When I was younger, my sister and I were often in fierce competition with each other over virtually everything, from the number of presents we’d get for our birthdays and Christmas to who would owe whom a favor.
As a result, my well-intentioned parents would keep score to try to make everything as equal as possible between the two of us, and my sister and I ended up doing the same to each other. If I gave my sister a ride somewhere when it was inconvenient for me, then she’d have to owe me. If my sister bought me some XXtra Hot Cheetos during a grocery run, then I’d have to owe her.
Over time, I applied this practice to my love life, including in my relationship with Phillip. After we moved in together, I kept score of our division of labor and got upset when I felt like I was doing more than my share of the work. It would come up whenever we’d fight over this or that. He thought I wasn’t cooking enough (even though I told him I haaaaaaate cooking), while I thought he wasn’t cleaning enough, or whatever. The list grew like a flowering vine, along with our resentment toward each other, I’m sure.
I tell this story because this study (version for mere mortals here) found that people who keep score in their relationships tend to feel less close and intimate with their partners during times of conflict and tend to “overreact to simple daily conflicts,” to the detriment of the relationship. Obviously, couples in the study who didn’t keep score were generally more stable.
But why do we keep score? Symmetry Counseling says this habit is evolutionary and “develops from an instinct for self-protection.” It stems from the need to be in good standing within your social group so you don’t risk abandonment or death. So, you flaunt your merits and politic your way into belongingness like a company ladder-climber.
So, seeing this study hit home for me, and it might hit home for you. But since Phillip and I are 5.5 years strong at this point, something must have changed.
And it did.
I don’t think it took a single event to transform my outlook, but I do remember listening to “Independent Woman” by Destiny’s Child at one point, hearing the lyric “Always fifty fifty in relationships,” and thinking “Yyyyeeeaahhhh, I don’t know about that” in the voice of suspender-wearing Bill Lumbergh from the movie Office Space. Over time, I learned that no relationship is perfect (so there might always be some scorekeeping), and it’s virtually impossible to divide your relationship into tidy pieces.
I also learned that we had each been overestimating our own contributions to the relationship, mortgage, and housework instead of considering–and appreciating–how much the other had been contributing. We had basically overvalued ourselves and undervalued each other, as if we wanted to give ourselves a medal like a couple of idiots in a board game.
So, the next time you find yourself scorekeeping in your relationship, consider any of these options for breaking the cycle:
- Keep score of the positives instead of the negatives.
- Pick your battles, aka don’t sweat the small stuff. (I’ve learned to stop getting mad when Phillip would leave stray coffee grounds on the kitchen counter; I’m sure he’s made peace with certain things I do as well.)
- Honestly, take yourself off a pedestal. Neither of you are perfect, so don’t pretend to be. Your relationship is greater than the sum of its parts (that is, it’s bigger than you are).
- Divide and conquer chores that play to your strengths (and own up to your weaknesses).
- Collaborate instead of compete. Wash dishes together. Clean the bathroom together. Go grocery shopping together.
- Actually explain why something upsets you instead of building up resentment until you pop!
- And check out other perspectives here, here, and here.
If the time is right and you need help trading in your relationship anxiety and insecurity for peace of mind, then hit me up here and I’ll be in touch ASAP.
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