It was the bottom of the ninth in Game Seven of the 1960 World Series. The Pittsburgh Pirates had put up a respectable fight, going further than any sports writer could have predicted. But now it was time for them to lose and the infamous New York Yankees. Or so everyone thought. Second baseman Bill Mazeroski hit a homerun to clinch the win. His play is widely considered one of the most memorable home runs in baseball history, and it is the only walk-off home run to finish a World Series championship in the final game.
In sports, we love a close game. We love a lot of back and forth, lots of victories and losses, culminating in a nail-biting finale. And it’s the scores and the competition that give us those highs and lows. But in a marriage, keeping score isn’t so fun. In fact, scorekeeping in marriage often leads to everybody losing.
Let’s talk about the meaning of scorekeeping in marriage and psychology, why it’s easy to do, why scorekeeping doesn’t work, and what to do instead.
What is scorekeeping in a relationship?
Scorekeeping or point scoring in a relationship is the act of tracking who does what in an effort to keep the marriage fair. By tallying your and your spouse’s good deeds, you hope to ensure that each of you do a similar amount of things for the relationship and the family.
Here are some examples of keeping score in a relationship: Empty the dishwasher? That’s a point. Bring in the bigger paycheck? Point. Put the kids down for a nap? Another point. Plan a vacation? More points.
When you love your spouse, and when you believe that we are “obligated to help one another as equal partners,” as The Family: A Proclamation to the World states, scorekeeping can look like a straightforward way to cultivate egalitarianism. Point scoring can measure reciprocity and determine whether your relationship has that perfect 50/50 split.
Scorekeeping isn’t just easy to do; it may make evolutionary sense. According to Symmetry Counseling, our survival was once contingent on belonging to a group that could protect and provide for us. By keeping score, we prove our own merit and worth to secure our spot and safety in the group.
Why do psychologists caution couples against scorekeeping?
While scorekeeping may be simple and natural, psychologists warn against scorekeeping. When you keep score in marriage, you tend to admire yourself for doing a lot while accusing your spouse of doing too little, suggests Elizabeth Earnshaw in her Fatherly article. By casting yourself as the martyr and your spouse as the villain, you create feelings of entitlement and resentment.
Unlike a baseball game, marriage rules are rarely discussed. And, even if they are, priorities and values are never exactly the same for both spouses. This inherent disagreement about what matters most, what tasks are most difficult, and what deserves the most praise makes scorekeeping in marriage all the more dangerous. Keeping a ledger becomes a lose-lose game.
“In a marriage intended to be celestial, however, there is no point in keeping score. Your goal as a unit is to bring yourself and your family back into the presence of God. This often requires work that cannot be split 50-50. … The partnership is equal; at times the work may not be.”
How to stop scorekeeping in marriage
Now that we’ve established that keeping tally isn’t good for your relationship, here are four tips on how to stop keeping score in marriage.
1. Be more grateful.
If you’re in the habit of counting all the things your spouse isn’t doing for your marriage, try counting the things your spouse is doing. By developing an attitude of gratitude, you can remind yourself of the reasons you love your partner and rid yourself of many of the negative feelings you may have developed towards your spouse–including resentment.
In his book Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit, Dutch Catholic priest Henri J. M. Nouwen argued that the opposite of resentment is gratitude. He wrote:
“Moving away from resentment requires moving toward something more life giving, and that something is the attitude of gratitude. Resentment blocks action; gratitude lets us move forward toward new possibilities. Resentment makes us cling to negative feelings; gratitude allows us to let go. … Resentment entangles us in endless distractions, pulling us down to banal preoccupations. Gratitude anchors our deepest self beyond this world and allows us to be involved without losing ourselves.”
How can you be more grateful in our marriage? Learn five ways to practice gratitude in marriage here.
2. Divide and conquer.
If you started scorekeeping because you feel like your relationship is out of balance, talk to your spouse. While there’s no way to achieve a perfect 50/50 split and distribute all tasks with perfect fairness, there may be ways for you and your partner to rearrange how you do things to make both of you happier.
Consider holding regular family counsels to establish a structure and some joint expectations. Are there things that must be done in the relationship and family each week? How can you work together to complete tasks and achieve goals?
By discussing your to-do lists and aspirations honestly and openly, you help your spouse understand the things that matter to you and can work together as a team. You can also help each other see the work that the other is putting in, making it easier to recognize and appreciate each other.
3. Set some boundaries.
In a relationship, boundaries are limits you set to protect your physical, emotional, and intellectual wellbeing. These limits can be things you choose to do or not to do to show yourself and your spouse love and respect.
In Earnshaw’s Fatherly article, mentioned earlier, she gives a few examples of boundaries:
“If you feel resentful every time you pick up after your partner, stop picking up after them. Or if you quietly cancel your Friday afternoon art class because your partner sprung something on you at the last minute, don’t cancel,” Earnshaw wrote. “[Having a boundary] is saying, ‘Hey I can’t be the only one picking the kids up. We need to come up with a new solution.’”
No matter what your boundaries, it’s important you talk about them with your partner. After all, how can you expect your spouse not to cross a line if they don’t even know there’s a line?
4. Develop more charity.
Charity is “the pure love of Christ,” characterized by the traits described in these Book of Mormon verses:
“Charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” (Moroni 7:45)
In marriage, charity can be an antidote to scorekeeping because it’s “the opposite of criticism and judging,” according to President Thomas S. Monson. It “manifests itself when we are tolerant of others and lenient toward their actions”—a necessary virtue as we abandon the tally. By seeing our spouse as God sees them, we are less likely to judge and put ourselves above them. Rather, we feel encouraged to work with our spouse and see the good in them.
To learn about developing charity, check out this blog post.
All is fair in love and not keeping score
As much as we’d like to feel like an all star like Bill Mazeroski, we can’t get there competing with our spouse. Scorekeeping can lead to conflict and contention–both sure-fire ways to strike out in our partnership. Rather than tallying up our good deeds and focusing on our spouse’s bad, it’s important to work as a team. By developing the Christlike attributes of gratitude (humility) and charity, by setting clear expectations, and by establishing boundaries, you can banish scorekeeping from your marriage and become each other’s helpmeets.
For more on scorekeeping, listen to our podcast episode.
Need a reminder to give your all rather than holding back until things are “fair”? Consider hanging David Habben’s “This Much I Give, This Much I Keep” on your wall. In the piece, Habben explores how we struggle to be vulnerable with God in prayer. The work prompts us to remember how we’re the ones that suffer when we withhold from Heavenly Father–and in this case, our spouse.