“The secret to a stable relationship like ours,” she said proudly,” is give and take, a real 50/50 balance.”

I should look at her while she’s talking to me, but I’m sneaking peeks at him, checking for a reaction. I know the couple well and you would have to cook the books pretty creatively to call their relationship 50/50. My guess is closer to 90/10. In our circles she’s notorious for her demands and expectations. She takes up a lot of space which he supplies with nary a flinch.

How does that work?

My guess is that it’s a 50/50 balance around a 90/10 set point. In other words, they’re still negotiating a little give and take, but it’s between say, 87/13, and 93/7.

He doesn’t flinch because he’s not wondering about the set point. He’s not wondering because the variation around the set point feels easy and balanced, sloshing gently and reliably around even a set point as skewed as theirs’.

How are set points negotiated? Let’s start by noticing the continuum between business and friend relationships. In business we audit who owes what. In friendship we try not to audit. Love is ideally way over on the friendship side of the continuum, so far over into ignoring who owes what that it’s unsafe to love just anyone. You better pick your lover carefully or you’ll end up failing to audit a joint account you share with an embezzler.

To get to where we can ignore who owes what therefore takes a paradoxical blend of auditing and not auditing, carefully keeping track of who owes what so you can get to where you can afford to ignore who owes what. We’ll call this the Auditor’s Paradox: It takes auditing to stop auditing. To get safely to a set point where you can say, “who’s counting?” you have to count who owes what.

Keeping track of who owes what has a lot in common with double-entry bookkeeping. Each partner holds and maintains an intuited ledger; a ledger that registers what each gets and gives with each other. When negotiating set points, partners audit, discussing discrepancies as they arise. For example, when a partner says, “You don’t appreciate what I did for you last week,” it’s the equivalent to “What I did for you last week is recorded in my ledger as accounts receivable, but you don’t seem to have it recorded in your ledger as accounts payable.”

We mark and audit our transactions using the conventional terms of etiquette. For example terms like “please” “thank you,” and “sorry” all mean, “I’m registering this transaction as establishing a debt to you, something I will add to my accounts payable, and you can add to your accounts receivable.” These terms say, “I hereby acknowledge that I am receiving something from you.” They’re like receipts.

How about invoices? When you say, “Well…OK, here you go,” as you grant a favor, it can be like invoicing, like saying “In giving this favor, I’m recording in my accounts receivable a debt you now owe me.”

But what if instead you say, “not a problem,” “no worries” or “don’t mention it” as you grant a favor? Those don’t sound like invoices. Taken literally they mean something more like “I’m not keeping track of the favor I just granted. You need not register it in your accounts payable, because I’m not registering it in my accounts receivable.”

What’s up with that?

Auditing is toxic buzz-kill to friendship and especially to love. Imagine billing your friends for the Thanksgiving dinner you provide them, or giving your partner an itemized list of the expenses you’ve incurred in your relationship.

But given the Auditor’s Paradox, auditing is also necessary. We shouldn’t pair with someone who systematically cooks the books in his or her favor, so we have to audit some. But we also shouldn’t stay with someone who is constantly auditing, so we try to offset auditing’s buzz-kill by bestowing romantically lavish acts of kindness, acts that seem to cook the books in our partner’s favor. As a mutually affirming trust building gesture we deliberately make a mess of the ledgers, smearing the numbers.

When he says “thank you for what you did for me last week” and she says “no problem, happy to help, no worries.” He is saying, “I’m going to record your gesture last week in my accounts payable.” And she says, “I’m not going to count it as accounts receivable.”

Both his and her gestures might be deliberately excessive. What she did last week may be within the established set point range, so he didn’t really need to say thank you. Conversely, maybe she didn’t really need to say “no worries” either. Such excesses throw the accounting off, confusing who owes what. At best they promote and establish love’s freedom from auditing.

At worse though, confusions arise. We end up with conflicts where she says, “I feel underappreciated for what I did for you last week” and he says “But you said it wasn’t a problem!”

The Auditing Paradox breeds this confusion and conflict. And the confusion and conflict can compound. When she says, “I feel underappreciated” he can say, “Hmm. I didn’t know you were so anal about keeping track.” She can say, “Hmm, I didn’t know you were the type to take my gesture for granted.”

“Hmm.” Is another accounting gesture, meaning something like “you owe.” And actually, both partners have reason to go, “hmm.” Again, you wouldn’t want to date someone so anal he or she audited always, nor someone who takes your generous gestures for granted.

Still, for a relationship to successfully arrive at “whose counting?” it’s important that the compounding conflicts be dampened.

And there’s an easy way to dampen them. Simply recognizing the nature and consequences of the Auditor’s Paradox helps breed trust. To recognize, for example that etiquettes’ gestures are used in two opposite ways, used to audit and to not audit, keeps us from assuming that a misunderstood use is evidence that our partner is untrustworthy.

Your partner took your “no problem” literally and failed to appreciate your effort. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s an embezzler. Given the Auditor’s Paradox it might just mean he guessed wrong, thinking you were not auditing when you were. And your partner requesting appreciation even after saying “no problem” doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll audit forever. Given the Auditor’s Paradox it might just mean that she guessed wrong, thinking you were still auditing when you weren’t.

And do we ever get all the way beyond auditing? I doubt it. Even in the closest partnership, we audit a little in the background. We have to. Unconditional love would be love with zero bookkeeping. If there were really no conditions, you wouldn’t even flinch if your partner turned into a total zombie monster parasite embezzler. Your partner could lop off your arm and eat it, and you wouldn’t even think to reach with your one remaining hand for your ledger to ask “Is this worth it? Is our set point appropriate?” If bookkeeping is inevitable, then the question isn’t whether you do it, but when and how much?

No, even the guy giving what I loosely assess as 90% and yet unflinchingly saying “who’s counting?” could someday be flinchingly triggered into re-examining the books, and re-negotiating the set point. But until that point, if you asked him, he’d concur with his proud partner that their love is 50/50 around a satisfactory set point that they’ve arrived at through a combination of careful auditing and not auditing.