The Trouble With Keeping Score

This week I’ve been thinking about how we keep score in our relationships. It’s a common complaint from therapy clients. “I always call my mother. She never calls me.” Or, “I don’t want to be in a one-sided friendship, where I’m always the one inviting him to go out.”

Keeping score is one way that we maintain distance in anxious relationships. A seemingly self-absorbed parent, an inconsiderate sibling, or a radio silent friend are convenient excuses to reduce contact. It’s easy to label one person as the problem, but often both parties are participating equally in the behaviors that maintain this distance (or sometimes conflict) that keeps them from a closer relationship.

When we’re focused on how often or how people communicate with us, we’re pulled into this immature functioning. We don’t stop to think about what it means to be a good friend, or a mature sibling or adult child. Or how this particular relationship could be an opportunity to live out that thinking.

Have you ever “kept score” in any of these ways?

  • Refused to call a friend because they never call you
  • Complained that a family member never asks you about yourself
  • Refuse to visit family because they don’t visit you
  • Didn’t get someone a gift because they didn’t give you one
  • Ignore texts from a person who is slow to reply
  • Maintain distance because it’s been too long since you’ve spoken
  • Become defensive when a distant family member becomes interested in you
  • Become frustrated when a family member interrupts/doesn’t listen

The usual response to these frustrations is to try to make the other person change. “If you would just do X, then our relationship would improve.” This often proves ineffective. Or if the person does make attempts to change, you might say, “It’s too late,” or, “This doesn’t change the past.” Or my favorite, “You’re only doing it because I asked you to.”

Often people will find that when they focus on being the kind of person they want to be, a relationship will calm down enough that the other person can feel comfortable with more frequent and more intimate contact. They might even initiate it themselves.

But what if you’re disappointed? What if no matter how many times you call your Aunt Susan, she still sounds shifty and paranoid about why you want to talk to her? What if your mother still isn’t the best listener in the world, or asks incredibly unhelpful questions?

We all have fantasies about how we’d like our family relationships to be. But if the goal of moving closer is to turn your family into perfect, supportive characters who are fascinated by your awesomeness, then you’ll likely be disappointed. You move closer to your family in order to better express your own maturity within it. And when you’re able to do this, even just a teeny bit better, you might find that you can enjoy relationships with imperfect people. People who push back at some of your decisions. People who aren’t always the best listeners. You might also find that they are more of a resource to you than you once believed.

This week I’d like for you to think about all the ways you keep people at arm’s length simply because they fall short of your fantasy about family or friendships. Is it really worth not texting that friend because you resent her fixation on her new job? Do you not want to tell your Dad about your new car because he’ll quiz you about your finances? Maybe it’s worth getting on a plane to see your family for Thanksgiving, even if they wouldn’t come and sleep on your air mattress in a bajillion years.

When I think about relationship challenges, I always come back to the quote, “Your only competition is who you were yesterday.” Everyone else’s maturity is their responsibility. Honestly, what a relief that is. Keep thinking about what it would look like to stay focused on yourself, and on becoming the best version of yourself in all those tricky relationships.

News from Kathleen

I wrote a book, and you should preorder it! If you preorder my book, you can read one of my favorite chapters today! Once you’ve ordered, click here to submit your proof of purchase  to receive the bonus content and the sneak peek! Proof is simply a picture or scanned image of your receipt. The easiest way to do it is to take a picture with your phone.

I’ll be giving a presentation at the Bowen Center’s opening clinical conference in DC on Friday, Oct 4. The theme is “Anxious Times, Anxious Families,” and I’ll discuss how you can increase your ability to act less reactively in your own family.

As always, I love hearing from readers. You also can reply to this email if you have questions about the book, want to connect with me about my therapy practice, or would like me to speak to your group.

Did someone forward you this note? Subscribe to get your own next time, and check out my newsletter archive if you’re a new subscriber. You can also follow my thoughts on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook, or read more of my writing.