Scorekeeping on Valentine’s Day

Friday, February 14, 2020

The book tour continues for #Seculosity! Catch David Zahl as he travels to Richmond, VA, on March 4; Pittsburgh, PA (Ligonier), on March 12; and Colombia, SC, on March 18. He’ll also be presenting at The Virginia Festival of The Book in Charlottesville on March 19. In the meantime, in honor of Cupid’s holiday, here’s a snippet from the Romance chapter of Seculosity:

Rare is the romantic relationship—or really any kind of relationship—that doesn’t keep a record of wrongs. Maybe that’s why 1 Corinthians remains such a wedding staple. We go to the altar to answer, publicly and definitively, that our beloved is more than enough—they for us, and we for them. The very next day, our bedroom becomes the courtroom where that verdict is re-tried.

It would be one thing if such scorekeeping worked, but it never has and never will, not where the heart is concerned. When one person’s gain equals the other’s loss, the relationship between them always suffers. We become competitors rather than teammates. Moreover, like a husband pointing out the dishes he’s done in order to leverage some gratitude from his wife, the second we harness our good deeds for credit is the second they become less good. All of a sudden, a price tag is dangling off of what was supposed to be a gift. “If I knew that you’d require a ton of affirmation and thanks, or that you’d hold it over my head, I would’ve done the dishes myself!” And that’s just the petty stuff.

The language of scorekeeping is the language of conditionality. “I’ll do this for you because you do that for me.” “I’ll hold up my end of the bargain as long as you hold up yours,” we say. However egalitarian our intention, that kind of nonassurance sets us up for a life of accounting. But what works at the office runs out of gas at home.

An I-did-this-for-you-so-now-you-do-that-for-me stance can be downright manipulative, a way of controlling the other person and getting them to do what we want. It can also convey distrust, as though we wouldn’t willingly do X, Y, or Z for our significant other without coercion. If I feel that you’re trying to change me, I will resist, or hide. Whereas if I feel loved just as I am, in my hurt and neurosis and neediness, well, then I find myself wanting to be more pleasant, generous—and easier to deal with, especially in relation to your neurosis and need!

Relationships characterized by credit-seeking and conditionality, in which we justify ourselves both to and at the expense of our partner, tend to bite the dust. In their book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson describe how a fixation on righteousness can choke the life out of love:

The vast majority of couples who drift apart do so slowly, over time, in a snowballing pattern of blame and self-justification. Each partner focuses on what the other one is doing wrong, while justifying his or her own preferences, attitudes, and ways of doing things… From our standpoint, therefore, misunderstandings, conflicts, personality differences, and even angry quarrels are not the assassins of love; self-justification is.

We always lose when we keep score. No one wins when we play the blame game. Whatever cliché you prefer, the truth is plain: self-justification and love don’t mix, not over the long haul. Love, at its core, transcends emotional bartering. It cannot flourish when one or both parties feel like they’re always playing catch-up or in danger of getting fired.