When I was engaged, I came across a great piece of advice for maintaining a happy marriage. It was short, sweet, and made a lot of sense: Don’t keep score.
Clearly! This is a marriage, not a soccer game. A scoresheet is a breeding ground for resentment and bad feeling, and competitive spouses don’t make for a healthy marriage. Best if both partners give selflessly. I quickly subscribed to the advice and happily passed it along to others.
The problem is, however, from the beginning of my marriage until, well, yesterday, I haven’t been able to follow my own advice. I keep keeping score. Early on it was: Is he putting as much work into our relationship as I am? and When was the last time we visited my family? Now that the kids have come along, it’s: Hang on, when’s the last time he changed a dirty diaper? and When was the last time I had a break?
Now more than ever, I value the advice I can’t seem to follow. When I find myself keeping score, my mood plunges. Or is it that when my mood plunges, I start keeping score? Either way, it’s decided: Keeping score is miserable. As they say, there is never a winner, only two losers.
So, as I work toward a new status as a recovering score-keeper, and strive to be a better wife who deserves the wonderful husband I have, there are a few things I’m learning to keep in mind.
01. Make sure you’re being fair: Keep score in his favor
In The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, Shaunti Feldhahn points out that in her research, the happiest couples keep score in each other’s favor. She writes, “These spouses are very aware of what their mates are doing and giving, of how hard their spouses are working to support the family, or how much they try to be good partners.”
When my mind wanders into score-keeping mode, it’s usually because I’m feeling overwhelmed. I might notice my husband has had a break to go for a run or maybe do some reading while I’ve been cleaning and making dinner. Then, ding, ding, I notice I’m up at least two, and the resentment hits me like a line drive to the face.
But if I’m lucky, a little spirit of generosity might touch me, and I’ll take a second look at his score. I might think of how early Kyle got up for work that morning. I might remember seeing the light from his phone as he dug through his sock drawer in the dark so I could sleep in. I’ll think of that time he even went to work with mismatched shoes. Cutie. My mood will soften. Then I might remember how he asked me to look at the budget but I never did. I’m used to him taking on all the responsibility and absorbing all the stress for my least favorite thing in the world. His score goes up. Then after noticing me huffing around the kitchen, he might scoop the ever-climbing toddler off the counter and say, “Honey, do you want to take a break? Why don’t you go take a bath?” Suddenly, he’s making a comeback. He is the high scorer. He is the best husband in the world. From the tub I resolve to stop keeping score. For good!
02. Be careful not to brood, overgeneralize, or criticize
Of course, when we find ourselves keeping score and can’t shake the feeling that something really is off, we need to address our feelings. If you’re anything like me, after stewing silently for too long, you’re going to boil over. In these times, however, it is critical to be careful of the way we manage and communicate our feelings (as I’ve learned from experience).
One especially stressful Saturday with the kids, I felt my score was getting too high. After brooding and growing resentful, I made the mistake of telling Kyle across a room strewn with toys and half-dressed kids, “I feel like I’m doing this all alone!” Not one to exaggerate for effect himself, Kyle heard something different: “I am doing this all alone.” My overgeneralizing didn’t go over very well. He felt like I sized him up and decided he came up short. Of course, all I really meant was, “I need a break.” And that’s all I needed to say.
Another useless approach to getting more from a spouse is the commentary one person calls feedback and the other calls criticism. “Criticism is an utter failure at getting positive behavior change,” writes relationship expert Dr. Steven Stosny, because it “calls for submission” and “devalues,” two things human beings hate. When criticism escalates over time, Stosny explains, it can lead to a “downward spiral of resentment.” Umm, no thanks. While it’s tempting to criticize when we need more from our spouses, it just won’t end well.
03. Communicate and work like a team of equals
So what works best for establishing healthy give-and-take in a relationship? Cooperation. Stosny explains that while people hate to submit, we actually like to cooperate. “The valued self cooperates; the devalued self resists.”
Spouses just have to be a team of equals, which means we have to respect each other’s dignity as partners. It means we strive to be generous with our time, offer compliments and I-love-yous, ask for help without blaming. It means we don’t pointedly re-fold laundry piles or devalue contributions. It means we are open and loving in our interactions and think the best of each other even when we’re stressed or feel let down.
Just last night, I found myself pouring out my score-keeping heart to my husband. He listened understandingly (did I mention he’s not a score-keeper?), then carefully explained some of his own recent experience. I was surprised to learn, again, how conscientiously and diligently he has been working for our family lately. And just as importantly, I was reminded that he thinks of my happiness all the time. All the time!
He is not just my partner—my capable, hard-working, committed partner—he is also my love. And he, like so many husbands and partners, wants more than anything to have a happy life with his wife. How do you score that? You can’t. So you don’t. You consider yourself blessed and keep on with the joy and work of marriage.