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.