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How score-keeping is affecting your relationships
(whether you realize it or not)

May 1997 issue

Reader quiz!

Before reading this article, determine your answers to the following questions:

1. Which definition of "keeping score" most closely matches your own?

A. Balancing what you've done for them with what they've done for you.
B. Balancing their good behavior against their bad behavior.

2. Which person would you be most inclined to "cut some slack" in your expectations: someone you were dating, or someone you were married to?

by Janet L. Jacobsen

copyright 1997 by Harlan L. Jacobsen

A while back I led a series of singles discussions based in part on the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, by John Gray. Gray presents many scenarios in which, he says, men and women have different "needs" in regard to making a relationship work, some of which struck me as down-right bizarre, frankly.

So in the class I created questionnaires with various situations between our fictional couple, George and Martha. The participants, in same-sex groups, discussed the scenarios and the likely outcome, from the options presented.

Where we really got into trouble was when I read the class Gray's perspective on how the sexes differ in their response to gifts. He says, "A man thinks he scores high with a woman when he does something very big for her, like buying her a new car or taking her on a vacation. When a woman keeps score, no matter how big or small a gift of love is, it scores one point; each gift has equal value."

Gray goes on to advise men, "There are a variety of ways a man can score points with his partner without having to do much [emphasis added]. . . . It's magic when a man does little things for his woman. It keeps her love tank full and the score even. When the score is even, or almost even, a woman knows she is loved."

Here was one case in our discussions where Gray seemed to be right - big gifts and little gifts did score equally well with the women in the class. But some of the fellows were aghast - You're keeping score?!? they wanted to know.

Well, maybe not consciously, some women said.

But as the discussion went on, we discovered that other things besides gifts can get included in the "scoring" of relationships, such as broken promises, forced compromises, special favors, small sacrifices.

Some women didn't think that anyone kept score in relationships. Some men thought people definitely did. And for the folks for whom this was a new idea, the notion that anyone kept score, consciously or unconsciously, was distressing.

Then someone raised the interesting possibility that no one keeps score in a relationship that is going well; it's when we feel less than loved that we start to "add things up."

Gray's contention is that while what scores "points" may differ for men and for women, for the relationship to succeed both sides must feel that the score stays fairly even. The closest we could get to agreement in the class was to agree that this was an area that definitely needed further clarification between the sexes.

It seemed that one possible source of difficulty might be our definition of "score" - maybe men and women only thought we were talking about the same thing. So in a subsequent class the participants got into same-sex groups to come up with a written definition of "keeping score."

An analysis of their answers indicated that men were essentially defining "keeping score" as "weighing the balance of what you're getting against what you're giving," while women defined the term as "keeping track analytically of the omissions and hurtful behavior as well as the kindness and loving behavior as one person reacts to another in a relationship." (Yes, really; the women's definitions were way wordier than the men's.)

This shows a very interesting difficulty. Men focus on what he does and what she does. Women, on the other hand, focus on the balance of his good and bad behavior. That's not exactly being on the same page in our perspectives.

Next we put the class in mixed groups and had them brainstorm the "things/actions/incidents" that earn positives points, and negative points, in a relationship.

Here are some behaviors likely to earn you negative points with just about anyone: lying, poor communication skills, being critical, insensitivity, immaturity, and a negative attitude. Ways to earn positives with most folks include listening, being respectful, remembering anniversaries/birthdays (and also unexpected thoughtfulness), good manners, being helpful (especially without being asked), honesty, and being enthusiastic about the other person and their interests.

It's probably reassuring that the positives list is longer than the negatives list, but we might want to weigh the relative value of each (as men apparently do). For instance, how much good manners does it take to outweigh a negative attitude? Or can a lot of enthusiasm make up for poor communication skills? (We'll plan a future class on that one; for now, give it some thought for yourself.)

Out of this discussion we made another startling discovery (or it startled a bunch of us, at least). In trying to determine the positives and negatives, it turned out that some things would rate depending on the type of relationship in question.

What we found was that, in general, men hold their dates to a fairly high standard, but cut them some slack as the relationship becomes "serious" and even more slack in a marriage. Women, on the other hand, felt that they should be able to expect much more from a man they were married to than from someone they were just dating.

Whoa. It's beginning to look like a miracle that any relationship seems to have a balanced "score," since each sex is using a different score card and applying it differently across types of relationships.

Or perhaps relationships work out precisely because of the subtle differences _ we've all rigged the system to make it possible to find a winner.

It may be that Lennon & McCartney were right, "In the end the love you take is equal to the love you make." Or that we can draw comfort from Santayana's observation, "When men and women agree, it is only in their conclusions; their reasons are always different." And if we've happily both concluded that this relationship is "right," does it really matter if our reasons are different?