Reciprocity: mutual dependence, action, or influence; a mutual exchange of privilege.
Reciprocity in relationships is an idea that comes up in my clients' therapy often! Generally, it is brought up when a person describes what they “bring to the relationship” and what their partner/friend/family member “brings to the relationship” and those descriptions paint VERY different pictures of generosity, flexibility, forgiveness, understanding, and thoughtfulness.
You’ve probably heard the idea that relationships often involve an “exchange of power”. I agree with this to some degree, especially at the beginning of a relationship when one party may be more invested or excited than the other. I see it as a problem once relationships have passed the beginning phases, at which time both parties should exhibit more similar levels of investment and excitement (or part ways if that cannot equalize!). Power dynamics should become something that we don’t want to take part of (or abuse) over time- if we are truly safe with our partner and respecting of them, we shouldn’t have to worry so often about who has the upper hand or what it would take to achieve that. An ongoing interest in power dynamics, or playing emotional games with one another, should be something to be genuinely curious about in therapy.
If you were to be curious about how “equal” and “fair” your relationships are, you would be questioning the concept of reciprocity. This means that you are curious if your partner/friend/family member would treat you as you would treat them, more often than not. We would be evaluating this in therapy as a PATTERN of treatment, and not treatment in one singular instance. * We cannot hold everyone to the standard of needing to respond to us how we would respond to them in every instance, or we will OFTEN be disappointed! We can however evaluate whether someone “has our back” or cares for us to the degree that we care for them over the course of events, or if they tend to disappoint or abandon us regularly. *
For example, if you had a friend who made a habit of calling you after a fight with her spouse to vent, you may question reciprocity if you were to do the same but be scolded by that friend for calling, ignored repeatedly, or told your feelings weren’t valid.
Now, if you notice an issue of reciprocity, that DOESN’T necessarily mean you need to end your relationship! You may keep an eye on the issue to see if it becomes a pattern worth talking about, confront the friend about the issue and how it makes you feel that there is unequal treatment given in similar circumstances, decide whether you could accept this inequality and continue to act as you have because it is in line with your values/character, or be tasked with changing the way YOU respond to that friend over the issue. At its most extreme, you may consider ending a relationship if you find that none of these other options are viable.
Looking into reciprocity can be an important tool to avoid building resentment in our relationships. We will become angry overtime if we notice that we overextend ourselves for someone who is not willing to care for us in that same way. It also can be valuable if you access that you have asked for more in a relationship than you are willing to give- you may scale back your requests to keep it more “fair” and avoid resentment that way as well!
It is important to note that our feelings can “wax and wane” in relationships to some degree, and the idea of mutual enthusiasm always in a relationship may be more idealistic than reasonable. Evaluating reciprocity may have more to do with making sure our basic needs in a relationship are being met regardless of enthusiasm levels, as opposed to higher level needs.
Other common examples I see issues with reciprocity in relationships include:
· One party is consistently asked to be flexible with their schedule while the other party is not.
· One party consistently reports being the person to apologize or be accountable for actions in an argument while the other party is not.
· One party may loan money to another party in a time of need but not be able to recoup that money or ask for reasonable assistance themselves in the future (if that assistance is actually feasible to give!)
· One party is always in charge of initiating hanging out and the other party is not.
· One party spends a great deal of time talking about their issues with the other party, but does not tend to ask them how they are doing in return.
· One party works hard to “not hit below the belt” in arguments while the other party does not.
· One party is willing to help the other party out with a favor or errand (when available to do so) and the other party is not (when they are available to do so as well).
· One party respects boundaries around times that the other party is not available to help them while the other party does not (ie. respecting when someone is at work, on vacation, in their own emotional turmoil, etc.)
One last word of advice on this topic: do not fall prey to “score keeping” in a relationship when trying to determine reciprocity issues. These are based in PATTERN and not in singular or well explained incidence (such as when someone has a boundary with you). Score keeping is a very toxic pattern that will take all of the joy out of doing something kind for another or receiving something kind ourselves! That said, I do hope this blog has given you some ideas to consider regarding reciprocal relationships or how to approach a relationship if you fear it may not be reciprocal in nature! Often, the other party will not know you feel this way unless you say something, and that can very well lead to a valuable course correction for the relationship.
Written by: Kelly Birkhold, LCSW