Years ago my mother-in-law and her sister began nearly all their phone conversations like this:
“Where have you been? I called you three times yesterday.”
“I was home all day! You couldn’t have called. I’d have heard the phone.”
“Oh, really? Well, my first call was around ten. It rang about nine times. Where were you?”
“Right here! I’m sure of it, because that’s exactly when I signed for the UPS package.”
This verbal jousting occupied a large part of each conversation before they finally got to the reason for the call, if in fact there was another reason.
The subtext was always the same: You should have called me. I needed you and you weren’t there. You really don’t care about me. If you cared you would call. Be available when I call you.
Long ago my husband, Bob, had a friend, Sahl, a fellow public school music teacher. He was probably the person Bob cared most about, outside the family.
But Sahl didn’t call often enough to suit Bob, who complained, fretted and worried. “It’s so one-sided,” he would say to me.
“Why don’t you just call him if you want to talk to him?”
“I’m always the one who calls. He should call me.”
Over the years I’ve heard lots of complaints along these lines. Grown children who don’t contact parents, not often enough, anyway. Grandchildren almost never in touch. A friend who phoned days and days after the birthday. They just aren’t as caring as they should be. Don’t they know that people need to hear from them?
No, they don’t know. They’re busy doing their own lives. It probably isn’t that they don’t like us, don’t care. They forget.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t notice. It can hurt, it really can. But over the years I’ve tried to develop a way to lessen the disappointments. It’s quite simple, really. At least it sounds simple.
Don’t keep score. Pick up the phone and call them. Email them. Write them. Waiting for them lets the hurt grow and gives us time to get more and more frustrated and angry.
It’s best not to count greeting cards sent and received. That count is often disappointing. The same applies to gifts, particularly gifts for which we don’t get thank-you notes. My generation has a particularly hard time with this.
Keeping score can also arise in the business of who’s doing what for whom. A friend recently opened an email from her sister which began. “Just for the record, I want you to know that I was the one who . . .,” and she listed the things she had recently done to help their aging mother.
The sister receiving the email was not sympathetic. She also had done many things for Mom, as had others. The e-mailer was in her own reality, either not knowing or ignoring the others’ contributions. My friend, discussing the problem, said, “For the record? Who’s keeping a record?”
We can all cite flawed relationships, things that others could and should do, and don’t, even if we ask them to. Our only choice then is how to react. Sometimes we can’t just drop the relationship. The healthiest thing to do is try to turn a blind eye, even when it is difficult and painful.
Score-keeping has never, ever, improved any relationship.