“It’s all about me. This is what I want.”
“He never empties the trash, and it’s his job.”
“Why do I have to write all the Christmas cards every year? It’s his friends, too.”
“This is the third time I’ve vacuumed the family room. I’m not the only one who uses it!”
“I work harder than you do.”
In a thousand ways, I’ve heard these words or similar ones — sometimes in my own family or job, sometimes out of my own mouth. It’s what I call the Counting Game, only it’s not a game. In fact, if played often enough in a marriage, in a career, in a relationship, it can become dangerous or even deadly. And yet, many of us fall victim to this destructive contest. It begins innocently enough, as we determine what we think is fair.
Perhaps we have an idea that everything should be equal in a marriage, the housework distributed equally, all social obligations divided down the middle – everything a 50-50 split. Then we notice that he doesn’t empty the trash very often – or ever. We focus on the overflowing trash cans and fail to notice that he often stacks the dishwasher and always mows the lawn. But we expected a fifty-fifty split on each item, then focus on a particular item that bugs us, like overflowing trash cans. We start to resent the unfair workload in the trash department. We begin to count.
We started a new job and were delighted to land the position, thought the pay was good, liked the benefits. Then after a few months, we noticed that some of our co-workers didn’t work as hard as we did. We heard disgruntled complains about the boss, the working conditions, the new compensation package. We start comparing our production to the gal in the next cubicle. We resented the new benefits package because, although it was better than what we had, we heard that the company down the street offered its employees more than we got. We begin to count.
I watch TV bridal shows, a habit that developed as I battled breast cancer. When chemo sapped my last bit of energy or the fear of germs caused me to cling to the solitude of my home, I turned to the flat-screened companion and met lots of bride-zillas. “This is my day, I’m the star. I should have everything I want.” I’ve watched brides bully their parents into buying a dress beyond their budget. I’ve seen shows where each bride strives to have a more elaborate/unique/exotic wedding than the other bride-competitors. Guests criticize the dresses, the food, the decorations, the venue.
In all the above settings, keeping count can lead to discontent and destruction. But it’s especially lethal for marriage. We fall victim to dangerous thinking when we put ourselves first in importance in our minds and define fairness according to our personal standards. Americans have a sense of fairness and equality that may work in theory in the public arena, but it can be a disaster in relationships. As soon as we develop rules to protect our fear that we might do more, give more, work harder than our fifty percent, we’re in big trouble. As soon as we think marriage or any personal relationship is “all about me getting my fair share,” we no longer have a relationship, we have a business deal. Marriage is not a 50-50 partnership. That turns it into a constant negotiation to be sure we get our due and don’t do more than our part.
Individuals who recognize their spouse’s strengths, abilities and weaknesses – and love them anyway — build strong marriages. True love sees one’s spouse with the wide-open awareness that his or her partner is not perfect and there will never be 50-50 equality in all things. To look for that sort of parity leads to a counting game and we humans are notoriously poor counters of the items that fall in our own weaknesses category. When we count, we usually count their faults, their weaknesses, their short-comings, with little thought about how we may fall short ourselves.
Instead, our focus must be on what strengths we can bring to the relationship, what gifts we can give to our partner, how often we can put their needs, interests, dreams at the same level as we hold ours. Instead of counting how seldom they have performed a task compared to us, we should focus on how often they have done something to contribute to the relationship – and thank them. People want to be thanked for the good they do rather than criticized for their inadequacies. Appreciation multiplies good behavior just as criticism and discontent often produces more of the very behavior we wish to extinguish. Counting faults and failures is like kids playing a game in which they are hopelessly behind. There are only two choices: keep playing until the other person wins, or upend the board, and end the game abruptly. Either way, the person with fewer points still loses.
Keeping score of our “wins” in a conflict is a terrible way to ruin a relationship. Instead, focus on the good parts. Keep count of the other person’s contributions, offerings, efforts on behalf of the relationship, and celebrate them enthusiastically. Marriage isn’t a 50-50 partnership. It’s a commitment that’s 100% on each side, all in on every issue. Marriage is not “What can I get out of this relationship? What does my partner owe me?” A healthy marriage between two stable people is much stronger when these are the driving questions: “What do I bring to the relationship? How can I be a blessing to my spouse? What can I do to make his/her life better?” A friend of mine once said, “A marriage gets fifty-percent better when one person makes an effort to work on it wholeheartedly.”
Now I’m going to post this and go empty the trash! My husband empties it more often than me — not that I’m counting! But won’t he be surprised? Let me know what you think. Have you applied this perspective to a relationship? How’d it work?