The problem with secretly keeping score

Have you ever had a relationship with someone that was always threatened by tit-for-tat “negotiations” over small things? You know, like “we ate at the restaurant you wanted to go to last time. Now it’s my turn.”

Stuff like this can be ok – IF both people have previously worked it out and openly agreed upon it. But far too often, many of us secretly keep score. And a lot of friendships and partnerships are lost to secret scorekeeping.

One of the problems is that the whole nature of modern life is one big scorecard. Everything is a transaction. You go to work and perform X duties for Y amount of money. Then you pay rent at X amount of money per month to live in Y house/apartment. Everything is measured out, and has a cost. And it’s all set for you, real simple, so you don’t have to think. It’s EASY.

And we want relationships to be easy, right? Why not take the no-haggle, contractual nature of modern living and apply it to relationships? And especially with all the time constraints many people face, that is often exactly what people plan out together: “Tuesday you’ll take the kids. Thursday evening we go out to dinner at the nice restaurant. Sunday we go fishing – how does that sound?” And so forth. As long as it’s done openly and fairly, it works.

But in a world in which somebody’s always trying to stab you in the back… you can’t count on fair. And that’s where things get ugly.

Many people in pre-industrial societies did not understand the need for money. What for? You can just work it out with your neighbors when you need something. Moreover, why would anybody need to “save” money? The concept of needing to build up a large stockpile of anything, be it food, money, weapons, or other resources, is a modern one.

We do this because we need to be prepared. For when we’re going to get cheated. For when nobody’s going to look out for us. For when we’re all alone, and need to persuade or even force somebody to listen to our cries somehow. For when we need to matter.

And we take this mentality into our personal relationships very often. And it becomes a barrier to closeness. After all, you’ve got to be able to trust somebody that you’re close to not to cheat you or stab you in the back… otherwise, you cannot get very close to them. If we want real intimacy, we must learn to be givers, to forget about secretly keeping score and thinking the worst of the other person.

Now… what if there is a problem? Speak it out. Honestly. Without holding back, without saving ammunition for later, without covering up, and, most of all – with as little resentment as possible. The sooner you come out with something, the less resentment you will feel. Even in the best relationships, problems will happen, and injustice will sometimes be felt. But the injustice won’t last if both you and the other person can count on each other to honestly voice any problems that you may have.

In order to get there, you’ve got to fulfill your end of the deal. And that means never holding a grudge with someone who cares about you. It must come out – even if it looks kind of insignificant. Little annoyances have a way of becoming big resentments.

And what if someone is secretly keeping score with me?

You have every right to call it out. To say “this is unacceptable to me, and unfair to you. I don’t want my close relationships to be this way.” Some people may be too addicted to secret scorekeeping to even see their part in it. With someone like that, nothing you ever say will be good enough, because if it’s hard for them to listen to it, they will count the experience of “having had to listen to you” in their scorebook and you will hear about it later. Do not accept this – because tolerating dysfunctional behavior over the long term without speaking out about it does not make you a better or more generous person. The more of yourself you give away, the less of “you” will be left over for you to actually give.

Do not wait until things get really bad. Nip it in the bud. If you are unsure about whether scorekeeping is going on in secret in one of your relationships, you may want to get in touch with your sense of justice and see what you find. Write stuff down, listen honestly to your thoughts, even the weirdest ones, which are there for good reason! And then, once you’re ready, bring the issue out into the open with the other person in honest good faith. And remember, though no conflict is guaranteed to succeed: nobody ever has bad intentions. 🙂

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