Keeping Score in a Relationship is a Recipe for Conflict and Dissatisfaction
One of the many changes we have collectively experienced with the COVID-19 pandemic is increased time with our partners, family members, and other loved ones. In the pre-pandemic era, quality time with loved ones was often limited, sometimes requiring people to prioritize work-life balance to shield their closest relationships against other responsibilities and social engagements. Although many people are finding the opportunity for more quality time to be a gift, couples are also experiencing more conflicts as a result of being confined at home and spending more time together. Reports from China show an increase in divorce rates after movement restrictions were lifted, demonstrating how consequential intermarital conflicts can be during this time.
It can be easy to get caught up in keeping track of what we do for each other in our relationships. For example, a person might have the thought, “I had to do all of the cooking today, so you should clean the bathroom.” This kind of itemized attention to what each of two people contribute to their lives together can be useful in casual or professional relationships to maintain equality, but it can be harmful when applied to our close friends and family members.
Although mentally keeping score is appealing, people often aren’t accurate in their accounting. For example, when couples are asked to report the percent of the household chores they each do, they generally overestimate their personal contributions. In fact, when the two people’s reports of their individual efforts at home are combined, they account for more than 100% of the domestic chores! Although we each have a complete account of our own efforts, we aren’t fully aware of what our partner might be doing all of the time, which leads us to underestimate the things they do.
People differ in the degree to which they keep track of what they and their partner each contribute to the relationship each day. The extent to which people are attuned to and value an equal distribution of tasks and favors within a relationship is called “exchange orientation.” Having an exchange orientation—paying ongoing attention to who is benefitting most in the relationship—results in greater dissatisfaction in close relationships and ultimately leads to a greater likelihood of divorce.
To see how exchange orientation may influence relationships on a day-to-day basis, my colleagues and I had 82 couples report on their relationship with their partner every day over the course of four weeks. We were interested specifically in how participants responded to conflicts because conflicts are often a sign that people perceive that an inequality has occurred in their relationship. And, when unresolved, conflicts can lead to deeper problems and even to the deterioration of the relationship.
Ideally, partners should view conflicts as an opportunity to work together to improve their relationship. Conflicts happen in all relationships, and if people moved a step closer to throwing in the towel after every minor sign of distress, no one would still be in a relationship. Fortunately, people are still in relationships. But, people differ in how they interpret the meanings of conflicts.
Conflicts may be particularly distressing for people who are higher in exchange orientation because paying ongoing attention to the relative equality within the relationship could make conflicts more salient. With conflicts at the forefront of their mind, people may place greater weight on the negativity associated with the conflict when thinking about how their relationship is going. As a result, when everyday conflicts occur, people with an exchange orientation may feel less close to their partners.
Our study found that people who were higher in exchange orientation—those who “kept score” more in their relationships—experienced larger decreases in feelings of closeness and intimacy with their partner on days when the couple had conflicts. But conflict did not affect feelings of closeness and intimacy for participants who were less concerned with record-keeping.
But, having an exchange orientation wasn’t related to the number of conflicts that couples reported over the course of the month. This means that being higher in exchange orientation didn’t cause more conflicts. Rather, having an exchange orientation simply made conflicts more consequential when they occurred. These results show that keeping track of what we contribute to our relationship or focusing on what our partner “owes” us can damage the relationships that matter most to us.
For Further Reading
Jarvis, S. N., McClure, M. J., & Bolger, N. (2019). Exploring how exchange orientation affects conflict and intimacy in the daily life of romantic couples. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(11-12), 3575-3587. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407519826743
Ross, M., & Sicoly, F. (1979). Egocentric biases in availability and attribution. Journal of personality and social psychology, 37(3), 322.
Thompson, S. C., & Kelley, H. H. (1981). Judgments of responsibility for activities in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(3), 469–477. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.529
Clark, M. S., & Mills, J. (1979). Interpersonal attraction in exchange and communal relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(1), 12–24. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.206
Buunk, B. P., & Van Yperen, N. W. (1991). Referential comparisons, relational comparisons, and exchange orientation: Their relation to marital satisfaction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17(6), 709-717
Shoshana N. Jarvis is a doctoral student in the Management of Organizations group at the Haas School of Business at University of California, Berkeley.