The other day, while catching up with a friend, the notion of emotional score keepers came up. “You do nice things for people because you choose to, not because you expect them to do something for you in return.” I am paraphrasing, but that was the gist of the topic. While the exchange was happening, I knew that I disagreed with this idea. But, at the time, I didn’t want to be a contrarian and I didn’t want to argue. You see, after a lifetime of trial and error, I have become a full believer in emotional score keeping.
I realize our society generally preaches about “kindness for kindness sake”, about loving unconditionally and about being oneself without feeling obligated to augment one’s choices in the face another’s deeds and feelings. Ironically, our society is also realistically and in general the most selfish, unkind and inconsiderate in recent times, which only makes the expressed lofty ideals of selfless and principled kindness even more unrealistic and out of synch with the facts of our modern living.
But while the idea of score keeping, the notion that a person does something and expects something in return, may sound selfish and shallow at first, it is actually a healthy and self-protecting quality to have–if done in moderation, of course.
Let me explain my point by telling you about myself. For most of my life, I held truly idealistic and utopian views about friendships. I believed in unbreakable bonds, in absolute loyalty, in going above and beyond, in loving unconditionally and in kindness for kindness sake. To me, friendships seemed divine and pristine connections, which were the source of all that mattered in life. Once I shared my heart and myself with a person, I felt that relationship to be of a higher state–one that could not be characterized by deeds, but solely by love, affection and admiration. I believed that emotional relationships were absolute commitments of one’s mind, heart, soul, time and effort. I have never made a friend out of convenience or mundane needs. Friendships were always sacred to me.
And, for most of my life, I’ve also often felt taken advantage of and used by people who didn’t care about me as much as I did for them and didn’t view friendships as seriously as I did. Countless times I found myself dejected, disheartened, disenchanted, disappointed, confused, hurt and sad over soured friendships. There have been times when I have felt unloved, cast aside and resentful over seemingly uncaring friends.
As a child, a teen and a young adult, my parents saw me agonize over friendships time and time again. They lectured, to no avail. They tried so hard to get me to put things into perspective so many times. Their pep talks about what a loving person I was and what a dedicated friend I could be fell on deaf ears. I could not see beyond my own disappointments.
“Ati, die for someone who’s willing to at least break into a fever for you.”
This is a Persian expression and it was a favorite of my parents during their talks with me. It means, give of yourself to those who are willing to give to you at least half as much as you’re willing to give in return. I used to hate this expression. I saw it as calculating and callous. There was no tit for tat in friendships, as far as I was concerned. It was all about love and the bond of friendship. How was it that my parents didn’t understand that? Didn’t they have friends they loved, not because of what they did for them in return, but because of love itself? I was quite idealistic and ever so outraged at their view of the world. But my naïve idealism did not deter them. They loved their child and wanted to help her not to suffer so much. They kept telling me to only give my love to those who were willing to return the love and friendship in return.
The cycle kept repeating over and over: I would meet a person, we would become friends, we would share of ourselves with each other, I would love, respect, admire, care for and act simply based on the bond we made, and regardless of the person’s subsequent actions and behaviors toward me. I would hold on to that bond, come what may. And, inevitably, I would find myself mystified, disappointed and jaded by the lack of balance in the relationship.
Balance. It took me years and years to understand that more than any emotional bond, what made a relationship work was balance. It took me even longer to realize that balance was the one ingredient often missing in my relationships. I kept signing up for one-sided, unsatisfying friendships, where most emotions and actions flowed away from me toward the other person. Aha!! I kept proverbially dying for people who couldn’t even be bothered with a fever for me!
My parents words came back to me and this time they stayed with me. Equilibrium, moderation, balance and give-and-take–these were often missing from connections I made with the people in my life. And their absence was hurting me over and over. That was when I realized the need to for “keeping score”.
Now, maybe there are people out there who are cleverer or more sophisticated than me. They know how to bond , love and express affection, while staying perfectly balanced in their relationships without keeping score, or keeping some kind of a mental tally of words and deeds. If these perfect people are out there, I hope to find them some day. In my case and after so many tires, I’ve finally reached the conclusion that there cannot be a meaningful emotional relationship unless there’s reciprocity and balance. And the only way to protect the emotional bonds, grow rewarding and fair relationships, while keeping my integrity and is to keep a record of what goes on in friendships.
Gone are the idealistic days when I remained constant, regardless of what shifts and changes came from the other side of the equation. I am no longer interested in investing myself into one-sided and unbalanced friendships. And my patience for unrequited relationships has finally run dry. My view of emotional connections is vastly different than what it used to be. I now look at every relationship as a mutually rewarding investment. I think we make emotional bonds, not simply to have made them, but to gain various benefits from them: loyalty, support, kindness, generosity, acceptance, guidance, love, admiration, encouragement and companionship, to name a few. All of us absolutely seek something in return for the emotional commitments we make. It is why we connect to people. Friendships, emotional commitments of most kinds, are made for a purpose and not simply for their own sake. If a connection is lacking, is one-sided or is severely lump-sided, it no longer interests me, not matter how deep the bond.
So, yes, I now do keep score. I do re-examine from time to time. I no longer give any more than I receive. And I do not die for anyone who’s not even invested enough to break into a fever for me. Anything short of that is not deserving of my time and emotions.
I’ll leave it this way: a friendship is not a nonprofit charity. In order for it to survive, flourish and prosper, it needs two equally engaged and committed individuals who return kindness with kindness, appreciate loyalty and generosity, and never take each other for granted. That is emotional score keeping–at least in my book.