Do You Keep Score in Your Relationships?
How we fall behind on relationship maintenance.
Posted Mar 19, 2016
You and your partner just argued for the umpteenth time about whose turn it is to walk the dog:
- “I walked her twice yesterday,” you point out.
- “And I walked her for three days last week,” your partner retorts.
- “Well,” you counter, “I took the kids to the doctor on Tuesday.”
And so it goes. You and your partner seem to be endlessly keeping a tally on who did what for whom, when, and at what cost of time and effort.
It’s natural for couples to bicker about the little things that get in the way of smooth relationship functioning. When you’re busy, stressed, and feel like you’re constantly struggling to keep up with the demands of daily life, you regard your partner as someone who should be able to help you. And your partner probably feels the same way.
Couples often work out a set of deals in which partners accommodate each other’s schedules, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. It just so happens that you know more about cars, so it’s your job to take the family vehicle to the shop for regular maintenance. Your partner is a great cook, so you don’t have to be the one responsible for meal prep. Both of you are pretty competent at family finances, but at tax time, you’re the one who navigates your return.
All of these divisions of labor should help keep you and your partner from having to debate who should do what for every chore. However, should one of you deviate from the contract to which you’ve informally agreed, the question becomes whether the other partner can accept the occasional lapse. You weren’t able to get around to having the car inspected: Is your partner going to regard this as an unacceptable offense? A violation of the code? Or will he or she understand that maybe it wasn’t possible for you to get it done this year, and graciously step in to get the job done instead?
Couples who constantly keep score, measuring deviations from expected performance, set themselves up for a host of bad feelings and unpleasant exchanges. We don’t tend to think of our close relationships as playing fields where parties rack up points and penalties. However, when this happens, even without conscious intent, the potential is rife for misunderstandings and arguments.
The problem of keeping score is part of relationship maintenance, the process through which a couple works on their relationship’s continuation, stability, and overall health. According to University of Illinois psychologist Brian Ogolsky and Texas State University’s Christine Gray, relationship maintenance involves a number of strategies, such as having a positive attitude; being open to talking over problems; assuring faithfulness; developing relationships with friends and affiliations; and sharing tasks. In other words, keeping your relationship healthy involves being able to deal with the social and interpersonal, as well as the nitty-gritties of managing chores in everyday life.
Couples who keep score damage their potential for healthy relationship maintenance because the very act of counting who does and who does not keep up their end of the bargain implies a lack of trust, rigidity, and negativity. Ogolsky and Gray conducted one of the few investigations of close relationships on an entirely same-sex sample who were also not the 20-year-old undergraduates so typical in many of these studies. The participants were 98 same-sex couples (39 male and 59 female) ranging in age from 18 to 60, who were in a relationship for from one to 30 years, and most of whom were living together.
The study used a daily diary method, which captures the nuances of how a couple relates to each other in real life, rather than through retrospection. Ogolsky and Gray asked participants to report at the end of every 24 hours whether they had a disagreement that day, what their level of negative emotion was, and how constructively they communicated with each other. To measure relationship maintenance, the researchers posed 20 yes-no statements, such as: “My partner listened to what I had to say” and “My partner was fun to be with.” As an additional control, the researchers asked participants to provide a daily 1-to-5 rating of relationship satisfaction. Thus, the researchers were able to track the associations as they occurred virtually in real time among the factors related to relationship maintenance.
All other things being equal, a couple that engages in frequent disputes should have lower ratings on relationship maintenance. However, if they approach their disagreements from a positive vantage point (or at least not from a negative one) and they’re able to communicate about the disagreement without venom, then the question is whether they can mitigate against those disputes. The test of this hypothesis in the Ogolsky and Gray study involved constructing a statistical formula to predict relationship maintenance from a combination of negative emotion, frequency of conflicts, relationship satisfaction, and quality of communication.
The results pointed to the important role of emotion and communication in relationship maintenance. Couples that experienced high levels of conflict felt more negatively on a daily basis, which in turn led them to report that their partners were lower in relationship maintenance attempts. The more the couple communicated constructively, though, the weaker this relationship.
What was particularly intriguing about the findings was the extent to which emotion factored into the equation: When couples were feeling angry toward their partners, they were more likely to approach communication in a less constructive fashion, which in turn eroded the perception that their partners were working to build the health of the relationship:
"Negative sentiment override operates such that individuals enter conflicted interactions with negative expectations (i.e., of partners’ behavior and intentions as well as the interaction), individuals’ negative affect and arousal prior to interactions reflects this anticipation of negativity, and individuals perceive partners’ behavior surrounding conflict in ways consistent with this anticipated negativity” (p. 177).
That’s a lot of negativity in one sentence. What it means: When you expect bad things to happen with your partner, they do, and the more they happen the more your negative emotions build upon themselves.
The authors point out that given the same-sex couple composition of the sample, the partners may in some ways be under more stress than heterosexual couples. They can face discrimination from a world that may not be accepting of their status, including members of their extended families. These social pressures could draw them closer to each other, but could also heighten whatever emotional tension they experience from within their relationship.
Whether facing such external challenges or not, when you keep score, you often set the stage for greater negativity to develop between you and your partner. Vigilant for violations of "the rules" by your partner, you will be far less likely to cut him or her the sort of slack all couples need to in order to foster a harmonious emotional environment.
To sum up: Toss the scoreboard if you want your relationship to be maintained to its fullest positive emotional potential. You may not always be taking as much as you give, but in the long run, it won’t matter as much as your overall feelings of fulfillment.
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Ogolsky, B. G., & Gray, C. R. (2016). Conflict, negative emotion, and reports of partners’ relationship maintenance in same-sex couples. Journal Of Family Psychology, 30(2), 171-180. doi:10.1037/fam0000148
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016