Reality Check: The Scorekeeping Relationship

Last time, I made a case for keeping score in our lives. Keeping track of data about how we spend our time, what we do with our money, or even how much we eat can be helpful. It provides us with information, which we can use to evaluate our actions objectively. It can keep us motivated and help us progress in the direction we want to go. It’s all good.

However, I also suggested that there’s one place where keeping score makes lives worse rather than better. Where’s that? In my view—it’s score-keeping in a relationship.

Whether it’s a romantic relationship or a relationship among children, with coworkers, or even between friends, the downsides of scorekeeping outweigh any potential upsides.

What is score-keeping in a relationship? You can sum it up in three little words: “You owe me.”

With Billy and Sue, everything is scored. But it’s not like they have a chart of numbers and checkmarks posted on the fridge! No, no. In fact, Billy and Sue aren’t even aware of their scorekeeping.

Here’s how it happens. If Billy stays out with the boys, Sue gets to go shopping. If Sue has to take his mother to the doctor, Billy has to mow the lawn. If Billy buys a new fishing rod, Sue buys a new camera. You get the picture.

The underlying premise is: If you get something, then you owe me something of equal value. It’s not just material things; it’s also about privileges. “If you do this, then I get to do that.” You did something you want; now you owe me an equivalent privilege.

Scorekeeping breeds competitiveness within the relationship. Another downside is that scorekeeping can be used to keep track of negatives. “You told me that you think I’m lazy; so I’ll tell you that I don’t think you’re smart.” You said something unkind to me, now I get to say something unkind to you.

This tit-for-tat behaviour certainly doesn’t help build a relationship. In any case, “fair” comparisons between people are almost impossible. Not everything is comparable. Someone can always perceive that someone else is getting a bigger benefit.

If the underlying emotion of a relationship is, “It’s not fair,” you’ll likely also see jealousy, resentment, bitterness.

Another byproduct of scorekeeping is that freely-giving behaviours disappear from the relationship. That is, nothing is done out of love, but because it’s owed. If Billy spontaneously rushes home and cooks Sue a nice dinner, she is inclined to perceive the action as, “He’s doing this because he’s either making up for something or because he wants something.”

What might work more effectively?

Remember that you are in a relationship, presumably, because you like each other and want the best for each other. Maintaining this perspective of wanting the best for each other sets a different tone than the competitive perspective.

If you recognize your relationship in this description, here’s a suggestion. Whenever you get the urge to say (or think) those three little words, “You owe me,” replace them with three other little words, “I love you.”

Try it. See what happens!

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