Last week I was having a therapy session with a couple in their mid 30’s. Let’s call them Darron and Eunice. Darron and Eunice both work highly stressful jobs — Eunice is an attorney in Big Law and Darron works as a nurse on night shifts — and they’re parents to three kids under six. To say they are absolutely exhausted is an understatement.
In this particular session they were arguing about an issue that’s quite common in my office: Who does more for our family?
The day before our session, one of their children had gotten sick at school. The school called Darron who didn’t pick up his phone and then Eunice who did —someone needed to pick up their kid. Eunice left work and grabbed their 4-year-old daughter and brought her home. When she entered the house, she was seething with anger.
“You’re literally home right now and you didn’t even answer your phone,” she said to Darron. “I am so sick of this! Why do I do everything for our family?”
Darron, waking up from a much-needed nap after a 12-hour shift, looked at her surprised and confused. Then, he got defensive.
As the couple recounted this argument to me, they each accused the other of doing too little while admiring themselves for doing a lot. The litany sounded like this:
“I make the most money.”
“I do all of the housework.”
“I am the only one who cleans the house!”
“I keep us on schedule every day!”
“I am the only one who cares about our family social calendar!”
“Well, I am the only person who saves money!”
“So, we are arguing about who does more for the family,” I said. “You’re keeping tally?”
They both looked at me.
The Trouble With Scorekeeping
No one wants to keep score in their relationships. Yet, many of us do.
In relationships, we unconsciously give and take. When I clean the dishes I am giving you the opportunity to pick up a clean bowl from the cabinet when you are hungry. When you pick up the kids from school, I get to take advantage of some free time to take a rest and watch my favorite show. Give and take is actually one of the main advantages of having a partnership.
Within this system, however, we tend to create “entitlements.” We start to believe we are owed something because of what we’ve given — “I cleaned the dishes, so you owe it to me to vacuum the living room”; “I get the kids from school, so you owe it to me to take over at dinner time.” And so it goes.
Again, this is natural. It’s human to negotiate how we can make the activities in our home life feel fairer. When the giving and taking in the relationship is fair, there aren’t major complaints. No one comes into my office to talk about how fair things feel.
However, when things feel unfair and out of alignment, people start to keep score just like Darron and Eunice. And line items are used as ammunition in marital spats.
How to Stop Keeping Score
So how do we stop creating ledgers and create partnerships instead?
1. Make sure your partner feels seen in their efforts
Whether it’s the mental load or the financial burden, when labor is perceived as unappreciated and unfair, people will tally everything they do. To combat this, make a conscious effort to be clear with your partner that you see all of their efforts and that you appreciate them. You might think you already do this, but research shows otherwise — people tend to underestimate the importance of receiving gratitude and appreciation, and overestimate that the person will judge them for doing it too often.
2. Make your efforts obvious
This might feel like bragging. You don’t need to be theatrical about it but you do need to make sure your partner knows how much you do. It doesn’t help the relationship to be a quiet martyr. Make your work visible, especially if you’re feeling burdened by it.
3. Create better boundaries with each other — and yourself
If you’re arguing about who does more in the family, there’s likely an issue with boundaries. You’ll need to work on self boundaries — that is, having limits that you don’t cross. For example, if you feel resentful every time you pick up after your partner, stop picking up after them. Or if you quietly cancel your Friday afternoon art class because your partner sprung something on you at the last minute, don’t cancel. That’s a self boundary.
It’s also crucial to have boundaries with your partner. In practice, this means letting them know you have a stance. For example, it’s saying, “Hey I can’t be the only one picking the kids up. We need to come up with a new solution”.
4. Run your relationship like a business
No, this doesn’t mean you must be all business in every aspect of your relationship. But you do need structure, expectations, and feedback. A regular check-in will help this. Set a weekly meeting where you check in on how things are going, what needs to be redistributed, and how you can make family outcomes more productive week after week.
Scorekeeping and conflict go hand-in-hand. Instead, try to appreciate your partner, make it clear what you’re working on for the family, and set strong boundaries. You can do all of this by having clear expectations with each other and by making time to check in here and now about what needs to change. Follow this