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3 Signs That Scorekeeping Is Destroying Your Relationship

Harshly judging your partner blocks you from seeing the good stuff.

Keeping score, from time to time, goes on in most relationships and that is normal. This type of sporadic scorekeeping tends to be experienced as relatively harmless, fleeting thoughts. Such scorekeeping can be about things like perceived household division of labor, relative financial contributions, spending habits, time spent alone or together, or even who initiates or consents to sexual intimacy.

As, however, I describe in my relationship book, Why Can't You Read My Mind?, for those who get caught up in toxic levels of scorekeeping, here are three ways that it will likely be destructive to your loving relationship:

  • Overwhelming bad feelings: If tomorrow you buy a blue Honda (new or used), what kind of car are you going to start noticing more when you drive on the roads? You guessed it! You will be drawn to noticing blue Hondas more than ever. Similarly, if you focus on what your partner is not doing, you will only see these limitations and not look for his or her positive contributions that can increase relationship satisfaction. When my client Jody shifted from dwelling on when her husband, Brad, who often left dishes in the sink, and shifted her focus to how he recently helped plant flowers at her mother's house, she felt closer to him and emotionally lighter. Brad, sensing more gratitude and less resentment from Jody, actually started to help out more with the dishes!
  • Destructive communication: I often see frustrated scorekeeping relationship partners making mean comments, passive-aggressive digs, or tuning one another out. Destructive communication is relationship quicksand. The further you slide into it, the further down you sink! When Eric called his girlfriend, Shawna, "lazy", she responded by saying, "Oh yeah, well how about that you never put the kids to bed." This accusatory, reciprocal, negative loop of calling one another lazy, left them both feeling angry and hurt. Eric, however, happily broke this pattern by saying, "How about we both check in to see how we are making things work with getting things done instead of quarreling so much?" Shawna valued Eric urging this change in their dynamic and they started being kinder when speaking to each other.
  • Huge misunderstandings: The act of keeping score inhibits your ability to empathize with your partner and threatens to foster resentment in your relationship. This leads to misunderstandings because the process of scorekeeping is inherently biased. Antonio realized that when he would try to be empathetic to his wife, Lakesha, by saying, “I get what you mean, but ..." that this only blocked his ability to be empathetic. Lakesha and Antonio ultimately learned to focus on acknowledging each other's perspectives and this helped correct their misguided assumptions.

Cut Out the Criticisms

How you make a request to your partner will go a long way in shaping the kind of response you get back. For example, saying, "You never clean the kitchen!" is a lot different from saying, "Can you please help me with getting some things done around the house this weekend?" Being mindful of your urges to use negative words and tone, and then alternatively being kind, really makes relationships feel more positively connected.

OK, But What if She or He Criticizes Me?

If your partner begins insensitively pointing out things you did not do, while it may seem counterintuitive, resist the immediate urge to defend yourself or counterattack. Instead, own up to your oversights or shortcomings and apologize. The more you accept responsibility, the less your partner will keep trying to catch you in the scorekeeping trap. This is because owning your own mistakes helps your partner feel heard and she or he will likely then calm down. This then gives both of you an opportunity to reboot and reconnect.

Make Scorekeeping About Pointing Out The Positives

It amazes me when I counsel couples how much positive energy and love can be restored when they express appreciation to one another. So remember to keep score of the helpful things your partner does do! Tune in your awareness to the positive things your partner brings to your life, and be more active about showing gratitude for those things to your partner.

Now please bear in mind that if you are continually criticized and poorly treated in your relationship, then there is likely a more serious problem going on. Do not settle, stay quiet, or just readily accept being poorly treated. If you are routinely truly giving much more than you are receiving in your relationship, then counseling and/or re-evaluation of staying in the relationship may be necessary. Hopefully, chronic, ongoing, toxic scorekeeping can be calmly talked through and addressed. If not, it may be time to move on.

I am a psychologist with over 30 years of experience specializing in child, adolescent, couples, and family therapy. I hold a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from the State University of New York at Albany and completed my post-doctoral internship at the University of Pennsylvania Counseling Center. I have appeared on the Today Show, Court TV as an expert advisor, CBS Eyewitness News Philadelphia, 10! Philadelphia—NBC, and public radio. I have authored four books, including the highly popular 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (Perseus Books, 2015), 10 Days to a Less Distracted Child (Perseus, 2007), Why Can't You Read My Mind?, and Liking the Child You Love, Perseus, 2009).

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