Every once in a while, a few of my clients will seem to become synchronized around a single theme or issue. This happened a couple weeks ago, and the theme was obligation. The quick version is this…
“Appreciation and apology, not obligation, are the currency of healthy relationships.”
When people in a relationship become focused on score-keeping and equity, the relationship dynamic can become adversarial or imbalanced. One person might do the dishes more and start feeling resentful. The other person might feel judged and unappreciated, leading to mutual resentment and indignation. In another relationship, one person might always feel indebted to the other, whether fairly or unfairly.
When people keep score in relationships, there is no way to do so fairly. How many points is walking the dog worth? How about having a cold or a stressful day at work? The accounting simply doesn’t work in any objective way, and as a result, people end up feeling guilty, obligated, judged, indignant, entitled, or simply misunderstood.
An alternative approach is to focus on small transactions and keeping the score card cleared. If a person does a good deed, appreciation is the currency that clears the debt. If a person makes a mistake, an appropriate apology or effort to make amends is the currency. Each exchange clears the score card, and no debts are carried longer than necessary.
Another approach is to get rid of the score card altogether. This might mean a shift toward seeing the relationship as a single team, not competing teams. When one person has a victory, everyone on the team celebrates. When one person makes an effort, everyone shows appreciation. When one person has a bad day, everyone rushes in to help. And when one person makes a mistake, everyone is willing to forgive. There is no score keeping within the team, as long as everyone believes that their teammates are doing their best.
This last part, giving each other the benefit of the doubt, may be the biggest challenge of all, but it also may be the simplest secret for restoring balance and health to a relationship.