5 Reasons to Stop Keeping Score in Relationships

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“It’s one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

During my freshman year of college, my group of friends would always hang out in my room.

For the most part, I enjoyed playing host.

Then certain things started to bother me. People would constantly be eating my snacks, and I would constantly be cleaning up after them when they left.

Day after day, I would provide my friends with food. They would make a mess eating it while sitting on my bed. And they wouldn’t clean up after themselves.

Perhaps this sounds trivial to you, but over time I found it very annoying.

And after a few months of this, I became resentful toward my friends.

The problem here was that I couldn’t help but “keep score” in my relationships with them.

What do I mean by this?

Every time I gave my friends food, I would mentally record it, and expect to get something of equal value in return.

In my mind, I was giving way more than I was getting.

And then every once in a while when they would come in and offer me some of their food, I felt even worse.

“How can they think that this is enough after all I’ve given them?”

If they thought they were giving me a sizeable gift, then suddenly I felt obligated to pay them back to keep the balance in my favor.

In hindsight, I see how disturbed this way of thinking is. But at the time, it all made sense to me.

Keeping score got me nowhere, other than feeling bad and deteriorating my relationships.

This kind of mindset is toxic. It causes nothing but harm.

Think about your own life and your own relationships. Chances are you are keeping score in some of them.

And I bet it’s having the same effect on you.

Luckily, I’ve changed the way I think about these things. Sure, I still keep score sometimes (everyone does), but I do it far less frequently than I once did.

My roommate Jeremy and I got along exceptionally well.

There were many things that I gave to him. And there were many things that he gave to me.

The relationship between roommates is very complex. I knew he was doing things for me that I would never even realize.

And then it hit me: All relationships are like that. My friends have done things for me that I will never be able to pay them back for.

(In fact, during our sophomore year we spent most of our time hanging out in other peoples’ rooms, most likely eating their food and making a mess in their bed.)

Once I realized this, I knew it was time to give up on score-keeping. Now I feel far better about all of my relationships.

It’s really easy to stop keeping score when you make a couple of simple shifts in your mindset. Here are a few:

1. There’s a lot you can’t “track.”

Relationships can be wonderfully complicated.

There are so many factors involved that it would be impossible to keep an “accurate” score. Don’t even bother trying.

I guarantee you, people are contributing to your life behind the scenes in ways that you will never know.

Be grateful for this.

2. Everyone has a different scoring system.

Preferences are subjective.

I love dark chocolate, and other people prefer milk chocolate. (They are out of their minds.) If I give someone a piece of milk chocolate, I lose nothing, but they gain tremendously. How do you “count” something like that?

You might believe that you’ve provided others with a huge amount of value, but they view it as no big deal. And vice versa.

Perhaps when my friends would offer me some of their food, it was a significant sacrifice for them to give it away. I need to respect that.

3. You might be “ahead” in some relationships but “behind” in others.

No matter how hard you try, you will never be able to balance out all of your relationships.

While you’re upset at someone because you think they don’t contribute, I’m sure there is someone else out there whom you are neglecting just as much.

Be grateful for those people.

Whatever extra you might be giving to certain individuals, consider that good karma and a form of paying it forward for all the people who have given you so much.

4. It’s not a “competition” against an “opponent.”

When you keep score, this is how you are acting.

The people you love are not your enemies! It’s absurd to think of them this way.

Every time you tally up your contributions, you are pulling your relationships further apart. Instead of cooperating with your friends to create abundance, you compete with them over scarcity.

This is not healthy, and it gets you nowhere.

5. Keeping score is sweating the small stuff.

When you keep score, you spend a lot of time focusing on minor things that don’t really matter.

Who cares that I gave my friends fruit snacks on any given day?

By thinking about these insignificant details, you distract yourself from all the good things about your relationships.

Instead of thinking about the things you give up, think about the great experiences you’ve had together.

I’ve come a long way since freshman year.

In the process of shedding the bad habit of keeping score, I’ve learned a few things about how relationships work.

For one thing, you must still tend to your own needs. Don’t swing too far in the opposite direction.

You can’t let people take advantage of you. Luckily, it’s still pretty easy to spot a moocher even when you aren’t keeping track of every detail.

Conversely, you should ask for support when you need it. Your friends are there for you, and you would do the same for them.

Your relationships should be treasured. It's only when you stop keeping score that you're able to appreciate all the great things they provide you.

Photo by mark.groves

About Michael Davidson

Michael Davidson has written for over a year about finding happiness and health. The keys to his heart are dark chocolate and an encyclopedic knowledge of Simpsons quotes. Get his free 8 day e-course on how to create a healthy lifestyle that makes you happy and follow him on Twitter.

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  • Mariebeth

    I find myself “keeping score” all the time. It really makes it hard to be grateful for the great people in my life. Thank you for making me more aware of what I’m doing and for a great post Michael.

  • Stephanie Eller

    I’m bad about keeping score with my brother, especially in terms of what we get from our parents. Seeing it in writing, I realize how childish it is, like we’re little kids at Christmas. The way I remember or think about what we each get isn’t without bias, so my score isn’t right anyway. I end up just feeling slighted and taking my frustration out on my brother or my parents. He’s younger, but I expect him to know things that I know now but may not have when I was 19. Ironically, in trying to make things fair, I end up treating him unfairly. It’s bad for me too; I can feel it eating away at me and making me miserable. So thanks for helping me see what I’m doing and giving me some tips to stop!

  • lv2terp

    Great post!!! It is so easy to fall into this trap, I have been working on getting myself out of it for a long time as well! Thank you for sharing your experience, wisdom, and tips! 🙂

  • Michael Davidson

    I’m glad you found it useful! Honestly, this is such a tricky area that it takes a long time to be able to get over keeping score…keep with it!

  • Michael Davidson

    Thanks for the feedback! Yes, it’s very tough, and takes a lot of time and constant reminders to get out of the trap.

  • Michael Davidson

    Thanks for sharing your story! That’s a good point that it’s bad for you too; it’s not as though it’s “enjoyable” to keep score. It’s just a reaction, and a bad one at that. Just keep reminding yourself of it and over time it’ll go away.

  • Cherry

    thank you for sharing. these are the things that people are experiencing but probably never going to articulate because it sounds too trivial, and yes, even when it bothers much. now i’ve a better understanding, thank you

  • Ahhhh… My morning has started reading your wonderful insight and I really want to thank you to share it with us. From past few weeks I’ve been feeling the same thing. Although I know that my friends and girlfriend always do whatever is in their reach for me, but I always have this thing in mind that they can never do me a favor as much as I do for them. Moreover, the thing you wrote, that whenever someone does me a favor I feel obliged to return it back, is kind of true. This thinking is really toxic and I think I should get rid of it as soon as possible.

    Thanks Michael for the guidance. 🙂

  • And I just noticed that your and my blog have nearly same name. Mine is “Free Happiness” 😀

  • LilianaJMay

    I really enjoyed reading this post and have taken a lot from it. I catch myself doing the exact same thing sometimes and it is a waste of energy and time. Life is too short to play games or keep score, in all kinds of relationships. Thanks for reminding us of that!

  • SadlyResentful

    When I was younger, I have always found myself “keeping score” for I did not like to “owe” anyone and like you stated my relationships suffered, and I felt horrible. As I grew up, I made the effort to help people around me without really thinking about it anymore. My greatest benefit was people liked me, but at the same time people took advantage. The most hurtful moment was when someone would tell me “Hey I was doing you a favor.” That’s
    when all those moments I thought I hadn’t been keeping score, I have been. Because the minute people want to talk about
    the score, I think back to all the things I have done for that person that I
    really didn’t have to do without ever saying “I was doing you a favor”, and I’m right back to feeling resentful.
    I guess my question would be, how do you stop keeping score when people keep reminding you what the score is?

  • AxelDC

    It is perfectly fair to expect reciprocation in a relationship. If you friends came over every day, ate your food and then never offered to clean up, they were using you. Perhaps they made up for it in other ways, like providing you rides or tutoring you in a class. If not, this is a one way relationship.

    Maybe they were not aware of it, and instead of berating yourself for resenting being used, you could have openly stated, “hey, I love you guys coming over, but would you mind helping me clean up” or “hey, let’s all bring snacks next time.” If they are really good people, they would smack themselves on their heads and say, “of course, how could we be so insensitive.”

    You should not keep score in a relationship, but neither should you be a doormat. If they stop being your friends because you stop feeding them, then they are no better than stray dogs.