In too many relationship counselor offices, or in books and articles on creating satisfying relationships, couples are given the pithy sound bite advice to “not keep score."
On the surface, it sounds logical. Nobody likes to hear they’re doing less than their partner. Yet, in the majority of heterosexual relationships it’s most often the woman who needs to keep score. Sure, men today do more housework and parenting now than their forefathers, but studies have shown women are still responsible for a larger share of physical, emotional and invisible labor within the relationship and family unit.
Telling them to not keep score may just be the worst “put up and shut-up” misogyny ever perpetuated.
Jane Greer, a New York-based marriage and family therapist and author of “What About Me?” confirms that tallying scores happens frequently in her practice, most often done by women tired of having their inequity grievances ignored by their partners.
Greer says there’s a reason people intuitively keep score.
“Parents actually teach children the concept of keeping score when they want to cultivate sharing and compromise,” Greer explains.
Telling a child to give a toy to their sister or friend because they’ve had it for a length of time and the other child deserves the same is basic scorekeeping. Children also use scorekeeping to seek equality through comparing their parents’ treatment of siblings, such as, “Why does my brother get to stay up later than I do?” Parents want to assure their children they love and treat all their kids the same, so scorekeeping is positively rewarded. Even children without siblings keep score with peers in school, extracurricular activities or extended families.
Yet, we live in a patriarchal society with deeply ingrained gender norms, assumptions and roles. Keeping score as a child doesn’t challenge those rules in the same way as in romantic relationships.
“Patriarchy isn’t made up of individual bad actors, it’s structural like racism and frames how people behave and think,” explains Caroline Light, director of women, gender and sexuality studies at Harvard University.
There’s a long history of feminist efforts to quantify invisible labor and smash the concept that paid labor is more important. It’s never been an easy task; even the descriptive titles for this kind of work — “unseen,” “invisible” — diminish its value.
Girls are socialized from a young age to be kind and generous; to not complain and to be mannerly. Women are often pegged as the “givers” in society — they “give” their bodies to show attraction or love, they give birth to perpetuate humanity and a paid workforce, and they give their time and energy to physically and emotionally care for partners and children.
In modern times, women are also often expected to give to their family finances through paid employment. Keeping a tally of their own contributions doesn’t fit with the stereotype of a giver, more so if they expect something in return, like equality. This gender norm assigns a feminine quality to being giving, making it seem less masculine to give equally with women outside of paid work.
Despite men taking on more household labor than ever before, there continues to be a litany of excuses for women doing more. Women aren’t always more nurturing or “better” at emotional invisible labor, and telling a woman, “You just have to ask me” still leaves the unseen burden on women to both identify what needs to be done and communicate the need to their partner, when men are perfectly capable of identifying and doing these tasks without being asked.
Keeping score is a woman’s only way to illuminate this additional work she does and motivate her partner to share that load.
If keeping score is such a valuable tool for women, why do relationship professionals continue to warn against it?
“A feminist counselor still works, exists and is educated in a patriarchal system,” Light notes. “It’s normative to think about hidden labor as naturally being women’s labor. Counselors are also vulnerable to normalized gender roles unknowingly because our culture so highly values men’s labor over women’s.”
Society also continues to invalidate female anger, and keeping score is an expression of negative emotion.
There’s a fear of angry women, as demonstrated by the concern for the “safety” of young men in backlash to organized and publicized female rage movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp.
“An angry woman is considered shrill and strident. Expressing rage over gender inequity and exploitation is often perceived as an assault and massive potential threat on existing social and gender norms and expectations,” Light says.
The current divorce rates may also confirm a feminist need for keeping score. Women often swallow their relationship complaints in an effort to be “good” wives and mothers, or avoid being “nags.” When these women eventually do a reckoning of their years of unrecognized and unpaid contributions, their anger and resentment can come to the surface when they see the imbalance compared to their spouse’s unpaid workload. Relationship conflict or other negative reactions can lead to the demise of the relationship. Communication problems are often cited in the top three leading causes of divorce; keeping score is a form of communicating emotions and needs.
Both Greer and Light advocate for couples to keep score, but with qualifications. Feelings phrased in an “I feel, I want, I need” context usually receive more empathy. Keeping score doesn’t have to be a tit-for-tat counting of each person doing the same task. If one partner doesn’t enjoy cooking or grocery shopping, that person can regularly do homework supervision as a fair trade for the other doing those jobs, for example.
Light recommends generously keeping score together regularly with a joint accounting of relationship labor that’s free of anger, accusation or raised voices. As Greer points out, keeping score isn’t about establishing blame.
If used wisely, scorekeeping can shift relationships from a “no fair” victim mentality to the power of equitable fairness.