Symmetry Counseling

An unhealthy phenomenon in many long-term intimate relationships is the tendency to keep score. It is not so much keeping score that is the problem but that when partners do keep score, they tend to unfairly focus on the negative. Rarely in couple therapy, my line of work, do I hear couples delineate all the good, loving, or wonderful things that their partners did in a certain week. Most often, I hear a list of all the things a partner did not do or things he or she did that were insufficient or hurtful.

The habit of keeping score has evolutionary merit and develops from an instinct for self-protection. Back in the day, our survival depended on belonging to a social group that could protect and provide for us. We needed to stay in good standing with our social group or risk abandonment and death. Thus, we developed the very human strategy of proving our merit or worth in order to convince our group members that we belong and do not deserve to get kicked out.

The problem with score-keeping in modern relationships is that our partners are almost always not threatening us with abandonment or death. Usually they are simply pointing something out that they would like us to change or expressing a difference of opinion. Keeping score often appears in escalated conflict when a basic instinct is triggered in both partners to prove one’s “rightness” to the other. While trying to prove our “rightness”, we often take equal efforts to prove our partner’s “wrongness”.

This is not a healthy survival strategy in modern relationships, and it is impossible to win. The act of keeping score inhibits your ability to empathize with your partner and threatens to foster resentment in your relationship. Because scorekeeping is biased, everyone has a different system they use to catalog what is deemed good or bad. Your partner will poke holes in your argument and come back with what he or she thinks is a superior score. Instead of trying to understand your partner’s feelings or point-of-view, you probably reciprocate by finding flaws in your partner’s argument, and so the cycle continues.

To save our relationships and respect our partners, we need to rewire ourselves, take a step back, and not always assume there is a threat. Instead of keeping score with a negative lens, try the following:

  1. Acknowledge your partner’s point of view and accept that a difference of opinion does not make you “right” and your partner “wrong”. Do not respond with, “I get what you’re saying….but”. There are no but’s! Listen to and understand your partner’s perspective, and gently correct any misguided assumptions.
  2. When you first notice yourself becoming angry or frustrated, pause the conversation and take a moment to assess your goal in speaking. Is it to:
    1. Defend yourself;
    2. Criticize your partner;
    3. Share your feelings;
    4. Try to understand your partner?

    If you discover that your goal is to defend yourself or criticize your partner, it is time to call a time-out and resume the conversation when you are calmer and more clear-headed.

  3. When sharing your feelings, be clear and own your perspective. It helps to use “I” statements, like I feel judged when you loudly clean the dishes while I watch TV or I feel underappreciated when I feel like I have to plan all of our dates.
  4. If you want to make a request for change from your partner, be straightforward with what you need. Skip the part where you might criticize your partner’s normal way of doing things or passive aggressively pointing out something that your partner forgot to do. For example, there is a big difference in how your partner will most likely respond if you say, You never clean the bathroom! vs. Can you please help me with some chores this weekend? Changing habits takes time, and things will go a lot more smoothly if you support your partner and remain clear about what it is you want done differently (and do not forget to tell your partner how much his or her change will mean to you).
  5. If your partner falls into the scorekeeping strategy and begins pointing out things you did not do or did incorrectly (from his or her point-of-view), instead of defending yourself or counterattacking, own up to your transgressions and apologize. Accepting responsibility is an effective antidote to keeping score. It helps your partner cool down and gives both of you an opportunity to reconnect over a source of past resentment.
  6. Remember to keep score of the positive! We all keep score to some degree, and it is impossible to completely turn off this self-protective instinct. However, you owe it to your partner to track the things he or she gives you, some of which are abstract and may be harder to tally, rather than only keeping score of his or her faults and perceived shortcomings. Challenge yourself to change from automatic me-thinking to conscious we-thinking. Heighten your awareness of the positive things your partner brings to your life, and be more active about showing appreciation for those things to your partner. This helps balance the human instinct to focus on the negative, and it increases the positive interactions between romantic partners.

People naturally have different acceptable standards of living and expectations in relationships. It is normal for this to conflict between you and your partner. Do not ignore it and let the problem fester while you feel unacknowledged and resentful. Do not attack your partner and lay out your inner scorecard. Be courageously vulnerable and share your concerns while respectfully asking your partner for help.

Giving up scorekeeping is not a call to be silent or readily accept poor treatment. It feels bad to feel like you are giving more than you are receiving in your relationship, and if that is your current position, it is helpful to talk about it. It is something that needs to be addressed.

Author: Meghan Emerson, MSMFT