Let me tell you a story. I have a feeling many, married couples could tell you a very similar tale. You can substitute details, but it’s not all that different between couples who keep score.
Early on in our marriage, my wife and I squabbled about really stupid stuff. She was in college while working part time and I was working full time, making little money at a job I’d taken after graduation. We were a young, newly married couple trying to enjoy our time while figuring out how to start a real, adult life together. It felt like we were in limbo between two significant stages. Dive bar Saturday nights were still very important, but so was figuring out how to start a savings account when we were, for all practical purposes, broke.
If life were all fun and games, it might by easy to sail through it — and our relationships — without keeping score. But life isn’t all fun and games for most people and some of us get caught up in the nuances.
We began to bicker about who was doing what chores, who had more time to do additional stuff, and who had it worse. I was working 60+ hours weeks at a shitty job that didn’t pay nearly what I thought I was worth. But I had benefits like health insurance that we needed, so it was a given I’d be there at least until she finished college. She was working 30 hours a week for $11 an hour while going to school full time.
In retrospect, life was actually pretty easy. We didn’t have kids, so we weren’t responsible for anyone. We lived in an apartment, so we had no mortgage and no obligations for the place other than keeping it clean. We had a few paid off cars that were reliable.
But Goddamn it if she wasn’t sick of doing the laundry when she came home exhausted after a long day while I sat on the couch and watched TV. But I had a long day and I was exhausted, too. I worked hard. I deserved to watch TV if I wanted to watch TV. Poor me! So after hearing about this great injustice one too many times, I began making a mental list of my very important and valuable contributions to our marriage, like making dinner a few nights a week.
The next time she brought it up, I was ready. I launched into my list. And wouldn’t you know, she came right back with a longer list of what she did for us. So I of course did the dumb thing and spent more mental energy on my ongoing list. We went back and forth like this for a few months. A small gripe or even a reasonable request — “Could you please start a load of laundry while I pay bills?” — would turn into a real argument
We got caught up in a nice tit for tat war. One day I was bitching to an unmarried buddy of mine who looked at me and said, “That sounds stupid. Why don’t you just do some more shit and then she won’t have anything to bitch about? It sounds like she’s pretty busy right now with finals and work.”
So I tried it. In fact, I put effort into doing even more than her, checking boxes off my carefully constructed mental list. I also began to notice more. I realized she was up every night studying for hours after I went to bed. She always folded my clothes and put them away for me. How nice! She did our grocery shopping. Maybe her list really was longer than mine.
We stopped arguing over nonsense. She was appreciative. I was happy. And it turns out, she couldn’t have cared less about me sitting around and watching TV when I generally cared enough to pitch in most of the time.
For a while, I did more than her… if we were keeping score. And then she graduated and had the summer off and she did more than me… if we were keeping score.
What I learned early on is that marriage is real life, and real life means there are times when one half of the couple is capable of pitching in more than the other half. And then other times, that situation reverses itself. Instead of keeping score, if both people realize that it’s not always going to work out with a nice 50-50 split, life is easier. Sometimes you’ll do more. Sometimes she’ll do more. In the end, it usually evens out… if you’re keeping score.
Major life changes or challenges remind me that marriage is not about keeping score. When we bought our first house, she was in grad school and worked part time. I had a better full time job than I did before, but I picked up a second job to save extra cash. Still, I knew I had more free time, so I picked up the slack.
When we had our first kid several years later, the burdens of life fell much more squarely on her shoulders. I had a great job by then, but I worked a lot and I was out of town often. She was worn out, tired, hormonal, learning how to be a new mom while working, and felt like the majority of the hard stuff was falling on her. The truth is that it was. She was up all night with a screaming baby and I was sleeping in 5-star hotels after having room service delivered. But that’s how it goes. It shifted to a more balanced place later.
We’ve thrived though the ups and downs of marriage because we stopped tallying everything. If you’re a decent guy and you’re married to a decent woman — and you’re both committed to staying married — you really do want what’s best for each other because in the end, that’s what’s best for you. So get rid of the score card.