The Importance of Reciprocity in Relationships

How do you tell if you’re the problem in a relationship?
on February 26, 2024
Read time: 10 mins
by Moraya Seeger DeGeare

Relationships are a two-way street, with both partners expected to contribute to forming a healthy, happy future equally. 

This is where reciprocity in relationships comes in, with this kind of dynamic fueling a mutually beneficial environment for both individuals to thrive. From the quiet acts of understanding to the grand gestures of love, reciprocity shapes the very foundation of our deepest connections. 

The importance of reciprocity in relationships should not be understated, as equal effort fosters a dynamic of mutual respect, support, and trust from the outset. 

With all that said, how do you know if you’re in a reciprocal relationship? And, if you’re starting to feel an imbalance — how do you deal with it? 

Key Takeaways
  • Reciprocity is the cornerstone of healthy romantic relationships, fostering a mutually beneficial environment grounded in mutual respect and support. It's not just about equal effort but about nurturing a dynamic of shared trust and understanding.
  • Being aware of the signs of imbalance is crucial. If you're consistently exerting more effort without reciprocation, it could signal an issue. This lack of balance can lead to feelings of being undervalued and may affect the relationship's health.
  • Positive reciprocal actions strengthen bonds, building a foundation of trust and mutual respect. This is essential for deepening the connection and ensuring the longevity of the relationship.
  • Be mindful of potentially manipulative aspects of reciprocity, which can lead to unhealthy power dynamics. It's important to recognize and address such issues to maintain a balanced relationship.

What is a reciprocal relationship? 

Reciprocity is whereby the quality of an act, process, or relationship in which one person receives benefits from another and, in return, provides an equivalent benefit.

Reciprocal relationships are established when both partners equally exchange behaviors or actions, creating a mutually beneficial environment founded on mutual respect and support.

According to research, these behaviors are not just important but are foundational to our survival as a species — having profound effects on the emergence of integrative bonds of trust. Opposite from a transactional exchange, this pattern of behavior is considered the norm in most relationships and is developed early on in our development. 

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.”

A healthy reciprocal relationship can exist between not only romantic partners, but also friends, family members, or even co-workers. At its core, it’s about matching someone’s energy and effort to create a balanced relationship. If there is a lack of reciprocity, it can make the relationship feel one-sided or unequal — allowing resentment to build over time. 

Reciprocity allows the development of healthy interdependence, which is essential when cultivating a lasting, trusting relationship. 

“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 an example of a reciprocal relationship?

In romantic relationships, reciprocity can manifest itself in multiple ways on a day-to-day basis. Generally, it’s about mutual exchange of support between partners, so one person isn’t doing all the heavy lifting!

It’s important to remember that reciprocity doesn’t necessarily mean the exact exchange of actions or behaviors. For example, one partner might carry out certain tasks that are catered to their partner’s needs, while the other returns this energy through a different action. 

These actions can often feed into your partner’s love language, often through words of affirmation or acts of service. All of these actions go towards building a successful relationship where everyone’s needs are respected and accounted for. 

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.

Types of reciprocity in relationships

Emotional reciprocity: This type involves the mutual exchange of emotional support, understanding, and empathy between partners. In a committed relationship, you should be able to lean on your partner for this kind of support — with the understanding that you would do the same for your significant other.
Informational reciprocity: This involves the exchange of tangible resources or services, and is commonly seen between co-workers, friends, or romantic partners. For example, in a professional setting, one colleague might help another with a project, expecting similar help in the future.
Normative reciprocity: This type of reciprocity involves exchanges that are considered appropriate or expected within a given social context. For example, within an intimate relationship, there are certain expectations around behaviors that should be present in a healthy relationship.
Negative reciprocity: This kind of reciprocity is unbalanced and is not done out of altruism but for personal gain. In this unhealthy relationship dynamic, one partner seems to be overly accommodating of the other person’s needs but expects to gain something from it — or expects repayment in some way.

How does reciprocity affect relationships?

Reciprocity is a fundamental part of healthy relationships, playing a pivotal role in shaping and maintaining your connection. Usually, it’s a subtle balancing act, as you exchange behaviors with your partner for mutual benefit — not solely for your own gain. 

Healthy reciprocity requires both partners to be in tune with each other’s needs and wants, so they can both match each other’s energy and actions. It’s kind of like an investment, where you’re both contributing equally to the relationship. 

If you’re in a reciprocal relationship, it’s much easier to build a solid foundation of trust and respect. When you respond positively to each other’s actions it reinforces a sense of mutual respect and understanding, naturally fostering stronger bonds between you and your loved one. 

Not only that but if your partner is constantly reciprocating your love and affection, it helps to maintain a more balanced relationship — where you both feel secure and supported. This sense of equity is crucial for the longevity of a relationship, if one partner feels that their partner isn’t contributing, it naturally pushes them away. 

However, if this equity is present, it can contribute to an innate sense of belonging, self-esteem, and happiness.

Why does something feel off in my relationship?

There are many reasons why you could be feeling slightly off in your relationship, but if you’re consistently putting in all the effort — it could be linked to an imbalance in your dynamic. While reciprocity has a lot of perks for a healthy relationship dynamic, it also has a darker side.

Research points to some of the pitfalls of reciprocity, whereby we feel obligated to respond with a greater favor when someone has done something small for us. 

This can foster a type of relationship one person is unknowingly manipulated, establishing an unhealthy power dynamic. This can lead to a one-sided relationship developing, where one person is using the other for their own personal gain. 

If this power dynamic is in place, it could explain why you’re feeling off in your relationship — as you may be the one doing all the work, with little reward! If you feel like you’re being taken advantage of, or the imbalance is starting to have an impact on your well-being, it’s important to raise these concerns with your partner. 

It’s entirely possible that your partner is completely unaware of this imbalance, and doesn’t realize that your actions are not being reciprocated. In this case, this can be resolved with open communication, as you make your partner aware of your feelings. 

However, if your partner pushes back, remember that your feelings are entirely valid! Relationships involve two people, and you should not be expected to pull all the weight. 

Can you introduce reciprocity into your relationship? 

If you feel an imbalance in your relationship, there are many practical ways to introduce reciprocity into your day-to-day dynamic with your partner. 

Many of these behaviors revolve around the little things that you do for each other every day, but which can make a big impact on your relationship satisfaction. 

How to practice reciprocity in relationships

Active listening: Pay attention to your partner's needs and feelings. Listen actively without interrupting, and take note of their needs. This demonstrates that you value their perspective and are willing to understand their point of view.
Open communication: Communicate your needs, desires, and concerns openly and respectfully. You shouldn’t demand reciprocity but instead should aim to create an environment where you both can share your feelings and concerns.
Mutual support: Offer support in your partner’s endeavors and be receptive to their support in return. This could be emotional support during tough times, or practical help with daily tasks.
Shared responsibility: Equitably divide household chores, financial responsibilities, and other mutual obligations. This helps to create a more balanced dynamic, where neither partner feels taken advantage of.
Gratitude: The words ‘thank you’ should never be undervalued! Regularly express appreciation for each other, acknowledging both the big and small things your partner does. This recognition can profoundly impact the relationship's positivity.
Personal growth: Interdependence doesn’t mean co-dependence! While a romantic relationship is a partnership, it’s important to encourage each other to pursue individual interests and goals.
Adaptability: Even with all of these things in mind, relationships can’t always be 50/50 and that’s okay! Sometimes one partner needs more support, and you should be adaptable to these needs. Relationships evolve, and flexibility can help navigate through changes together.
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