You’ve probably heard it said that you shouldn’t keep score in marriage. But author Shaunti Feldhahn found otherwise in researching for her latest book, The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages: The Little Things That Make a Big Difference. She found that keeping score in marriage is a good thing…if you’re keeping track of the right things. She explains how that’s possible.
Don’t Keep Score?
When Jeff and I got married, we frequently heard “Do not keep score!” And you have probably heard the admonition many times too. What people mean is that keeping a record of wrongs doesn’t work in love and marriage. And that is absolutely true. The research was stark that counting your grudges makes you unhappy and cripples any relationship.
But I discovered that Yes! couples absolutely do keep score—they just do it differently. Consciously or subconsciously, partners in highly happy marriages keep score of what they “owe” their spouses.
The Right Way to Keep Score.
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. They are highly aware of times when their mates are working longer-than-normal hours or have had a harder-than-usual time with the kids. And as a result of this hyperawareness of how much their spouses are giving, they make small but powerful adjustments.
They compensate by giving more—and they never think of it as generosity. They are so aware of what their partner has given that they feel, as many told me, “It’s the least I can do.” So here’s our secret:
Happy spouses keep track of what their mates are giving and what they need as a result, and they deliberately try to give back.
The Canoe Theory.
One friend calls it the Canoe Theory of Marriage. In their relationship, he says it’s as though he and his wife are out in a canoe trying to get across the lake. When one paddler is tipping left, the other automatically tips right so they don’t tip over.
And the impact of keeping score of the good is hard to overstate. Yes! couples trade a sense of entitlement (My spouse owes me!) for a sense of indebtedness that makes them not just willing, but eager to do whatever they can to give back and serve the other.
Here’s one everyday example I heard: For Mary, an emergency-room medical technician, work demands run in cycles. For several months, she finds herself at the hospital most waking hours. Then demands change and her hours on duty return to something more reasonable. Mary told me that during her busy weeks, her husband tries to do many of her chores around the house. So once her schedule eases, she deliberately tries to compensate by giving back in some way. When I asked her what that looked like, she shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know, exactly,” she said. “I just try to do the stuff that is meaningful to him. Like, I’ll encourage him to go hunting with his buddies. Or I’ll make him his lunch so he doesn’t have to make it. Or lots of thank-you sex—that always seems to work well!”
I had to laugh—but I heard similar reports over and over. One reason the happy couples are so happy is that instead of keeping score of how much they are doing—and feeling resentful because of it (“I can’t believe I’m doing all the laundry”)—they instinctively put more energy into keeping track of what the other person is giving.
One reason the happy couples are so happy is that instead of keeping score of how much they are doing—and feeling resentful because of it—they instinctively track what the other person is giving.
When do you keep score in marriage?
Taken with permission from The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages: The Little Things That Make a Big Difference. Shaunti Feldhahn is a bestselling author, popular public speaker, and groundbreaking researcher. This wife and mother now applies her analytical skills to illuminating those important, surprising truths that people really need to understand about each other.