Love and the Ledger
March 9th, 2011

There are places where it’s appropriate to keep score.  Sports games.  Debate matches.  Grade point averages.  But not marriages, right?  Mostly right, I think.  A standard understanding of psychology and marriage tells us that keeping score within a relationship is a bad idea; that the tit-for-tat approach only leads to bitterness and hurt feelings.  Nevertheless, I contend that it still goes on, and with good purpose.

A tweet from Gretchen Rubin turned me onto this Wall Street Journal article about how we divvy up all of the responsibilities within a marriage.  Author Katherine Rosman wisely observes that, “In a coupling of two busy people, it’s inevitable that a marital ledger develops, sometimes spoken, sometimes not.”  She notes that during a week in which she had to work especially long hours her husband put in a lot of time with their two young children and then ponders how much free time on the weekend that earns him.

GAP and I have similar arrangements.  We alternate who comes home by 6:00 to let the nanny off.  I volunteer at the children’s hospital on Sundays, and he plays league basketball on Tuesdays.  There is a give and take to these things.  But in order for there to be a give and take, there has to be some sort of score – some baseline of equality against which we measure.  The distinction here, and in Rosman’s description, is that we have to care more about what we owe than what we are owed.  If I care most about when GAP is in the hole, this scorekeeping devolves into the stereotype we all fear.  But if I worry only about my debts, and let GAP worry about his debts, then we stay balanced without things turning sour.

Rosman tells a story about a recent week when her husband and kids were plagued with the flu, when she did laundry for days on end to keep the germs at bay, when she was dealing with a looming deadline that overwhelmed her, and how her husband helped her through her meltdown to make the deadline.  The morning after the deadline she and her husband were both cranky and tired from having been up late.  It had snowed overnight and the car needed to be scraped.  And she explained:

He could have said — but never would — that I should scrape the car because he had helped me with my story the night before. He never would say that, because that isn’t why he had helped me.

In every marriage, there are things we do for the ledger. And then there are things we do for love.

And that’s what makes the difference.  For all our efforts to keep our marriages balanced, what really matters is that at the end of the day, when we really need each other, we help each other not for the IOU on the other end of the favor, but for love.

9 Responses to “Love and the Ledger”

  1. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    You are spooky. Just this morning, I woke after going to bed early–really early–because I’m nursing a cold. I had dinner in the oven but as soon as hubs came home, I went to bed.

    This morning, my first thought was: am I the only person who can load the dishwasher?

    Clearly, I need help on this.

  2. Gale Says:

    Kitch – I don’t know, I might be with you on this one. If you are sick and still made dinner I’d say it was on him to load the dishwasher. Obviously, it’s all highly contextual. But I think the larger point is that it’s good to keep track to an extent to make sure that no one person becomes a slave to the other. But it’s the love that helps us throw the ledger out the window when the other person really needs us.

  3. Anne Says:

    This is really glaring right now, as there are more and more things I don’t want to do around the house while I lug around my big belly. Generally speaking, I’m not one to say, “I can’t do that…i’m pregnant”, and it bums me out that lately I feel like he’s doing more than his share. But….i am creating a life, which seems fairly important. And I still clean the toilets.

    i do find that my husband is really happy to have roles that he takes on around the house, but he likes the recognition. i think he really appreciates it when I remember to say things like, “Honey, I’m so glad you’re taking care of the taxes…thank you.” or “Thanks for doing the dishes” even though it’s one of his “jobs”. And by the same token, if I spend the afternoon cleaning, I appreciate a little shout-out.

  4. Gale Says:

    Anne – Great point! Amidst all of the checks and balances, it’s still very important to recognize the other person. GAP thanks me for dinner nearly every night. And even though I’m responsible for most of the cooking and we both know it’s “my” job, I still appreciate his gratitude.

    PS – Yes, creating a life is fairly important.

  5. Eva Evolving Says:

    Oh my. I have many thoughts on this, and I’m not sure I can articulate them all very well.

    When Gretchen Rubin says “no calculations,” I get it. Really, I do. I don’t love my husband in proportion to how many chores he does. I don’t think about how to manipulate him into getting what I want. I love him. Unconditionally.


    I think there has to be a certain amount of keeping score in a marriage. Not an exact accounting, but just a general sense of “are we both contributing about the same effort to our relationship, our home running smoothly, etc.” If one partner feels there is a huge inequity, that’s a recipe for trouble.

    It’s really easy for me to do more than my share when my husband is sick or under a deadline at work. When I can see he’s in need, I’m more than willing to give generously. And it’s easier for me to ask for help when I’m strung out at work.
    It’s the routine, day to day crap that causes drama. If we’re both just humming along, going about our days, that is when I am actually less forgiving of my husband. For example, one chore we both hate is setting up the coffee: grinding the beans, filling the water, setting the timer each night before bed. It doesn’t take even 5 minutes, but we both grumble about it. And we generally take turns. But if I’ve been doing it all week and he hasn’t, I’ll get annoyed. So I guess that is keeping score.

    For me, I would always rather err on the side of doing more than my share. So I think that makes me more likely to take care of something right away, barely giving my husband a chance to help out. This isn’t fair to him. If we’re both trying to contribute and take responsibility for a fair share, I need to let that happen.

    Whew! I think you touched on a nerve. Excellent topic and post, Gale!

  6. E Says:

    After 37+ years I promise there is no score keeping. Maybe there was a little in the beginning, but if so, that’s long been shoved under the table. Love, respect, and care have pushed any ” score keeping” aside, and it’s marvelous not to ever consider whether you or your spouse is doing his/her share.

  7. Gale Says:

    Eva – Thanks for this comment. I think you articulated, perhaps even better than I did in my post, just what I was trying to say. When things are rough – deadlines at work, battling colds, etc – it is the love that causes us to throw the ledger out the window and do far more than our share. But I think you’re right that it’s when things are mostly fine that the scorecard can get touchy. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are aware of balance v. imbalance in our marriages. And I think it’s totally appropriate to go ahead and admit it so that we can always work to keep things even. I think it’s when people are aware of imbalance, but unwilling to admit that they care that resentment can build and build until it reaches some kind of explosive tipping point. Thanks, as always, for contributing to the conversation and for being so thoughtful and eloquent.

  8. Ana Says:

    This is a wonderful topic and something I am struggling with these days, but I think I’m on the opposite side of a lot of the other commenters!

    I will admit that for me its instinctive to “keep score”, albeit very loosely, in my head in all my relationships. On the one hand it is to make sure I am not compromising my own wants & needs too much. On the other, its to make sure I am compromising enough, and not taking advantage. With my husband, its more of the latter, since he’s lately become the one that will step in and take care of everything without me asking—its tempting to let him do it, but I want us to be partners & I actually do want to do my share. Most of our household tasks are clearly divided between us (based on logistics & preference) though of course we’re cross-trained so that we can pitch in when needed. I haven’t been feeling up to it these days, so he’s taking on a lot of things that were traditionally “my” tasks—I know he is doing it out of love & that over the course of our lifetimes it’ll all smooth out. Yet I feel guilty & want to somehow “make it up” so we’re “even” again. So, as much as it grates when I feel like I’m doing a little more than my share, its equally discomforting to feel like I’m not doing enough!

    I read the WSJ article, and enjoyed it, but can’t help wondering why the author didn’t want to go scrape the car in the morning, especially after her husband helped her with the story the night before!

  9. Cathy Says:

    I am dealing with something of a similar nature. My husband has been under a lot of pressure at work resulting in long hours, grumpy attitude and a failure to do anything around the house. Out of love I’ve quietly picked up all the chores, but I can only take it for so long.