“Relationships are about give-and-take.” You've probably heard this saying before; it's one of the most common relationship pieces of advice. But is it true? Well, that's a more complicated question requiring a longer answer. While it is true that relationships are about a natural flow between two people of giving and receiving, some people interpret this factor to mean that relationships should be fifty-fifty. And since that's rarely the reality, one person starts keeping score in an attempt to match up.
This article will dive deeper into this phenomenon and explain precisely why keeping score in a relationship isn't helpful and prevents closeness.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
What Does It Mean to Keep Score in a Relationship?
Before we get started, let’s get on the same page and briefly review this behavior. Behavioral science shows that the practice of keeping score in a relationship could have had an evolutionary value, arising from protective instincts. In earlier times, our safety, shelter, and food largely depended on being accepted and belonging to a social group. To avoid isolation, humans sought to maintain status in their social group—what better way to establish our place than by demonstrating our value?
However, nowadays, things are dramatically different so what does it mean to keep score in modern relationships?
Typically, our primary stressors are not about survival anymore; we do not have the same threats as our predecessors. Therefore, keeping score in modern-day relationships is more likely a behavior asserted in an imbalance of contribution or a symptom of the power dynamic. For example, a person in a relationship seeks to prove they're "right" and their partner is "wrong."
However, keeping score is an unhelpful habit based on unrealistic expectations that can set you up for decreased intimacy and increased conflict.
Why Keeping Score Is Setting You Up to Fail
1 - It puts you on opposing sides.
Keeping score turns your relationship into a competition. But instead of playing with your partner, you're now playing against them. You're on opposite sides, thinking that only one of you can win. Instead of feeling at ease with each other, there’s a looming reminder of your competition. And how could you expect to have a healthy, loving relationship when everything is a competition?
To shift this dynamic, change how you look at things. Don't think of your partner as an opponent; think of them as your teammate. And, more importantly, try to find ways to be a better team together. When you're both feeling tired, think of new ways to support one another. For example, instead of insisting it's your partner's turn to wash the dishes, find a better way to deal with this task. For instance, save and invest in a dishwasher to load the dishes together, using the saved time toward something more nurturing for your relationship.
Related reading: "How to Have Difficult Conversations with Your Spouse—Successfully!"
2. In love, your partner's happiness is your happiness, right?
If you continue competing with your partner, their win will mean your loss. Therefore, this competition can translate as their happiness being your defeat. So, if your partner gets good news, you might withhold your joy for them. That creates distance and resentment in a relationship, neither of which supports a positive relationship.
In his studies, renowned marriage expert John Gottman found that many relationships end when partners cannot connect and bond over each other's positive news. These are what he refers to as "disaster couples." Learn from Gottman's research and invest in your relationship success. Acknowledge and celebrate each other's achievements every day, even the smallest ones, to nurture a loving relationship. Build empathy and understanding into your everyday interactions.
3. Keeping score prevents you from listening.
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where your partner suggests a shared activity and, instead of being open to their suggestion, you shut them down immediately? For instance, your partner wants to cuddle up on a sofa to watch your favorite show together, but you're exhausted and can't wait to go to bed. Instead of talking about your evening and seeking to understand their perspective, you defensively list all the things you've done that day and why you're so tired. That's another version of keeping score in a relationship.
When you're not listening to your partner, you don't hear the reasoning behind their suggestions—or acknowledge their needs. If your partner feels ignored, the fact that you worked hard all day won't make them feel better. And neither will your insistence that you're not ignoring them and their needs. Actions speak louder.
Related reading: "The Best Marriage Advice: An Intentional Marriage Is a Happy Marriage."
Try to communicate better. The next time you're in a dispute with your spouse, and they ask for something, pay close attention to what they're trying to say. (Sometimes, we can fill our minds with how we’re going to respond, which hinders listening.) If possible, take your partner’s suggestion to heart. There's a huge possibility it will pay off by creating more closeness and understanding!
4. It's impossible to track everything.
Another reason why keeping score in a relationship doesn't work is that you can't track everything accurately. There are so many variables at play! And when your attention is focused on who does what, you're not creating a loving connection.
Moreover, people often have different scoring systems because they don't value the same things. For instance, your partner's love language is quality time while yours is receiving gifts. If you get a watch for your birthday from your partner it might be perfect for you, but suppose you also buy your partner jewelry for their birthday. If they're wanting quality time together, such as a dinner date, they might feel you're not considering what matters to them.
This is a tricky game of trying to keep score in a relationship. Don't play it! Keep care, not score.
What If You Feel You Can't Stop Keeping Score
Some people keep a score out of spite and frustration. Others do it out of anxiety and fear that the other person doesn't care. While it's true that the relationship can't always be fifty-fifty, it is not healthy for it to be ninety-ten all the time either. If you're one of those people constantly comparing sides and measuring your partner's reciprocity, it might be hard for you to stop tracking.
However, put the health and vitality of your relationship as the goal. Communicate your concerns about inequality to your partner. Make sure you make your feelings clear from the beginning (in a non-accusatory tone) and work on this balance together.
Sometimes, scorekeeping disappears over time as you make love more important, and sometimes the conflict and competition can worsen, depending on how you deal with them. Healthy boundaries are key to a happy and healthy relationship.
If you're thinking of taking the next step in your relationship, such as moving in together or tying the knot, scorekeeping can creep up due to the added commitment. Make sure you are ready for it! Check in with your feelings and listen to yourself. Then, discuss the reasons for any uneasiness with your partner. Open dialogue and mindful communication in a relationship will often iron out misunderstandings and increase closeness.
Keeping score in a relationship can cause troubles between you and your partner that are avoidable. However, remember that giving up scorekeeping doesn't mean you should be silent or accept disrespectful treatment either. To feel like you're giving more than you're receiving in a relationship doesn’t feel good, and if that's how you're feeling right now, it's a good idea to talk about it.
Learning to resolve conflict and honor differences are vital for every successful relationship.
If you like support from a relationship coach for marriage counseling, check out Heartmanity's Drama-Free Marriage resources.
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