Pay It Forward – The Importance of Keeping Score


Shaunti Feldhahn gives married couples advice on how to properly keep score of your spouse's generosity.

According to the 1 Corinthians 13:5, love is not self-seeking and keeps no record of wrongs.

The highly happy couples I interviewed for my book, Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, taught me, however, that the best marriages do actually keep score – just not in the way you might be thinking! You see, the couples who became the most happy – including many who had at one time been miserable — told me they subconsciously always were keeping track of what their spouses were giving. As a result, one spouse was so aware of what they owed the other, and that helped them to let go and not keep a record of their spouses’ wrongs.

These couples see how much their mates do for them and make an effort to compensate in some way. And this was particularly relevant during seasons when one spouse was having a particularly difficult go of it at work, or with the kids, or whatnot. It was almost a feeling of “Wow, he has been logging so many hours on the construction site, and these new project managers are causing him so much stress! How can I make things easier for him for the next two weeks until the project is done? Maybe I’ll bring him a dinner onsite every few days, so he doesn’t have to worry about getting home for dinner and can relax a bit.” 

As a result of keeping score of what their spouse is giving, those “I’ll bring him dinner”-type actions were out of the heart instead of a sense of duty. And it certainly didn’t come with a sense of “aren’t I doing something so wonderful for him?” Because it originated from a sincere awareness of how much the other person was giving during that time.

A friend of mine refers to this give-and-take as the Canoe Theory of Marriage. Picture a husband and wife paddling across a lake. When one paddler is paddling so hard it tips the canoe to the right, the other paddler compensates by tipping more to the left… so they don’t tip over.

Sure, there are some spouses who are just 100% lazy and selfish, but those are by far the minority. In almost every marriage, there are things each partner is doing that are worth noticing, which will make you want to “give back!" It turns out that keeping score in that way and paying that generosity forward will keep that healthy cycle going indefinitely.

It might take some practice, but that’s OK. I promise you this is one skill you will be grateful you learned!

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