Yes, I know my marriage ended in divorce. But believe it or not, the marriage lasted longer and with less tension, anger, and resentment than it might have otherwise, because we were not allowed to turn in our collected green stamps.
Let me explain.
Before we got married, a wise friend told us about the Green Stamp theory. Maybe you remember Green Stamp stores. Supermarkets, gas stations, and department stores used to hand out green stamps along with your purchase. You (or your parents) would then go home and stick the stamps in a book, filling pages and eventually more books. When you had enough stamps, you’d head to the Green Stamp store and turn in your books for a blender, a toaster, or other merchandise.
In our relationships, we all do our best to overlook occasional troubling behaviors, failures, and misdeeds on the part of our partners. And that’s okay. It’s part of what makes a marriage work – we decide to tolerate certain things. The problem arises when you don’t really overlook these transgressions. You may not voice your unhappiness, but you put a “stamp” on a page.
By the time the book is full, you’re not reacting to the most recent stamp based upon the single incident it represents, but rather to an entire book’s worth of stamps. And inevitably the day comes when you cash in those stamps. Your partner is shocked to find themselves on the receiving end of a dose of anger, frustration, and disappointment that seems excessive. They did X, but what you’re addressing is their actions A-X. The accused fights back by saying, “You always overreact.” The next thing you know, it’s all your fault.
Over time, one or both partners may fill and cash in so many virtual stamp books that the relationship is irreparably damaged.
How to quit the system
During my marriage, if either my husband or I attempted to turn in a page or a book of stamps, the other person would say, “Nope, that sounds like green stamping.” And the conversation would turn to a more productive resolution.
Even so, I will admit that when my marriage unraveled, plenty of those books of stamps ended up being cashed in. Hard things were said – things that couldn’t be taken back. And it provided some good insight into how we could do better in future relationships.
If you’ve been secretly (or not-so-secretly) collecting green stamps, here’s how you can change this destructive pattern:
Still married and trying to save your relationship? Share the Green Stamp theory with your partner. Pull out your books and learn which stamps have been collected by both sides. Then burn the books and institute a new policy: No green stamps allowed.
Married but contemplating divorce? If you’ve been green stamping, acknowledge it. We all do it, to some extent. We convince ourselves we’ve been ignoring or forgiving our partner’s actions, but all along, perhaps unknowingly, we’re amassing stamps. Again, bring those books out into the light. If you don’t, you will surely hear “You can’t keep telling me everything I did wrong, when I had no idea it was wrong.” That’s not fair to your spouse or to the relationship.
You know something? Those old green stamp books weren’t worth the trouble, anyway. All that hoarding and saving, and the merchandise was ultimately unsatisfying. Easier just to buy a toaster and get it over with.
Are you using the green stamp system in your household? Get rid of it. Stop collecting the hurts of the past and shift the conversation toward the present and the future.