The Hidden Destruction of Inverse Scorekeeping

I read Donald Miller’s Scary Close book late last fall…and it was one of the best books I’d read in a long time.  It was funny and clever and engaging, and all about relationships, my favourite topic. Y’know it’s a good book, when months after it’s been read, it comes back to bite you in the butt.

And this one did.  In reverse.

Lemme explain. I’ll back up a bit first.

I grew up in a conscientious household.  A generous, giving household. We paid our bills on time.  Never carried a credit card balance.  Made meals for others when they went through a hard time.  Had baby showers and wedding showers for the women in our community to celebrate life events.  Cleaned up the house pretty constantly so as to always be ready for company if they might knock at the door. Brought lotsa food if we were invited to a friend’s cottage. Always asked what we could bring when invited over for a meal.  We never imposed on anybody–and it we thought we did, we made up for it by bringing over a brownie to thank them.

My dad would say, “Before your friends come over, make a sandwich for them that they can eat when they are here.” And it was fruitless to explain to him that they ate sandwiches five lunches a week for years, and trust me, they would rather eat overcooked brussel sprouts than have a sandwich.  Because we were a friendly, giving sort of people–he was adamant that we put a sandwich in front of them, regardless of whether they wanted it, liked it, or would eat it. “Give them a sandwich.” was the mantra. 

And we cleaned up after ourselves. Oh, yes we did. When we moved out of our house, we cleaned it for the next people so it was cleaner than when we moved in. When we left a hotel room, we tidied up the bed, collected the towels in a neat pile and prepped the room for the cleaners. At banquets, we would stack the plates and cups together on the table for the convenience of the service staff.

The motto I grew up with in my home was, “Leave it cleaner than how you found it.” 

It’s a good motto, I think. 

And I think I generalized the motto to beyond cleaning, much the way my parents have lived their whole lives. In general, if someone did something kind for me, I would seek to do something kind for them…but probably a little kinder–a little bigger.  If somebody helped me, I was grateful…and I would seek to be helpful in return…and I wouldn’t ask them for help again until I reciprocated.

I have to tell you, there were years in which this was hard for me, cuz I was a single mom who needed help at times…and when a friend helps you with plumbing, or a friend hosts my Junior Tribe Member for nights regularly, there is no “reciprocating” as good or “slightly more than”. I figured it out in my head knowing someday I would seek to “pay it forward” to another person who was struggling.

The issue came to a head last winter after J and I started dating.  J is an extremely thoughtful and kind man–and his sweetness towards me is one of a kind. He opens doors for me, walks on the outside of the sidewalk, insists on carrying my backpack for me, and if I even have a thought in my head that I might like a glass of water…suddenly, it appears. He also works intensely hard in the summer and has a slower schedule when the snow flies. He would pick up a few groceries for me that he knew I needed when he did his own grocery shopping shopping–and they would be in my fridge when I got home from work.     He wrote sweet letters with little packages for my suitcase when I went away. One weekend after I got home from a course with Donald Miller, I came home to find my entire living room ceiling painted.

Who does that? J does. 

It took my breath away.

But not in a good way.  Not like, “Awww…that’s so sweet and so kind, it blows me away.” More like a, “I’m panicking and freaking out, and it feels like I can’t breath cuz something is sitting on my chest, and I gotta get outta here” sorta way.

I asked him to slow down, or if possible, even stop his kindness.  So I could catch up.

I told him I couldn’t keep up. 

I told him I was having a hard time holding my anxiety at the debt that was developing as the mountain of kindness he was extending to me was growing so quickly, it left me scrambling to figure out how to be as kind (but preferably slightly kinder, let’s be honest) to him. 

I disliked this internal discomfort that was growing by the day as he was so generous with his time and thoughtfulness.  

I needed this discomfort to stop…so I asked him to stop.

And he reminded me then (and still consistently does, because old habits die very, very hard for me) that “Comparison is the thief of joy.” He doesn’t like it when I compare his kindness to me with my kindness to him.

Comparison is the thief of joy. Theodore Roosevelt

And every time he says that, Donald Miller’s chapter on “Five kinds of manipulators” comes back to haunt me in the loveliest, most daunting and challenging and delightful sorts of ways. He says:

Because intimacy is based on trust, any form of manipulation will eventually break that trust. 

Because intimacy is based on trust, any form of manipulation will eventually break that trust. Quote by Donald Miller from the Book Scary Close

Dang it, Mr. Miller–that’s kinda harsh in its truth.

And the first kind of manipulation he lists is “Scorekeeping”.  Miller says that “Whenever somebody starts keeping score in a relationship the relationship begins to die. A scorekeeper makes life feel like a contest, only there’s no way to win.”

I think Donald Miler meant that scorekeepers expect others to do as much as we do in a relationship, and scorekeepers feel justified in holding back until the other “pays up” in a relationship. He says that scorekeepers call in favours and have strings attached to their generosity. I didn’t recognize myself in that, cuz I’m not that kind of scorekeeper. 

But I keep a reverse score. I need to be ahead in the “acts of kindness” score or I start to panic.

And I realized that one of the ways I find comfort in a relationship–in any variety of relationships–is that I give more than I receive.   My comfort zone is to know that I don’t “owe” anybody anything.  It’s not like I expect them to pay me back–not at all. I just like the feeling of knowing that I’m ahead in the generosity department.

For me, it’s a vulnerable feeling to know that the other has given or is giving to me more than I am to him/her/them.  I hate that feeling of being helped more than I’m helping.

Vulnerability sucks. (Even though I believe it is the lifeblood of all meaningful relationships, which I preach over and over–but that doesn’t stop me from doing crazy little dances to avoid it, too!)

When I am looking to be generous and giving and kind to others (in a way that’s giving more than taking)–it’s a sneaky, subtle form of feeling more in control, and therefore,  less vulnerable. Generosity and kindness are awesome…but when I keep score to ensure that I have given more than I have received…well, then I have made the relationship a transaction where I seek to have the other person be in debt to me. 

That’s NOT kind.

Donald Miller says that, “They never tell you when you get born a control freak it will cost you a healthy love life.” No mincing of words, that Mr. Miller. 


They never tell you when you get born a control freak it will cost you a healthy love life. Quote by Donald Miller from Scary close book

I don’t wanna be a control freak. Actually, I can hide it pretty good.  It’s hard to see “control freak” in a pan of brownies delivered warm to your door, so I have hidden it even from myself for a lotta years. But, if I’m honest, control-freakness sprouts it’s ugly head when I play this little “do more” game inside my head. (e.g. She bought me a tea this week and her thoughtfulness meant so much…I think it would be great for me to buy her a tea and a muffin next week.)

But when J brings me a latté every morning on top of everything else he does as my husband, I’ve been feeling a little panicky lately.  I am so not the person who will every be up ahead of him to make him a hot mug of coffee in the morning at least (or hopefully slight more than) half the time. 

It just ain’t gonna happen. Those who know me understand this not-being-fully-conscious-before-the-sun-is-up thing that I have. So it feels like I will never get ahead, I will always owe him, and somehow that makes me not “good enough” for him.

He tells me to stop keeping score.  He tells me that if I keep score on his kindnesses, then he will have to start feeling guilty for all the ways I have made his house a home, and been mothering his JTM’s. He says that I contribute ways in our relationship that he will never be able to match…and if I keep score in the “acts of kindness” department, he will feel pulled to keep up in the “relationship development” department–and he’s pretty sure he will always be in debt there, if we are keeping score. 

It gets pretty gross, I think, to keep score–to keep others in our debt.  It’s not kind. 

But it is automatic for me.

Deception in any form kills intimacy. Quote by Cloud and Townsend

But now I know.  And I want better for us…and for me, in all my relationships.  Henry Cloud and John Townsend say that “Deception in any form kills intimacy.” And keeping score is a form of manipulation.  And manipulation is a form of deception…trying to “win” (or frantically scrambling not to lose) in a relationship, even with acts of kindness is Just. Not. Cool.

I don’t think control freaks are born that way.  I think control freaks become that way to cope with the scary world of connection, intimacy, and friendships.  And when control freaks have developed that way, they have the potential to develop and grow into folks who can acknowledge vulnerability and uncertainty.

So…it has become a daily discipline to accept J’s lattés and his many other kindnesses with a simple, heartfelt thank-you

I work to stay in gratitude and not slip into panic (“What can I do for him right now?”)

I work to stay connected with him, and not disconnect to tally the mental scorecard to see how badly I am losing at the relationship giving game.  I’m working not to let it become a game.  I’m working to let it stay a relationship. J says that he would like us each to contribute in ways that work for us, and have that be enough. Isn’t that wise?

I’m working to trust that I am enough.  Me. Not what I do, but who I am.  I’m working to let my generosity with him be authentic, out of my love for him, not a scramble to “be enough”.

This is not easy…and truthfully, thus far, only semi-successful. This “give more than you get” theme goes really deep for me. It’s gonna be a discipline.  And hard work.  

But relationships are always worth it.

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