There were still a lot of empty rows on the plane, but I’d flown sold-out Southwest flights often enough to know that it’s better to grab the aisle seat in a row 2/3 full — when you can be sure of who you are going to sit next to — than to take the first seat in an empty row and have no control over the size, shape, or personality that ends up beside you. On that count, the white-haired couple in 7 A and B were a no-brainer. I could see in their soft glances that they’d already “accepted my application”.
“May I sit here?” I asked.
They both smiled. “Of course!”
And that was the beginning of three of the most pleasant hours I’ve ever spent in cramped quarters at 30,000 feet.
We talked about their winter home in Florida and their summer home in Kansas City. We talked about his long career in the military and her long career in the home. We talked about their three children and their seven grandchildren, but most especially about the 25 year-old granddaughter whose wedding had just brought them and posterity together. And when they found out that I was a marriage mentor/educator, this experienced Mr. & Mrs. asked if they could share the same advice with my students as they had with their bride.
I pushed my tray and shed my belt so I could turn to face them.
Mrs. smiled and bobbed her head in a motherly way.
“One day at a time,” she said with a satisfied tone. Then she looked at her husband.
Mr. looked back at her. Then he looked at me. Then he looked out the window. At last he turned toward both of us and leaned in purposefully across her lap. I leaned in too. Something said to me that whatever he said to me was not to be missed.
Lowering both his voice and his chin, he practically whispered: “Never keep score.”
I was stunned.
Marvelous. Mr. had just communicated in three words what had taken me hundreds of words and several months to communicate to one of my mentees…
For all the progress and promises Suzie (I’ll call her) made in one of our weekly mentor meet-ups, I knew as sure as 1+1=2, that by the next week, we’d be back to square one. And it was one of those “square one” weeks when I sighed over her latest email: a long narrative in which the positive was overshadowed by complaints and charges against that infuriating husband of hers.
I dissected her diatribe, point for point, so that at our next meet-up, I could ask Suzie to assign each of her husband’s choices or behaviors to one of two columns: HELPFUL or UNHELPFUL. I also instructed her to assign each action a certain number of points; between 1-100, whatever it was “worth” in her eyes. For instance, was helping the kids with homework a “minus 30” or a “plus 30”?
She took the bait. In fact, she seemed to relish the opportunity to translate every single interaction between them from the past week, into numbers. For over 90 minutes, I patiently played the game with her; me vocalizing word-for-word her emailed report; she replaying each incident in her mind, then assigning it a value.
“You say here that he cleaned out the shed. What is that worth do you think?”
“Yes. Well, he and the boys did a good job of it, so I’ll give him 80 points for that in the Helpful column.”
80 points.” I picked up my pencil.
“Oh, but wait,” she said. My pencil hung in mid-air. “I asked him to do that two years ago. Better take 30 points off for that.”
“Right. 50 points. What about leaving work early to pick you up at the airport?”
“Ummm. That was nice, I guess. 40 points.”
“On, but he didn’t kiss me till we got home. Make it 20 points.”
And so it went.
When we finally exhausted the email, I totaled both columns. To her surprise (and I suspected dismay), the HELPFUL column had more points than the UNHELPFUL column.
By a long shot.
She was quiet for a several minutes.
“Suzie. Did you really hear yourself?” I mimicked with kindness the exact way she bestowed and recanted approval based on her arbitrary and self-centered conditions. I didn’t have to explain further. To her great credit, Suzie, the “goading wife” (her own words) — Got It. Three weeks after our light-bulb session, she graduated, with honors, so to speak, from our weekly mentor meet-ups, cured forever of her arithmomania.
Suzie, and the many other Suzies I work with everyday, took up my thoughts for the rest of Flight 580. The fatality of “keeping score”, or what I’ve since come to call “the matcher mentality” became crystal clear in four points:
- The matcher mentality will only take you so far and is ultimately frustrating.
- The matcher mentality oversimplifies, which also only frustrates when complex people and problems cannot be controlled or are not resolved.
- The matcher mentality, which is based in self-justification, inevitably deteriorates into disrespect and condescension which kills any hope of motivating your partner to step up to the plate.
- The matcher mentality overemphasizes differences, disconnection, disappointment, and disparity while downplaying or remaining or ignorant of: 1) how those very differences could be helping you meet one another’s needs and 2) how you may actually be working towards the same goals but from different angles.
As I gathered up those thoughts (and my things) upon the landing of Southwest Flight 580, I said to my seat companions: “Thank you so much for your wisdom. It will help more women than you know. I wish I could give you something for it.”
“Oh my dear,” said Mrs., “our pleasure.”
“Besides, ” said Mr., “Who’s keeping score?”
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