Generosity vs Keeping Score

by | Jul 18, 2019

“Not that she and Curdie ever thought of how much they worked for each other: that would have spoiled everything.” - George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblins, 1872

The “she” in this story is Curdie’s mother.  Curdie is the boy miner who rescues the Princess from the Goblins.  The boy, Curdie, and his mother were both giving people and it would never have occurred to them to keep score as to whom was doing more.  The Princess and the Goblins is a fantasy, and you might be tempted to think the major fantasy here is that a mother and son could both work hard enough that neither would nurse wounds of unfairness!  When unfairness creeps into your brain, and your marriage, you are beginning a downward spiral: it’s a sign you’ve opened the door to the dark side.

While the quote from George MacDonald is about a mother and son relationship, I’d like to apply the principle of “unfairness” to marriage, as unfairness is a love killer.

There’s a fancy family studies theory in family research called Equity Theory that tries to reduce familial relationship to a simple give and take.   But it really doesn’t apply to the family. It does apply to some relationships: like business and college roommates. You want a gallon of milk? You pay the dollar equivalent and the milk is yours: both sides of the equation.  If you don’t have enough money, you don’t get the milk. Maybe you could talk the clerk into letting you go home with the milk and come back with the money, but you better be back pronto or the clerk will call the police. You’ve got your college roommates and everyone divides up the rent equally.  It needs to stay pretty equal and you stay out of my cookies, buddy. There were three slices of baloney here. Who’s taking my baloney? Roommates can’t stay out of balance very long or there will be an immediate bill to pay. You go too long unbalanced and you are out on the street.

But family life is not based upon Equity Theory.  Sadly, it is for some folk. Often, cohabiting relationships start out that way: splitting the rent and having their money separate.  And then if they get married, they keep living as roommates, which sucks to high heaven. I’ll trade you three cleaning of toilets for one changing of oil?  I paid for your nieces wedding shower present. But I paid the oil change on your car last month. Where do you stop this nonsense?

Family living is based upon, or I should say, it should be based upon love.  Fundamentally, love protects.  Love gives. Love does not seek its own.  It is not selfish. We are in this together.  We look out for each other. There are a myriad of things that need to be done to run a family and we divide and conquer.  Sometimes I do it. Sometimes you do it. Sometimes we do it together. Sometimes we’re both tired and neither of us does it.

Or not.  Sometimes love has grown cold and spouses keep score and then gentleness and tenderness and generosity and servanthood wanes.

Let’s assume for a moment that neither of you nor your spouse are lazy and you both work hard.  You both have your interests and your habits and your proclivities and tendencies and things that you don’t like undone and things you don’t mind undone.  Neither of you are carbon copies of each other. That would be good. A little variety. At the end of the day you aren’t nursing your wounds: “I can’t believe I did more than her today.”  Or, “This is a bunch of crap. It’s so unfair. He never does X.”

Sorry.  I should say, at the end of the day you SHOULDN’T say…  Because if you did, unfairness enters the picture and unfairness breeds resentment and resentment breeds … you get the picture.  No. We’re in this together. We both do what we need to do to run the family. How you give is different than how I give, but we aren’t wasting time nursing wounds.

I remember hearing a story my dad told when I was a teenager of one of my dad’s friends.  My dad shared the story with me in a parabolic way, as in, this is a really sad story, don’t do this.  Dad never said that. He assumed I’d get the point: He knew a man, who was married for a decade or two when his wife got MS.  He had an affair with another woman and then dumped his sick wife.

That’s equity theory in play.  Cold. Selfish. Equity. Theory.  Tit-for-tat. Or maybe going to the highest bidder?

Contrast that with my dad, who was married 62 years, but toward the end of his days my mom, his sweetheart, started to believe the newmen on TV were talking to her.  He didn’t bat an eye. He never made a stink. He took care of her to the end of his days, even though there was no way she could have ever made it up to him and balanced the score.  There was no scorekeeping. There was no score. There was no, “I do more than you.” Or “I ain’t gonna take no crap.”

There was only love.

And … a demonstration to the next generation, and now to you, that you don’t go dumping each other just cuz things get out of whack for a bit.

That would have ruined everything.

Dr. Bing Wall

Dr. Bing Wall

Dr. Bing Wall is a marriage therapist with a practice in Ames and Urbandale, Iowa. To set up a time to see Dr. Wall click here or call 888-233-8473.

Related Posts