None of us want to admit to being a scorekeeper in our relationships. Behaving that way would mean that we are petty, small-minded, immature, or self-centered, not to mention grudging or stingy — all the attributes that grate on the very soul of our more evolved, generous, gracious, gratitude-trained true selves. Ouch. It’s not how we want to see ourselves, and it is certainly not how we want our children to see us.
But score keep we do.
Every time you ask your partner to do the dishes, or they ask you to take out the trash, and you reply back reminding your partner you did it last time, your child is listening.
Why are kids so attuned to our scorekeeping? Because it is their native tongue. They do it too. And when they do it, parents lose their minds. We want to unsnap all of the straps of their tally-marked street view of life, ignite the rockets on their boots and send them quickly up into space where they can see the big picture. You pay it forward. You appreciate it back. You give. Other people give. There’s a climate of trust that you are building in your family nest. This is how we operate here.
The thing is, sometimes we don’t operate like that.
What is behind the scorekeeping mindset? A story.
It’s a story you write, perhaps inspired by the evolutionary response when the first caveman sat around doing nothing while the other tirelessly worked to discover fire. Not happy with so superficial a plot, we go further: It’s not fair and our partner doesn’t care about unfairness, doesn’t care if we are unhappy.
The seed of this story is planted and grows, after the 10th, 20th 100th time you are at the stove cooking and your partner is relaxing with the dog.
There’s only one problem. The story is probably not true. Telling it over and over doesn’t make it more so. And while we are busy conjuring and character assassinating, we could just be asking for help.
Because in my marriage, my partner is the number one person who cares when I’m unhappy — even or especially when he is involved in the unhappiness-making. Not to keep score, but I am also that person for my husband. I imagine you, dear reader, may have a similar arrangement.
There are three main reason why scorekeeping doesn’t work. One, you’ve got the wrong guy or gal (see above) the one you’ve cast as the villain is most likely to be the hero.
Two, shockingly, when you are trying to get someone to do more than what they’re doing in a quid pro quo way, they get very not in the mood to do so. Maybe there are better ways to remind someone of what you want. I once read a study about how women who kissed rather than cursed their husbands for putting socks directly into the hamper had better results.
And three, maybe most importantly, we resort to scorekeeping because we don’t feel entitled to just ask for what we need. The more we phrase what we need in an insulting scorekeeping way, the more difficult it will be for the other person to resist responding in kind.
Here are the ways to knock down the scoreboard in your marriage and your family.
Think “we” not “I” We get all worked up thinking that we are being taken advantage of when we are doing more. Maybe we are being taken advantage of, but if you love your partner and know that they love you, it’s probably less that your partner has cunningly planned a nefarious plot to get you to do more dishes, and more that it’s not on their radar (your suffering, and the dishes). So rephrase the narrative with “we.” There is a sink full of dishes, we are both tired, or we both want to do other things, how do we solve this? This plays as well with kids as it does with partners. Be the bringer of “we” into the problem, and every one is officially invited to be part of the solution.
Embrace an abundance model rather than a scarcity model Scorekeeping suggests that if I do, you aren’t doing. It’s an either-or, zerosum proposition — a sense of just enough resources to get by and not enough to go around. An abundance model assumes that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and that the more each gives the more and more you all have. Trust pervades rather than hostility or pettiness.
Rather than keep score, give an explanation Keeping score also keeps your true feelings away from your partner. If they understood that you feel disrespected or not valued when they assume that you will clear the dishes while they sit and watch TV, they would likely pitch in happily. Explain why this upsets you, what it means to you, and why you need the help. Surprisingly, approaching it this way rather than accusing your partner of being lazy or selfish actually works better. Good to know.
Divide up chores in a way that plays to individual people’s strengths rather than keeps track of even-ness. If you are happy doing certain tasks like folding laundry, don’t demand evenness just because. Have a family meeting to find the things each member doesn’t mind doing, talk about how to divide up the rest.
Model collaboration Usually we want to get chores done to do something else that’s more fun and often it is more fun with each other. Show cause and effect: If we’re all working on this it will get done faster and we can do something else.
Be appreciative even if it’s what the person was supposed to do. You say thank you at the drive-through when you are handed your meal. It would be rude not to. Just because your family is not on the payroll, doesn’t mean you can’t be grateful for their efforts. Noticing the good will make it happen more.
Exaggerate the moment to absurdity You’d like to have perspective, but sometimes you have to take a detour. First exaggerate and embellish the scene in your head. Flood yourself with it: I guess I’m married to a lazy louse who never ever wants to help out with anything, ever and doesn’t care about me at all. In the vast majority of situations, blowing up the situation in your mind will sound ridiculous and the fever will break. You may chuckle, come to your senses, and ask for help.
Scorekeep your own soul Rather than keeping score between you, keep score within you: How good are you being to your partner? When you are generous that creates a good feeling within you right away, and your partner tends to want to reciprocate. Reciprocation is much better than scorekeeping. When you feel grateful and loved there’s no end to that upward spiral.
Seeing you keep the scorekeeping out of your relationship, your kids will do the same. They may not jump up and down the way they do when they catch you with a double standard, but copy they will, and the rewards to your soul as well as theirs will be very great indeed.
Share these approaches with your family and then encourage each other to adopt these ideas for the greater good. And if you really, really need to hold on to that last vestige of competition and score keeping — you could keep track of who is doing better at not keeping score, but for best results, you probably want to keep that information to yourself.