Sex

It's Actually Kind of Fine to ‘Keep Score’ in Relationships

Experts say it's natural to be aware of differences in the amount of effort each partner is putting in.
April 29, 2021, 3:19pm
Cropped shot of a young couple having an argument at home
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When it comes to sports, I’m not particularly adept at scorekeeping. Have you ever looked at a baseball box score? Utterly inscrutable. The only reason I know how bad I did at the bowling alley is that the little TV does the math for you.

In relationships though? I have historically kept much closer score. Lots of people do—the question of “scorekeeping” in relationships comes up over and over, from r/relationships to PBS to wellness blogs to advice columns. People scorekeep about all kinds of stuff: chores, childcare, who picks up the tab at dinner, which partner initiates sex. Some of us keep score of how much time is spent alone versus together, or which partner’s friends and family members you’ve been seeing more often. 

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Experts typically tell readers and letter-writers that scorekeeping in a relationship is bad and to cut it out immediately, which makes sense. After all, if you’re keeping score, that means there’s going to be a winner and a loser, which is a state to be avoided in a relationship at all costs. The prevailing blogger/columnist logic often goes that relationships are inherently unequal things, and you shouldn’t keep score because it’s never going to be 50/50. 

Jennifer Vencill, a psychologist and sex therapist at the Mayo Clinic, told VICE that some level of “scorekeeping” is just standard human behavior. In relationship therapy, issues of equality and equity come up all the time. “It’s normal for us to perceive differences in what we’re doing versus what our partners are doing,” she said.

You very well may be doing more than your partner—and in some cases, keeping score can help ensure that you’re getting the support you need and deserve in your relationship. For example, “In terms of perceived inequity—if we’re talking in straight, cisgender relationships—gender differences between household division of labor are huge, historically,” Vencill said.

Women in straight relationships still end up doing a lot of the work around the house, whether it’s dishes or child care. There’s a name for this unequal phenomenon—the second shift—in which women work all day, then come home and do housework all night. Vencill says while those roles have shifted to become slightly more equitable over time, “we are not at parity.” Some have even argued that telling women not to scorekeep is inherently sexist, noting that this running tally is one way to ensure you’re being supported in your partnership. 

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Jeremy Tyler, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and director with Penn’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, told VICE he’s not sure scorekeeping in relationships is always a bad thing. One reason it could be happening is because there’s a mismatch in your relationship. 

That doesn’t mean between you as people—Tyler is talking about a mismatch in your communication style, or a difference in your love languages (the way you show love to one another). “Acts of service is one way that people show love,” he said, “And for some people, they also need to receive love in that way.” 

It could also be a discrepancy in your expectations of one another. Maybe there’s a misunderstanding about what constitutes a “clean” home, or maybe one partner tends to buy thoughtful gifts for the other more often and doesn’t feel like that’s being reciprocated. In any case, Tyler noted that change is going to be a matter of “compromise and communication—the two things that are necessary to any healthy relationship.” 

And that’s where this can start to become a bigger problem.

Keeping score may not necessarily be bad, but there’s a point at which—if that communication and compromise isn’t happening—it spills over from the occasional mental note or a general awareness of things like division of labor or who tends to pay for dinner into toxic levels of “you’re not measuring up in this way.” 

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Let’s say it’s about who does the dishes. At some point, instead of realizing, “I’ve done the dishes every day this week,” it becomes a perceived slight, a matter of “I always do the dishes,” or “they’ve never done the dishes.” 

Vencill said all-or-nothing langage like this can indicate that you’re in the danger zone—and it often gets to this point because the scorekeeper hasn’t learned healthy communication skills, which is fairly common and nothing to be ashamed of. “If they’re at a place where it’s driving them to be very stressed, or very upset, that’s telling me that they don’t know how to express their needs in a healthy way,” Vencill said. “Or they’re trying to express their needs in a healthy way and not being met with interest.”

That type of passive or passive-aggressive communication style can lead to sarcastic barbs: Wow, thanks so much for actually picking up the tab for once. A truly passive communicator might not say anything at all, instead simply stewing as resentment grows for weeks or months. 

“Either way, what starts to happen—and why this scorekeeping behavior is so toxic—is we enter into a sort of confirmation bias,” Vencill said. Once our brains have established the pattern of negative thinking, we become much more likely to only notice the bad things our partner is doing. You start to miss the counterbalancing behavior—e.g., the three days in a row they did the dishes while you were having a tough work week—because it doesn’t fit the pattern. “That’s something we know our brains do—we tend to automatically focus more on negative things,” Vencill said.

Once established, it takes time to emerge from our entrenched roles. In Vencill’s practice, one of the first things she does is reframe the relationship as a team-based approach. “The people we love are not supposed to be our enemies, but scorekeeping implies that they’re down and you’re up,” she said. She tries to get couples out of a “me-versus-you mindset,” and instead encourages them to think “it’s us against the world, not against each other.”

One thing that helps is to cut out any criticisms of your partner’s character when you’re bringing up concerns about inequalities. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help or assert yourself! You should be able to talk about things that are upsetting you or stressing you out—again, this is a team. But when you're tempted to criticize your partner for not doing enough, think about rephrasing what you want to say so it's a request for assistance, or a statement about how you're feeling or what you need.

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Instead of saying, “You literally never clean the kitchen and it’s pissing me off,” try framing it as, “Hey, can you help me out for a second? Things have been really hard for me at work today and I could use a hand with this.” 

“That’s a really different way of actually stating what you need instead of lashing out at the other person,” Vencill said. She pointed to the 5 to 1 ratio—the idea that in relationships, it takes at least five positive interactions to counteract a single negative one.

If you’re the one receiving criticism, try not to react with defensiveness or the tally you’ve been keeping in your head. “That’s an automatic reaction for many of us,” Vencill explained, “to get our hackles up or sling a criticism right back.” It's important to own up when you’ve dropped the ball—literally, you can try replying with something like, “Sorry, I know things have been really difficult for you at work this week, and I didn’t mean to drop the ball.” 

Sometimes, the problem is deeper than the pile of dishes in the sink. Tyler noted that when someone likes things done in a certain way, and when they aren’t done in that way, it might be causing the “scorekeeper” to feel anxiety. “Tally-keeping can be wrapped up in feeling—or not feeling—loved and supported,” he said. Maybe feeling as though your partner wants to spend more time alone instead of together is bringing up abandonment issues, which are compounding the stress and increasing the magnitude of the conflict. Or maybe the partner is regularly dropping the ball in some pretty fundamental and possibly dealbreaker ways, and it’s time for a bigger conversation about what needs to change.

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If you’ve been communicating your needs openly and non-defensively and this keeps coming up, then something is going on here beyond whatever you’re keeping score about. Are they listening but misunderstanding the request? Are they hearing you and dismissing you? If yes… why?

Relationships are about compromise, and no one gets what they want all the time, but we all deserve to have our needs heard and valued. There might come a point at which you have to ask yourself whether you’re getting enough out of the relationship to justify putting more of yourself in. If you’re struggling to answer the question, or can’t seem to figure out what to do from there, therapy—either as an individual, or relationship therapy—can be helpful.

“A lot of people come to relationship therapy too late,” Vencill said. After months or years of patterns and reinforcement, of deeply entrenched feelings and confirmation bias, relationships can get to a crisis point that’s nearly impossible to come back from. 

“Don’t use it as a last resort to save the relationship or save the marriage,” Vencill said. “Even if it’s not feeling like we’re at a breaking point—nobody’s at risk of leaving this relationship, it’s not negative—there are always things we can be improving in our interactions with other people.” 

“At the end of the day, if you feel you’ve openly, non-defensively, and effectively communicated your needs to your partner and they understand but have dismissed your expressed need… it’s time to really reflect upon what’s keeping you in a relationship with a partner who does not appear to value your needs.”

Follow Em Cassel on Twitter.