The Importance of Reciprocal Relationships

Are relationships supposed to be reciprocal?
Read time: 10 mins

A reciprocal relationship is one based on a mutual exchange of support, mutual respect, and care. Reciprocity is important to all kinds of healthy relationships, whether they’re platonic or romantic. 

From early dating to long-term commitment, intimate relationships at any stage will benefit from respectful give-and-take between each partner. Keep reading to learn more about the importance of reciprocal relationships. 

What is a reciprocal relationship?

Reciprocity means both partners give and take equal amounts of love, support, and respect. But this doesn’t have to — and, in fact, shouldn’t — be measured day-to-day. 

Any committed relationship is likely to experience periods of imbalance, where one partner needs more support from the other at a given moment. This doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of reciprocity. Rather, couples that practice reciprocity should expect to see these times of unequal give-and-take balance out in the longer term. 

“The great thing about a relationship is that at any given moment, one person may require less support and be available to provide it for the other,” says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Relationship Expert at Paired. 

“This is rooted in our genetic makeup, as supporting each other was necessary for survival in the past and may still be necessary today, depending on how we think about it.”

It’s also important to know that a reciprocal relationship is not transactional. Reciprocity shows trust and respect which helps each partner know they will receive support in return for supporting their partner. This support is given freely, out of love and care. It doesn’t mean expecting or demanding immediate repayment. Giving only to receive is known as negative reciprocity, and isn’t compatible with a healthy relationship.

This kind of mutual exchange of love and support is often learned from family members or other care providers in early childhood. However, many people may not have had healthy reciprocal relationships modeled for them as young children. They can still learn to practice reciprocity as adults.

“Our experiences with love and support as children shape our approach to reciprocity in adult intimate relationships,” explains Seeger DeGeare. “Whether we unconsciously replicate or intentionally deviate from those experiences, we can all learn to cultivate healthy reciprocity as adults, regardless of our upbringing.”

What is a reciprocal friendship?

It’s not only romantic partners who benefit from understanding the importance of reciprocity. Other connections, such as friendships and family dynamics, should also be healthy, reciprocal relationships.

Friendships can fall victim to many of the problems experienced in romantic relationships, from controlling behavior to communication difficulties or incompatible ways of expressing affection. Just like with a romantic partner, a good friendship allows you to give support freely, safe in the knowledge you will receive similar help when you need it. A mutual exchange doesn’t mean a like-for-like transaction. Your friend may support you by helping you move, while you provide a sympathetic ear for their romantic troubles. The key is whether you feel valued, respected, and supported when looking at the relationship as a whole. If not, some changes may be necessary to ensure the friendship is reciprocal.

What are some signs of a reciprocal relationship?

There are many ways to practice reciprocity in a romantic relationship. These can be active interventions to show you are thinking of your partner, such as gift-giving or planning events, or smaller actions to create a respectful environment, like being aware of your tone in a discussion. 

“The phrase ‘you complete me’ may be said jokingly, but it actually highlights the significance of balance in a relationship, and what each of you brings to it,” says Seeger DeGeare.

1. Discuss your boundaries

“When you share your boundaries with your partner, you’re communicating your emotional, physical, sexual, and financial needs to feel safe in the relationship,” says Seeger DeGeare. “Additionally, you’re expressing how you plan to act in the relationship, rather than telling your partner how they should behave. This gives your partner the freedom to make choices and it reminds you both that you are intentionally choosing to be together, to support each other in life in the unique ways you do so,” she adds.

“This is the process of growing closer as a couple, and it requires finding ways to connect while also acknowledging and respecting each other's individual interests and needs. Discussing boundaries does not drive you apart; rather, it allows you to thrive as a couple because you bring a deep level of respect to the relationship.”

2. Open communication

Communicating openly is key to a healthy, reciprocal romantic relationship. Open communication means being able to discuss whatever is on your mind in a way that is respectful to all involved. “I” rather than “you” statements are an effective tool for keeping communication supportive and productive.

While you should feel free to raise issues at any time, it also helps to be mindful of whether an environment is suited to a constructive mutual exchange. If you are in a highly-charged emotional state, it may help to communicate that you need some personal space before a discussion. Knowing your partner’s needs is key to respectful communication. Recognizing if you’re temporarily unable to meet them is just as important.

3. Interdependence

A healthy relationship balances a strong commitment and bond with autonomy for each individual. A robust sense of self, and freedom to express it, is key to our well-being and mental health. A controlling relationship, in which one partner attempts to undermine another’s autonomy, is never safe, healthy, or supportive. Interdependence means supporting your partner’s different interests, hobbies, and friendships, and creating an environment in which they can flourish.

The longer a relationship lasts, the more the boundaries between your social network and interests and those of your significant other are likely to blur. This can be positive: sharing your life with your loved one is a beautiful thing. However, independent friendships, pastimes, and personal space help you grow both as an individual and a couple.

4. Getting to know each other’s needs

Understanding your and your partner’s emotional needs will help you both express and receive support — because we all have different needs in a relationship. 

“By communicating our needs and desires to our partners, we can develop intentional ways to support each other in unique and meaningful ways. When we feel truly supported by our partner, we become more courageous, take more risks, and find greater comfort in the relationship,” says Seeger DeGeare.

Be mindful but don’t keep score: showing love is just as important as receiving it when practicing reciprocity. However, if you feel a lack of reciprocity, don’t be afraid to bring it up.

Below, Seeger DeGeare shares some prompts and conversations starters to help you start the conversation: 

How do I feel supported on a daily basis?
What does reciprocity mean to me in a romantic relationship?
What needs can my partner meet that are meaningful to me?
What brings me pleasure in supporting my partner?
What am I willing to do that is deeply satisfying, even if it is outside my comfort zone?
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