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What We Can Learn From This Couple’s Account of Their Depressing Scorekeeping Relationship

There’s an episode of the kid’s show Phineas and Ferb where the siblings are all pitched into an alternate reality and meet a very different version of themselves. In this other war-torn dimension, older sister Candace has grown up in a hardscrabble society and is no longer a boy-crazy suburban teen, but a world-weary cynic — she’s super competent at life, but she literally never has any fun. “So far, I give adulthood a 3,” Candace quips in response to her bleaker self.

My 7-year-old turned to me and asked what that meant, and I explained that being grown up has a ton of responsibility, so even though it comes with a lot of wonderful things, it often looks like a real drag from the outside. And yet, “I give adulthood a 3,” is what I thought in response to the latest in this Slate series called “Our One Fight,” where couples dissect their marriage from both sides in a he-said/she-said analysis of the one recurring issue they face as a couple.

This one is uniquely interesting because it’s between Slate editor Allison Benedikt and her husband John Cook, former Gawker dude, who have three kids and seem, by their own accounts, to have a functional household. Benedikt made some waves during the #MeToo movement when she wrote a piece about how the upside of flirting with your older, more powerful boss is that you just might end up “happily married for 14 years and have three children.”

Well, now we can read what that happy marriage looks like up close, and uh, hoo boy, grab the popcorn. It’s an accounting that demonstrates perfectly why reading about the actual work of marriage or the actual work of raising kids almost always makes you wonder why anyone would ever want to do it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t also really rewarding to procreate and shack up, it’s just that some people make it look like you need the energy and patience to sift through a war-torn alternate dimension to find the joy. These are two such people.

Either way, the account presents a few very valuable lessons for anyone considering marriage or children.

Married People Are Extremely Unreliable Narrators

Never trust, under any circumstances, what a married person tells you about the quality of their relationship, even when it’s supposedly revealing and true. Benedikt begins here by telling Cook that “ I love you very, very much and you make me very, very mad a lot of the time.” That’s the sort of thing anyone in a long term adult relationship, specifically marriage, knows can mean any number of things: they have a passionate, sometimes high-conflict relationship that manages to happily thrive on that tension, or they fucking hate each other. They could be exaggerating or they could literally fight constantly. They could like fighting constantly or at least be okay with it; both or one of them could actually be totally miserable and also be having an affair with a horse. We can’t figure that out from a self-reported account, although people who know them on Twitter have given it their best verdict:

What you, dear reader, need to extrapolate from this is simple: There is no perfect relationship; there is only what the two of you can live with. There are definitely expert-backed signs that some relationships are basically doomed, but even those shit stews will endure somehow for years, both parties all the while swearing it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to them. People want to have marriages that work, but never forget: In lieu of that, they will just pretend to have a marriage that works.

Even here, there’s a warts-and-all honesty to their accounting, but still, resist the urge to qualify it. Instead, remember to take every report by married people with a mortgage-payment sized grain of salt.

Their Marriage Is Actually Pretty Normal, Though

Once they start detailing the problem, it’s clear they are also a man and a woman in a modern relationship who have children (more than one, which is important) and mostly fight about who does what around the house. Like most relationships, she’s a woman so she does more inside things, and he’s a man so he does more outside things.

They are both keeping score, because after being with anyone that long and having a child with them, in this case, again, three, I believe it is impossible not to on some level. There’s a horrible version where you’re a zero-sum asshole, which is toxic. But in some ways, all couples fights are about keeping score sorta, or rather, trying to arrive at some kind of honest accounting about making the same effort in a union: I did this, and you didn’t do it too. I’m making effort you aren’t making. I am loyal; you are not. I am honest; you are not. I do more than you, care more, notice more, and so on.

It’s not the scorekeeping that will kill you necessarily, but probably the inability to ever negotiate terms you can actually live with. The only proof you will ever need is to go read divorce cases. Even people who act like they aren’t keeping score are suddenly keeping score once it’s all over, because now they remember that six years ago you said you’d always be grateful for how much cleaning they did and owe them an additional $6,000.

“But the issue that animates our most long-standing and frequent fights,” Benedikt writes, “is that I have a running spreadsheet in my head that keeps tabs on who has done more laundry/dishes/child rearing/socializing/band practicing at any given time, and you don’t like that I’m always keeping track.”

I don’t know why she needs the spreadsheet when we all know the answer is her. And it’s not that he doesn’t do anything, mind you. It’s just that what he does also sounds like what men do when they think they really “do stuff” at home. “I don’t think it matters that you did the dishes two nights in a row,” he responds, “if I had to spend two hours fixing the silicone bond on the shower stall doorstop, or made chicken and rice.”

But fixing the bond on the doorstop isn’t an everyday household chore. It’s something that comes up once, maybe ever. So spending two hours on it once, or making one dish on one day, even if it took six hours, is hardly the stuff of everyday, gotta get three kids to school and attend sports practice, effort. Why even bring it up as an example of “doing stuff” when it’s like, hardly any stuff at all? Because he’s a dude! But also, she’s a woman, so remember, she has to be a nag.

Men and Women Are Really Bad At Hashing This Out

Cook then goes on to frame Benedikt’s discontent through an anxiety issue she has, and not the clear-eyed facts of who does more and what the more is:

I think you often don’t credit me in your internal ledger for the work that I do because I actually tend to enjoy fixing things around the house and cooking — when I’ve done all the shopping and prep work and cooking for a 30-person barbecue we’re hosting, you’ve accused me of abandoning you with the kids all day.

Because he can’t see that he’s still getting off easy:

You’re right. I do get mad when you are cooking all day and I am saddled with the boys. And I know you see this as absurd because I don’t cook and we all need food to live. But cooking can take a little time or a lot of time, and when you unilaterally decide to cook a time-consuming meal, it does feel to me like you choosing to not be around, and then I get resentful that you have the room to get to do what you want to do. As you said, you like a lot of the responsibilities that are in your bucket. I don’t really like mine. Finding new babysitters every six months, managing family logistics, and doing the laundry are not enjoyable! That’s probably why you don’t do it! But you have a way of twisting all of that around to make me look petty and difficult. Which … maybe is what’s at the core of our fights? The fact that you see yourself as a selfless pitcher-inner and I don’t?

They Aren’t Negotiating Based On Abilities, Just Gender

They are missing the fact that it doesn’t feel equal, because it isn’t.

The answer here would be to negotiate domestic duties more like same-sex couples do, which is to say, based on who is actually good at what, and not based on “good at grilling meat” versus “good at loving children.” But hetero married people with kids are really, really bad at this, because they can’t stop playing 1950s movies in their heads the second they breed, and society hasn’t really fixed things so that they can. Instead, they tend to compromise thinking they’ve freely chosen to, when in fact, their steps were laid out for them from the start.

In conclusion, if you’re going to have kids, just have one. I know that sounds like pat advice that’s easier said than done, and it is. And obviously, if you’ve already had more than one kid it’s very, very hard to take one back. But if anyone who hasn’t had more than one yet reads this, take note: You can stop all this and keep your scorekeeping, petty heart down to at least just a few Google tabs. And then after that, tell us your secret.