In which I continue to fight my bosom enemy. (One of them.)

Today I’ve been thinking about Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Little Women, in which the four girls talk about their “bosom enemies” — their special faults.

And certainly one of my bosom enemies is score-keeping. My Twelve Commandments include “Spend out” and “No calculation,” which are meant to remind me not to keep score, not to stint on love and generosity, not to keep track of who’s done what.

“I gave the Little Girl a bath last night, so you…”

“I let you take a nap, so you…”

“I had to make the plane reservations, so you…”

It’s awful. I see that. And yet it’s so hard for me to resist thinking that way. One thing I did was to decide always to do certain tasks myself — like changing a dirty diaper — rather than to see myself keeping score. And I try to bite back the words as I find myself starting to start to bargain or trade or make claims. I keep reminding myself of what St. Therese wrote: “When one loves, one does not calculate.”

I thought I was making some headway — and I do think I have, actually. Nevertheless, yesterday, in the nicest possible way, my mother pointed out to me that I show quite a bit of this pattern. Which is remarkable and discouraging because 1) my mother almost never offers advice or criticism (nowadays; it was different when I was younger) and 2) I’ve never talked to my mother about my fight against this fault; she just picked up on it on her own.

Oh dear.

So I’ve been thinking about a particular scene from Little Women. Marmee tells Jo that she, too, suffers the bosom enemy of a quick temper (another one of my faults).

[Jo] “Yours, Mother? Why, you are never angry!” And for the moment Jo forgot remorse in surprise.

[Marmee] “I’ve been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.”

So I may be in for a long battle.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Brenton Ellis

    Perseverance is key. After acknowledging the problem, getting rid of it becomes much more easy.

  • Lilly Evans

    As another quick tempered (it used to be termed Coleric type) person, I can offer both encouragement and hope. First, I suggest you reframe your relationship with your ‘bosom enemy’ by embracing it and loving it as part of you!
    Here is my approach. I took it as my way to express courageously and passionately how I feel about someone or something. I also got it that such full, in your face, expressions are not everyone’s cup of tea. Especially in England, this is just not done!
    Along with reframing my relationship with anger and owning it, I have also realised that looking always at what someone is doing well, however small is great help. My husband did not wash dishes for years (our dishwasher is not working and for two people it is just wasteful anyway). When he first started, they were done far below my exacting standards. I first complained so he said I can do it if I do not like it. As I was not about to take it back, I have given up on worrying about dishes – if it really matters that plates of glasses are spotles, I will do them again! And, there are no recriminations.
    As for insightful mothers, you certainly have one of those. I am sure you will be equally sensitive when it comes to your own daughter. Your mother seems to have noticed that you were now ready to HEAR what she had to say in the way that would be HELPFUL to you rather than taken as a criticism. Oh, the patience of the sints that some parents have! You are so lucky.
    And, do tell you mother how grateful you are to her for bringing it up.
    Thank you for bringing up ‘Little Women’ as it reminded me of Heidi’s early reading years when we used to read this book as bedtime story aloud – and she would follow by reading with me. It took 3-4 months and it was really a great time. We cried, we spoke about events, we discussed the girls reactions, we compared their lives with ours – all moments to savour for many years to some.

  • I completely resonated to this post. I have become a score keeper on childcare issues. And unlike Marmee, I show my anger – the think I like least about myself. And I’m worried that I don’t have another 40 years to learn how to manage it better.

  • Helen

    I, too, resonated with this post. I’ve struggled a lot with the need to keep score. It’s likely driven by a fear of being left to do everything: and that is a very real and big fear for me. I made a big step to come to grips with this issue when I read Patricia Ryan Madson’s book “Improv Wisdom: Don’t prepare just show up!” Her analogy of the improv team helped me to reframe situations that I found myself in. Changing my actions helped changed situations that resulted in much more pleasant outcomes for everyone involved. But I must admit – I still have the fear!

  • peter vajda

    In doing my own “work” on myself over the years, I found early on that I needed to see what was underneath my anger. I learned then to “inquire into” my anger and expore with curiosity, not judgment, why I was choosing to be angry.
    It turned out to be some flavor of my ego needs for control, recognition or security (mental, physical, emotional, psychological, finanial, social, etc.)
    I learned to ask myself, when angry, “How old do I feel?” The response was, and is, always, as a child (3-4-5-6-7, usually), now in adult clothes and in an adult body, who in some in some way is not being seen, heard, recognized, loved, acknowledged, etc. Or, feels he is being shunted, bullied, pushed around, forced to do something he does not want to do, etc.
    In this state of inquiry, going “through and into” the anger, not around it, I was (and am) able to connect to my Inner Source of strength, wisdom, etc., and come upon “right action”, “right knowing” and “right understanding.”
    In this place I was, and am, able to, for example, do what needs to be done, as an adult, without acting out, or am able to have an adult conversation with someone (spouse, partner, colleague…) with whom I needed to give and gain clarity about why I was feeling this way in order to be heard and reach a compromise or resolve a conflict, issue, etc., ie.e, to be seen, heard and understood (not necessarily agreed with).
    From this place there are no “unresolved” issues, or elephants in the room. From this place, there is no acting out, passive aggressiveness, etc. or unspoken assumptions or expectations or “stories” that I or another make up (causing frustration and anger) but have no idea of their truth.
    So, for me, it’s inquiring (deep exploration, journaling, proprioceptive writing, etc.) into my anger, speaking up respectfully, choosing to be seen and heard and then moving forward…in however way that plays out, most often, as an adult, from a place of inner peace, stillness and heightened sense of well be-ing. What I found is that “thinking” aboiut it does little to resolve it.
    And, more, burying the feelings of anger, only buries them alive…as they will come up to rear their ugly head again and again until dealt with.

  • Your honesty, Gretchen, is what keeps me reading your blog. I appreciate your description of struggles in addition to successes.
    Recently I had a major success inspired by your post about thinking positive thoughts about people you dislike. A couple of weeks ago, someone whom I must get along with me blew up at me and completely lost his temper over something very minor. When I saw him last week, I apologized sincerely for my minor gaffe, at which point he came out with a long and heartfelt apology for his behavior. We then both felt a lot more comfortable. I could tell that if I hadn’t taken the initiative, he would not have apologized. So thanks for the inspiration!

  • john doe

    I am going through a divorce with my wife right now and I can tell you that keeping score was a big problem. I was on the receiving end of this a lot and it was a factor, among many, that caused us to amicably separate. She would say “It would be nice if you did [X] or would have done [Y] because I did [Z].” “It would be nice if…” really meant you should have done [X] and I am pissed that you did not.
    Gretchen, I give you a ton of credit for recognizing this issue and working on it.

  • First visit. I’ll definitely be back. I love the book Little Women, so this post really caught my eye.
    Don’t let Marmee be your example for dealing with anger. She’s old school in trying to “control” or hide it, and wishing not to feel it. Ladylike as that may have been, that’s not realistic, and will only lead to resentment, stress and worse.
    Learning to change one’s perspective can redirect or even short circuit temper flares. But, sometimes it’s okay to go ahead and display a bit of displeasure. Acknowledge it and release it. Better to do that than to let it fester and turn to anger.

  • I agree with a lot of what Helen had to say. I also think women “see” a lot more things that need doing than men do, particularly in relation to kids, housework, and “how things appear to others” which inevitably leads to score keeping. There are 4 diapers currently in an unlined trashbin upstairs and they will stay there until they eat through the metal if I don’t remove them. I have finally understood that this is just the WAY IT IS. My husband does so much other stuff (shops, splits cooking, brings me coffee in bed) that I’ve learned not to scorekeep. That being said, I have developed an unusual technique when I find myself scorekeeping. I call it “Disarming.” If chores or something are weighing heavily on my side, rather than getting angry like I used to, I make hubs a cup of tea (he’s Irish, what can I say), bring him some chocolate and give him a huge hug and tell him what a great husband he is and how much I appreciate him. Before, when I would blow up, I would always feel so bad 30 minutes later. Now, I not only disarm hubs, but I also disarm my own anger! I do something similar with road rage. When someone cuts me off, I don’t give them the finger any more. I smile, wave, (and swear under my breath.) It’s SO HARD in the heat of the moment, but an hour later it’s forgotten and I am ALWAYS so glad I didn’t bring negative energy into my life.
    We all really appreciate your honesty. We all have our faults and it is quite difficult to share them with such a large audience and I really admire what you are doing.

  • I fogot the important point that by disarming husband, it comes back to me tenfold. He usually appreciates my extra effort to do and say something nice to him and will take care of the baby for the night or send me out for a pedicure. It makes all of us feel good. Usually he knows when he is slipping and my surprising reaction brings such positive energy to the table, everyone benefits.

  • I snipe at my husband too much. Thank God for your blog Gretchen – you keep me level headed when I’m running around like a total assbag. 🙂 lol

  • Reading your post reminds me of one of my constant refrains to my older children. I try to let them know that when I point out a behavior which they perceive as negative it is most likely the truth because I want only the best for them. A gift in a sense because who else will speak the truth to them. That said it has been a hard lesson for me to hear those “truths” from my own mother. But through this amazing child to parent to child cycle I am learning so much. k

  • I gotta go with pinkmohair on this one. As an organizing expert, I can be a tad, shall we say, fussy sometimes? (shocking, I know) For example, it is absolutely beyond me how one can make a sandwich and leave crumbs on the counter. Your eyes worked when you were making the sandwich, but once you’re done, your eyes don’t work to see the crumbs that your preparation left behind? I admit, it’s a small thing that irritates me. But I have learned that my husband isn’t exactly like I am, constantly scanning the area and noticing things. Anyway, he sometimes leaves crumbs.
    So I wipe them up and I do a quick mental exercise in gratitude for a fabulous husband who vacuums, dusts, takes out the garbage, cleans the cat boxes and does any and every household chore right along with me. He adores me, he respects me, he treats me with kindness and love, he would never intentionally hurt or annoy me, and we have a very drama-free relationship.
    And then to top it off, I remember that there are probably a thousand little things that *I* do that annoy the crap out of him, and he just rolls with it for the very same reasons. I believe the phrase is “pick your battles” and this exercise in calm perspective keeps our battles pretty much non-existent.

  • Michael

    Great topic, Gretchen.
    I would love your take (and your readers’ take) on my biggest bosom enemy, comparing oneself to others, especially in the context of marriage! How can one avoid the downward spiral of comparing oneself to other couples, who seem happier, better matched, more delightful, better at talking about problems, more gorgeous, having more fun, blah blah blah blah blah!?

  • peter vajda

    Hello Michael,
    So, some questions (as I might ask if I were coaching you, as I am a life/relationship/executive coach):
    1. What are the self-images or ideals, you have of yourself as a partner, and images you have of you and your partner as a couple? If you walked into a gallery and there are some portraits of you alone and of you and your partner as a couple, what labels would be under each of these? Why? How does trying to meet these images you have of yourself and of you as a couple cause frustration?
    2.What “shoulds” and “should nots” drive your relationship, drive how you alone and you as a couple live your life? What needs are underneath your comparisons, and what kinds of lack and/or deficiency do you constantly judge and criticize yourself and your marriage about? Write these down; do some deep self-reflection. (If you say none, then you wouldn’t be making envidious comparions and judgments.)
    2. What, specifically, are you comparing yourself/your relationship to when it comes to other couples?
    3. What was your parents’ marriage like? How did you parents compare themselves, their marriage to other couples/marraiges (if they did)? How did you compare your parents’ relationships to others’ relationships when you were growing up?
    4. What would your life, your relationship look like, be like, feel like, if you were happier, better matched, more delightful, better at communication…? What would be happening or not happening…i.e., measurable, observable behavors…not concepts or ideas.
    5. What is your history around relationship, e.g., personal vs. shared values, commitment, repeated patterns of behavior, etc?
    This is a smattering of questions and if you spend some time journaling, reflecting on these, your responses will point to some of the fears and insecurities that drive your comparisons, and your need to compare.
    The way one begins to eliminate the downward spiral you mention is to take a “conscious”, honest, sincere look at root causes of the spiral. This would be one way to begin.

  • I am such a scorekeeper sometimes. I am learning that if I CHOOSE to do something there should be no keeping score. 🙂 Thanks for the inspiring post!

  • tdes

    This post has me pegged completely. For starters, i’m an engineer and, unless i make a conscious effort to avoid it, live by calculations in attempt to maintain a perfect balance. At its worst, it has gone beyond simple this-for-that, morphing into a complex equation that figures in diaper changes, baths, salaries, spending habits, sleep time, nights out, running errands, even sex. When one thing would get out of balance, for instance, doing dishes multiple nights in a row – to prevent a conflict or meltdown i just add another term to the equation like ‘well, she DOES vacuum the floors and picks up the kids healthcare with her job, so it’s ok’. So after a few years and two kids, both sides of the equation have so many terms it’s near impossible to keep track. Summing up both sides to find out ‘who does more’ brings me back to tedious 8th grade algebra.
    For me breaking the cycle comes down to a matter of trust. I love my wife, and when the dust settles and i find a bit of peace I see that she is always doing her best to make us all happy, just as I do. The things I do she doesn’t realize is offset by what i don’t see. A simplified solution that involves no dead weight, no one being taken advantage of, both equal. I relate this to comparing a page-long series of algebra terms you have to add one-by-one to the elegance of integrals you learn in calculus.
    I’ll be the first to admit that when I’m tired or angry, the complex algebraic equation comes right back in. But when calm and logic me comes back i realize that it’s just my anger trying to justify itself, insisting that I’m right and she’s wrong. My little fits are much shorter now and i feel much better and stronger.
    Just knowing that this is common makes me feel like less of a cold, calculating robot. Sorry if my account was too mathy and rambling…OMG and for the horrible faux pas of rehashing a 7-year old blog thread. But I’ve written too much now to let it go to waste, so i’m submitting anyway…