working. The family ledger is a record of how much we put into, and how much we get out of, each relationship in the family.

We carry this family ledger around in our heads. Often we aren't even aware that it is there. But when we start to feel taken for granted, or taken advantage of, chances are it is because our ledger seems out of balance.

For example, Mary, a young wife and mother, returns to work to help pay off some unexpected medical bills. Suddenly she is not only household manager, child-care worker, etc., but a career woman as well.

As the weeks and months pass, Mary becomes increasingly frustrated with her family, especially her husband. Finally, she becomes aware that she is resentful of his failure to assume more household and parenting responsibilities when she returned to work. Mary's family ledger is out of balance, and she needs to set it right if she wants to feel that things are fair again.

When Mary confronts her husband with her feelings and thoughts, the two renegotiate their respective responsibilities. Eventually, both feel their new "job descriptions" are fair.

Notice that in this example I said "fair," not "even." One of the interesting things about our family ledgers is that they can be in balance without necessarily being even.

In a couple I know, the husband was somewhat disabled in an accident a few years ago. His wife has had to assume more responsibilities in order for the family to survive.

Yet she does not see the ledger as being out of balance. She is aware of (and trusts) that he is doing all he can. Their sense of working together, each according to his or her abilities, keeps their relational ledger in balance.

Similarly, parents consistently do all sorts of things for their children with no expectation that they will be repaid in kind. Yet the ledger usually remains in balance because of the rewards, often intangible, of parenting.

Even in relationships in which we find ourselves making great sacrifices, we can maintain a sense of ledger balance if we choose to make these sacrifices out of our concern for, commitment to, or love for the other people involved. The privilege we find in living out our values, in fact, provides the balance to our ledger.

As you've probably begun to suspect, keeping a balanced family ledger takes a bit of skill. There are three basic rules for such "ledger keeping" that can help:

• As much as possible, expectations need to be stated, acknowledged, negotiated and flexible.

• Everyone must accept that everyone else is doing as much or well as they can.

• Everyone's contribution needs to be recognized, appreciated and praised.

Talking about such a ledger of give and take in a family may seem a bit cold and calculating. However, to see our relationships as fair, to feel that we both give and receive, is a need that we all can acknowledge. And it is a need that is at the heart of family life.

• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."