Why This One Petty Behavior Ruins Relationships

Instead of keeping score, give in your own way because you want to.

couple arguing PeopleImages.com - Yuri A / Shutterstock

We don't mean to, but we do it all the time: Keeping score.

That unconscious tally—what you did, what I did. What I did that you didn't do. What I wish you would do, but know you won't, and resent you for— especially when I continue to do it anyway.

Logically, I've always been aware that keeping score is the best way to destroy a relationship.

And, despite all this, I've gone on to let it unravel many relationships, of all forms. Romantic, friendships, sometimes even familial.


It's normal. You can't help but notice when you are giving more than someone else. Does it mean you care more? That they care less? That you are just trying too hard?

RELATED: How To Break Up With Someone Without Breaking Them Down

Seeing relationships as a bank account

"Some view relationships as a bank account. It is an interesting analogy, but it is inherently flawed as it is hard to quantify deposits and withdrawals," says dating expert and author of Screwing the Rules: The No-Games Guide to Love, Laurel House. How do you value and therefore quantify the difference between deposits that are financial, emotional, or time and effort-oriented?


"If this in fact the measure that both partners in the relationship agree on, yet the weight of each type of deposit or withdrawal is not defined, it's easy to feel like there is an imbalance as one person in inevitably always going to feel as though they are the one making the greater contribution," says House. Obviously, this causes resentment.

The bank account concept makes you feel like you have a stack of IOUs piled up on your shoulder. You always feel indebted. Either that or you always feel owed, maybe even used. Still, one party may be doing the majority of the financial deposits, while the other is doing the majority of the emotional deposits, and each one feels as though the scales are tipped in their generous favor, says House.

Why? Because it's a value system. The emotional contributor may feel that they are giving "all of themselves," tapping into their reserves to the point that they have nothing left to give and instead start to resent while the financial contributor feels used for always being the one who is expected to open their wallet.

Though each may start off feeling like they want to give, in the end, it feels like they have to give. Soon they may start testing each other, thinking "If I pay for this, I expect them to respond by doing that for me." or "If I give of myself in this way, I secretly expect them to buy me that as reciprocity." It's exhausting and stressful, and it slowly inserts a wedge between the couple, eventually breaking them apart.


What it's like to be "The Giver"

I've always been a giver—romantically, sexually, in friendship—I get great satisfaction from pleasing another. This can be a beautiful, but also a dangerous element of a personality.

The joy of being a giver is hard to explain, but you have to be careful why you are giving. Is it because you know you can do something that will make someone else happy and that makes you happy? Or out of a sense of superiority? If you are the "good" one…are they the bad one? Are you setting yourself up in an egocentric relationship?

Maybe, maybe not. But it's something to consider.


Sometimes, we can't help but get wrapped up in what we're giving and what those in our life aren't returning. And that's not truly generous anymore. To be truly generous is to expect nothing in return. And none of us are ever going to be like that in a relationship.

RELATED: 7 Sneak-Up-On-You Signs Your Relationship Is In Major Trouble

Why we keep score

The irony in it all is that we all have the option of discussing our disappointments and resentments in a productive way. We choose not to because we don't want to rock the boat—we don't want to "cause a problem" that will then be what destroys the relationship. See what we do there?

It's not that silent resentment destroying you. It's the discussion of said resentment that might. But how is someone to know to stop engaging in that behavior that is hurting you if they don't even know they are doing it— or that it bothers you?


"I have been on both sides of this equation, and neither side was fulfilling or successful. In fact, it was toxic," says House.

Creating measures or keeping scores is a toxic poison that slowly seeps into the foundation of relationships, making them unsustainable. Instead of keeping score, give in your own way because you want to. If you stop wanting to give, then it's time to question your position in the relationship. Are you truly in it for love, or is it for convenience, safety, or something else?

This keeping score can come in so many forms.

Maybe it's someone who never remembers your birthday, even if you always remember his or her day. Maybe it's a friend who never makes the effort to come to you, always making you go to them if you want to see each other.


Maybe it's someone who accepts your love and support of their passions, but always no support in return. Maybe it's just someone who never has cash when the check comes around and yet always wants to go out.

If the behavior makes you feel bad. If you tally it up in your head and make note of it and it sticks with you, you are keeping score. I do it. I'm, in fact, doing it right now.

How "tit for tat" destroys relationships

"As a clinical psychologist, I work with a lot of couples. This theme of keeping score is very common. I call it tit-for-tat," says Dr. Judy Rosenberg, a Los Angeles-based psychologist. The mind is like a psychological bookkeeper and seems to remember the score at all times.

RELATED: Not Sure When To Break Up? Try These 9 Things Before Calling It Quits


"It's as if people can't rest until the 'score' is even. A common score-keeping topic is a topic of having an affair.

Having an affair is a very significant narcissistic injury. The hurt creates a need for retaliation and it can take many forms. One form it can take is to create an evening of the score by having an affair also. Another form it can take is that the hurt party shuts down and refuses to contribute to the relationship by going "on strike." No sex, no dinners, no nothing," says Rosenberg.

Although the affair is a more exaggerated example, keeping score can be seen as a more subtle behavior.

For example, if one person in a relationship promises to take the garbage out and doesn't, the retaliation from the other person can show up in the form of "forgetting to pick up the person's laundry from the dry cleaner," for example. These passive-aggressive means of attack are ways that the psyche is trying to "balance the books," so to speak.


How to stop keeping score

In an effort to stop keeping score, I'm trying to be clearer about the things that hurt me and to do so in a more solution-orientated (rather than accusatory) fashion.

If you have issues with someone's behavior, you have to have an idea of what it is you do want, and that may mean having a bit of a conversation with yourself.  I have a tendency of making excuses for other people, sometimes putting myself "on the hook" in order to let them off it. 

Sure, they have a lot of stuff going on. So do you. You remember to be there for them. For me, it's always been easier to take a look at the bigger picture in order to better understand why people do the things they do, and why I respond in the way I do.


And sometimes, that also means taking responsibility for my own actions.

Just because you are the one hurt doesn't mean that you are blameless—and they just may be "keeping a score" of their own.

As long as this persists, a dynamic is developing between you, and it's just going to grow fiercer if you let it. Once the trust is damaged — and at this point in the equation, it is — what are you doing, anyway?

RELATED: When These 10 Things Start Happening In Your Relationship, It's Time To Break Up

Aly Walansky is a NY-based lifestyle writer who focuses on health, wellness, and relationships. Her work appears in dozens of digital and print publications regularly. Visit her on Twitter.