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Keeping Score: What It Is, Why It’s Bad for Your Relationships

·881 words·5 mins

I knew I was in trouble the first time we went to bed, and afterwards he sighed and said, “Well, I guess I have to go down on you now.”

“What?” I said, definitely not in the mood for sexy time anymore. “Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that kind of attention, but that’s a heck of a tone.”

“But you went down on me,” he said.

“And?” I said.

He explained to me that his ex-girlfriend had a system where she literally counted orgasms. That she’d been willing to go down on him but only if he had gone down on her an equal number of times. And the same with orgasms from intercourse. She counted them. And if he’d had too many orgasms, he had to do something to bring the total back up to even if he wanted his sex life to include stimulation for him again.

“Wow,” I said.

He seemed confused. His ex was the only girl he’d ever slept with. And so he thought everyone did this. That this were not only normal but universal.

As the more experienced partner, I told him actually, no, this wasn’t the way that everyone conducted their sexual relationships. “I’m all for everyone having fun. A give and a take. Ebb and a flow. But counting and enforcing strict quotas… well, it seems to take the fun out of it.”

He admitted that because of her counting he had come to hate cunnilingus. He’d initially enjoyed it, but when it became mandatory and forced, he’d started to view it as a chore. And had developed an aversion to it.

“I don’t ever want you to do a sex act that feels like a chore,” I told him. “Even if it means I never have an orgasm again that I don’t give myself.”

The look on his face was priceless.

Keeping Score Turns a Partner Into a Competitor Instead of a Collaborator

The former partner’s ex who counted orgasms was a particularly stark example. And so it sticks really well in my memory. But I’ve seen an attitude of “keeping score” in a relationship manifest countless other ways.

There are couples who count how many times the other was right or wrong in an argument. How many times they’ve each cooked dinner. Done certain domestic chores.

Who’s been sweeter or more romantic or more thoughtful X number of times. Who makes more money.

Turning the entire thing into a giant competition. Turning the relationship into a giant scoreboard.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s important for everyone in a relationship to be pulling their weight. To be contributing to the greater good. It’s not ideal for one person to do all the work and the other to have all the time to play. For one person to always give and the other take.

But there comes a point where in trying to ensure that everything is “even” on a microscopic one-to-one level that you’ve stopped enjoying your relationship. And have turned your partner into a competitor instead of a collaborator.

It Can Be Really Hard to Stop Keeping Score

That said, it can be really hard to stop keeping score if you’re a person prone to it.

Unfortunately, some of us were raised in environments that promoted this behavior. In the family of six I grew up in, serving every meal was an exercise in accounting. Every scrap of food was counted and very strictly doled out. If something had to be cut into three pieces — or six — then so be it. It was.

And when in doubt, there was always a food scale at the ready (since my mother was a strict Weight Watchers adherent) to settle any visually based disputes about portion size.

The four of us children were always constantly compared. Our report cards, what sports teams we were on, our musical talents. And while we were four very different people, I was pitted against my siblings over and over again.

Little wonder that my relationships with my siblings now that we’re all adults are fairly strained. Distant.

Keeping score was a habit I had to break myself of once I left my family home and began to form intimate relationships with others.

A big part of it has come from working on building up security within myself. So I don’t feel a constant need to feel “better” than someone else or like I have the upper hand.

And another part has been finding a partner who naturally does their part, that I don’t feel like I need to parent or force to be responsible, selfless, or giving.

Didn’t find that right out of the gate. It took some doing. And a lot of heartbreak and failure along the way. But part of recognizing someone like that when you have them is giving them the space to follow through or not. Rather than trying to force someone who isn’t responsible or giving to be that way by keeping score and shaming them for “losing.”


For reframes and tools to maintain healthy relationships of all kinds, please see  Dealing with Difficult Metamours, a guide to troubleshooting challenging polyamorous dynamics as well as guidance on how to not create them in the first place.


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