Dear Parent Co. -
My husband and I are constantly keeping track of who does what in our family - specifically the necessary day-to-day tasks. It’s become a competition and a source of resentment when the tallies seem unbalanced. We don’t do it consciously but I know it causes problems. Is this common? How can we stop it?
Dear Habitual Scorekeeper,
Living with a running tally of who does what in your relationship is as common as, well, relationships. It often seems as if we’re hardwired to look for absolute equality in the parental responsibility realm. The thing is, it’s an impossible desire. The list of responsibilities will likely never be equal. So we’re doomed to spend our lives pissed off that we’re getting the shaft or feeling guilty that our partner is carrying more than their fair share.
Unless we work at NOT feeling that way.
According to my psychologist (who is a genius) this whole mess starts when we are kids ourselves - usually with sibling rivalry. We learn early that in order to gain the love and affection of our parents, we have to stand out and “do more” than our siblings. We start keeping track as a way to prove we deserve appreciation, recognition, love.
If you’re an only child, chances are very good that you received the memo about using competition to set yourself apart from any one of a thousand other possible sources.
When you look at the tit-for-tat situation you’ve got going on with your partner in this light, can you see what it’s really all about? My goodness, it’s still about love. You’re still doing this for appreciation. As my brilliant psychologist explains, “we’re much more willing to actually put in more to the relationship if you have the sense that you’re being acknowledged and appreciated and really understood for what you’re doing.”
This is incredibly good news; it tells me that you love your partner very much and you want him or her to love you back. It’s that simple. If you weren’t keeping track of how much you do for this person, it might indicate that you just don’t care anymore. This would be a completely different conversation if that were the case.
So let’s work from the perspective of someone who is very much in love and looking for some indication that your partner recognizes how much you love him or her. Here are a few ways you can start to change your perspective when it comes to the mental scorecard, even eventually (and with lots of practice) moving away from the habit altogether:
1) Switch roles from time to time. There is simply no better way for your partner to gain empathy for all that you do on a daily basis than to be you for a day. (Maybe two or three.) If you're the primary caregiver this will likely require that you go away for a weekend or at least an overnight.
2) Make a chore chart. Ugh… I know. But having some of your jobs, the really mundane ones, explicitly laid out is a great way to eliminate any argument surrounding them. Don’t look for your respective lists to contain the same number of duties - rather, divide your household responsibilities based on what feels fair. If there’s a big, time-consuming job that one partner doesn’t mind doing, let that count for two or three on the other side of the tally. Be sure to also include a timeline with this chart. It’s important that both partners know and agree on when this stuff is going to get done.
Follow through is HUGE here. The worst thing you could do is to establish this agreement and then fail to hold up your end of the bargain. This leads to someone feeling lied to and betrayed. Can you think of two more damaging emotions when it comes to your partnership? I can’t. Be extremely honest about what you’re willing to do when you’re crafting this list, and then be honorable.
3) Think of all the good! My guess is that you wouldn’t be asking this question if you didn’t know, in your heart, gut, core, wherever, that there is a ton of good in your relationship. Make an effort to focus on that stuff more often. Do your part to appreciate all that your partner does for you - especially the little things.
And when your partner tries to acknowledge all that your do for him or her, make sure you let that love in. We don’t all speak the same language when it comes to this stuff, but you’ll know when someone you care about is thanking you. Accept that thanks, feel that love, and then give it back twofold.