Cathryn's Articles for Stepmom Issues and Relationships


Are You Keeping an Emotional Ledger?
Are you ledger-keeping? Give your relationships a clean slate.


As we begin each New Year, there’s a light-hearted anticipation for fresh starts, new goals and a renewed optimism that things can be different and better. Hope abounds and new choices are ripe for the picking. Nowadays our gratitude for the people we love and the blessings we possess is greater than ever yet with all this, we may still find ourselves angry with and/or hurt by the people we love the most.

With the intention of offering some ideas for increasing the love we feel and reducing the tension in our relationships, let’s review a common and not-so-healthy relationship problem and it’s creative antidote. The goal of this article is to explain and offer alternatives to emotional “ledger-keeping” with the hope that once you understand this behavior you’ll opt for the alternative and decide to give yourself and those you love an emotional “clean slate” at any time of the year.

What is Emotional Ledger-Keeping?
In a nutshell, ledger-keeping is the decision to retain, in our active memory, a list of mistakes that people make so that these acts can be recalled and used at a later date for any number of self-serving reasons. It’s sort of an advanced-defense system that seeks to accumulate evidence against another in case we ever need to use it to distract, exonerate, nullify or justify something we do in the future. Have you ever been in the middle of a discussion when out of the blue you or your partner “counter-attack” by bringing up something that happened 4 months (or 4 years) ago? The reaction to this tactic can range from mildly annoying to downright infuriating.

Using this ledger doesn’t help us get closer to the ones we love; it actually creates a greater rift between us. When someone uses a ledger-ed event against us, it doesn’t help us learn from our mistakes; it actually makes us feel less close and less willing to talking with our loved ones. Keeping a ledger is a decision to put time and energy into remembering mistakes instead of putting time and effort into resolving or eliminating them in the future.

So where to begin? First, let’s understand why we do this and what we “get” out of it. Then we’ll review some options. Remember, all behavior has meaning. There are reasons why we do things. Once we understand what we’re trying to create with our old behaviors, in this case, ledger-keeping, we can begin to try new ways to get what we want AND do so, without having any negative impact on others or ourselves.

The Benefits of Ledger-keeping:

1. Advanced Mistake Insurance-Ammunition for our future mistakes. Example: Thinking the following about your a situation when someone is late for dinner, ”If he/she is late for dinner tonight, I won’t say anything and I’ll be real nice so that the next time I’m late I can cash this one in by reminding him or her about this at a strategic time. This way he/she won’t feel they have a right to get angry at me.

2. It helps us feel “better than” the one making the mistakes via detailed comparisons. Example: “You left the garage door open 5 times last month (I noticed but I never said anything) so I don’t think you have any right to criticize me for forgetting to put out the trash this one time.” A key point here is this…If you never mentioned that leaving the garage door open bothered you; if you got silently angry but never expressed your feelings, you were adding to your ledger and justifying getting angry about it without giving the other person the information they need in order to do something good or right. This isn’t fair to anyone.

3. It’s a distraction tactic to try to delay or avoid taking responsibility for our negative impact. Example: “Well, maybe I did hurt your feelings at the party but you REALLY hurt my feelings four months ago when we were talking to the neighbors. I never said anything but you did hurt my feelings.” Yes, the two incidents are unrelated but having the mental ledger handy can be effective in temporarily getting you off the hook by triggering the other person’s need to defend themselves.

4. Some people collect emotional IOU’s to build an “Entitlement Fund” of sorts. This is the part of us that actually feels a kind of childish glee when others disrespect or let us down because we know they will feel badly and owe us an apology. “Oh goody, I can really use this one to get something I want in the future!” These mistakes create an out of balance sense within a relationship, tilting in our favor. Example: Someone repeatedly lets you down and yet you continue to expect him or her to change. You act as if you’re ignoring or accepting this behavior but you’re really keeping track of them. In the process, we accumulate a litany of transgressions that could have potentially been avoided if we’d spoken up or changed our expectations. However, we stay silent because, at some level, we get a cheap high, feeling that we’ve been wronged and can now prove it. With this tactic, the IOUs are cashed in strategically when we want to be able to get away with a future act, something that may have negative impact or displease this other person in some way on the grounds that we have suffered enough of their “stuff.” Very understandable, childish and sadly very common.


It’s clear that keeping and using emotional ledgers is harmful to relationships, yet some feel the benefits justify their use. Keeping ledgers is a destructive habit that can be replaced with a more positive one that will create more love and more trust in our relationships. Thank goodness there’s another way to behave. We can decide to give our loved ones a clean slate from the past. We can essentially forgive them officially and finally “exonerate them” of past mistakes- if you want to. How many times do they have to pay for the same “crime” before their debt is paid?! (That’s a really interesting question to honestly answer.)

We can make a conscious decision NOT to remind them of past “crimes.” We can make the commitment to deal with any negative behaviors, as they occur and then move on in a genuinely loving way. The power of this choice is that it can be made at any time and as many times as needed. The benefit of this choice is that it generates more love and trust with those we love and virtually eliminates the resentments and hostilities (overt or covert) that can poison even the strongest relationships.

We can make the decision to practice, what I call the “That was then and this is now. What do we want to create going forward” relationship philosophy. This is when we choose to periodically erase the mental list of past mistakes. (Please note: I am NOT talking about abusive situations.) To do this, we both need to be willing and able to process the impact of any actions that hurt us or make us angry so we can honestly redirect our attention on ways to create a future that eliminates these circumstances from reoccurring.

Resistance to giving a clean slate is natural

How would our relationships be different if we woke up one morning with amnesia about anything negative that happened between us? What would it feel like to give the ones we love a relationship “clean slate?” Some resistance to this idea is natural.
You may be thinking:

“Stop right there!

“Wait a minute!

“What about the fact that people have done stuff to hurt or anger me?

“Are you suggesting that I just forget what they did and act like it never happened?”

Absolutely not! Acting is never helpful in a relationship. Besides our anger leaks out even if we think we’re hiding it. I’m suggesting that you do two things. First, make the choice that you are WILLING to give them a clean slate. Second, figure out what has to happen and/or change for you to grant the clean slate. Your personal situation will dictate the details.

What are the benefits of giving someone a clean slate?

1. It feels great to feel “in love” again. Carrying and maintaining these ledgers can be exhausting and damaging to our relationships because it keeps our attention on what people are doing wrong instead of the many things they obviously also do well. Sometimes the weight of past mistakes feels impossible to overcome so we stop trying. Getting or giving a clean slate frees up the energy and reawakens the motivation to try new things and to love at deeper levels.

2. It takes the pressure to be perfect off of everyone. We all make mistakes. It’s part of being human. When we’re honest with ourselves, I believe we all that this to be true.

3. Agreeing to a mutual clean slate gives us the ability to relax about our own behavior knowing that we will not need this evidence (protection) any more.

4. By agreeing to give each other a clean slate we can learn from the past without continuing to pay for it.

5. We can stop enduring behavior we don’t like and begin enjoying the benefits of the new strategies that result from our improved communications.

Creating a Clean Slate

Sometimes the decision to give someone or each other a clean slate can be as simple as making a choice. Recognizing and then verbalizing that the intention to start over, focus on the good and be as loving as possible can be all that is needed. It can be that miraculous! Other times there’s a bit more effort required. Here are some suggestions. Every situation is unique. Try the suggestions that feel appropriate for you:

1. Make a list of all the things that are bothering you about your loved one? What’s on your ledger? Be as specific as possible. Write it down. It’s very important to see it in writing. Group the incidents by the reaction they cause you. What things make you angry? Hurt your feelings? Make you feel less loved? Disrespected?

2. About which event do you want an apology or still feel the need for another one? Where do you humbly realize you need to give an apology? What amends are you looking for from your loved one? What amends are you willing to offer? Saying you’re sorry is one thing. Backing the apology up with your actions is powerfully healing to the relationship.

3. Identify the items on your list that you have NOT talked about before. When people have negative impact on us and they don’t know it, it’s our responsibility to have the courage to inform them of their impact, tell them how they can behave differently and then ask if they agree to try a new strategy.

4. Process your anger. Please refer to my article about "The Anger letter” for details and tactics to process your anger. There are many ways to process and release anger in healthy ways.

5. Create 2-4 suggestions for ways you or your loved one can behave differently in order to avoid negative impact in the future. Your earlier lists will give you specific behaviors to address. Share each other’s ideas or present your ideas to your loved one and agree to pick one option and try a new approach to whatever is bothering each or both of you. Be sure that each of your options is acceptable to you so your loved one is free to pick any of the options you have offered. This can take some thinking and is well worth the effort.

6. Agree to some creative ways (funny is very effective also) to remind each other about ledger-keeping. Example: Write it on the calendar for a once a month process. If one of you feels that some silent ledger-keeping is occurring, agree to uses words and ask each other, promising a non-defensive response whenever asked.

7. Agree to NOT bring up incidents from the past when you are having an argument about something in the present. Someone can write it down and/or you can agree to talk about it later. Refuse to use things for the past as weapons. If you haven’t said anything and you are unhappy-you have no Adult grounds for complaining or blaming.

Ledger-keeping is often a survival habit so it may take some time and practice to change. Be patient with yourself and each other. Granting each other a clean slate does not necessarily come naturally. When we focus on owning our impact on each other, demonstrate a willingness to try new behaviors and create a patient and loving space in which to try new things, even the most hurtful or angering behaviors can be forgiven, healed, changed and/or eliminated. It can be very exciting to realize how many aspects of a relationship can be improved by openly stating that intention. Be committed to keeping any new agreements. This process can create a higher level of trust and a deeper intimacy with the people you love.

©2002 Cathryn Bond Doyle . All rights reserved.
Stepmoms on a Mission®
PO Box 7, Medford NJ 08055
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Cathryn@smoms.org