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Relationships and the Importance of Reciprocity

Woman with her arms around her husband painting together

Most of us do not consciously think about reciprocity in our intimate relationships. When we do, we might say, “Of course it is important.” Like the Golden Rule, we recognize it as a valuable principle to live by.

Reciprocity is not something that can be exact, of course, because what one person can do, another person cannot. Reciprocity and cooperation are so valuable precisely because we do have various strengths and weaknesses.

Understanding Reciprocity

Although people have long-recognized the importance of reciprocity, Marsha Linehan explained its value in intimate relationships in her dialectical behavioral therapy theory. Her work continues to be appreciated, taught, and used in many therapeutic settings with both women and men. Reciprocity is also mentioned as an important relationship characteristic in the Trauma Recovery and Empowerment Model, developed by a group of women led by Maxine Harris, PhD. This model is often used to help women who have been abused.

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Reciprocity will be difficult or impossible to develop and maintain if one partner in the relationship believes that they are and must be superior or in control. Likewise, a person who is highly competitive may have difficulty understanding and learning how to create reciprocity in an intimate relationship. Reciprocal relationships require a spirit of cooperation, as well as an understanding of and ability to embrace interdependence. To cultivate a lasting, committed relationship, both partners must have and be able to continue to nurture feelings of love for each other.

Reciprocity is developed and woven into good enough relationships, sometimes without participants knowing that is what they are doing. With awareness, it can become a robust, healthy feature of the relationship. Reciprocity requires people to be invested in their relationship. If a relationship is important enough to them, partners will be emotionally invested in it enough to work at building and maintaining it. Commitment is sustained through the improvement of reward-cost balance in relationships. The most useful investments are those that tap into what the partner has contributed emotionally. Passion is a vital condition in healthy relationships. Reciprocated love is related to feeling fulfilled. Reciprocated love and emotional contribution are behavioral investments that sustain a committed relationship.

Building Reciprocity

To create a reciprocal relationship, both partners need to be able to accept responsibility for that creation. The interdependence of a healthy relationship requires that both people accept personal responsibility. One partner cannot take all the blame while the other partner gives all the blame. Acceptance of responsibility for the creation of a reciprocal relationship takes a high degree of emotional maturity, which takes awareness, time, and personal work to develop. This can be the most rewarding work a person will do in his or her lifetime. It is the work of maturation.

When two people decide to develop a healthy, interdependent, reciprocal relationship, it is wise for them to take the time to talk about their personal value system and what characteristics they believe create a healthy relationship. For instance, some people value affection as an important condition for a healthy relationship, while others do not. In such a situation, reciprocity will be difficult. Respect is another value that needs to be discussed. Asking one another to define “respect” is an excellent place to start the discussion.

Respect must be reciprocal, and each person needs to be able to articulate when he or she he feels disrespected. Examples of areas that involve respect include philosophy, profession, principles, intelligence, creativity, parenting, and personal growth processes. Reciprocal respect will be difficult or impossible if one partner does not respect the other partner’s beliefs in those subjects. People need to be honest with themselves first so that they can then be honest with their partner. If there is a lack of respect, love cannot continue to grow and the relationship will be difficult, if not impossible.

A basic building block of intimate relationships concerns how people define reciprocity about the exchange of goods and labor. It is prudent to have discussions about those issues, before committing. Reciprocity in other areas of the relationship, such as emotional, physical, or sexual intimacy also needs to be discussed. Negotiating reciprocity is a skill that people can build with one another.

Negative reciprocity often occurs when a behavior has had a negative effect on one person and he or she reciprocates with a behavior that has an equally negative effect. People react to each other without thinking. Partners need to discuss this sort of exchange and learn how to respond to it thoughtfully in order to prevent it from spiraling out of control. If partners have built an emotionally healthy relationship, they can work it out by themselves. Sometimes it is helpful to work with a couples counselor.

Reciprocity in Growing Relationships

For intimate relationships to grow and become healthy, lasting, and committed, reciprocity is vital. This type of reciprocity differs from the reciprocity that occurs in other types of relationships. Couples getting ready to commit to a relationship should engage in deep, intimate discussions with each other about how they define love and how they plan to develop reciprocity with each other and keep it growing.

Knowing that change is a consistent process in life will help people recognize the value of preparing the soil for a relationship from the beginning. The thrill of the adrenaline rush that comes from attraction is never enough. That ends—often quickly. It is easy to delude ourselves into believing that a partner can and will be able to build the kind of loving, committed relationship that most of us want. Talking openly, honestly, and deeply with our partners can help us make a better decision about whether or not we are genuinely capable of building a healthy reciprocal relationship.


Weeks, Gerald, and Treat, Stephen. (2001). Couples in treatment: Techniques and approaches for effective practice. New York, NY: Routledge.

© Copyright 2010 by Anne D. Ream MA, ATR-BC, LPC, therapist in Philadelphia, PA. All Rights Reserved.

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  • Gina July 12th, 2010 at 1:41 PM #1

    Reciprocity is very important between any couple and when this is absent,it shows that one of the partners is not being fair to the other and that he/she is taking more from the partner than he/she is giving and this kind of a behavior will never let a relationship maintain its health and is bound to deteriorate.

  • LT July 12th, 2010 at 4:38 PM #2

    Reciprocity need not always be in the matters of work or anything.It can also be in the form of work devoted towards strengthening the relationship.if one partner is working hard to make the relationship work during a difficult time and the other is not making any effort whatsoever,the relationship is surely doomed because it requires a concerted effort from both the partners to sustain a healthy relationship.

  • Anne Ream July 13th, 2010 at 3:35 AM #3

    Hi Gina and LT,

    Yes, I agree with both of you. And now we are realizing how important it is for parents to raise their children, from birth on, to know how to be full participants in intimate relationships. Healthy attuned attachment with newborn children followed by a positive socialization process through the toddler years, for boys and girls, will improve the success rate of committed relationships. People who have experienced both of those processes have a much easier time developing healthy adult relationships. In the meantime, people who did not have that healthy early childhood experience,can improve their success rate by focusing on their own problematic behaviors, reading good self-help literature and getting counseling.

    Thanks for commenting! Anne Ream

  • Anita C July 13th, 2010 at 4:27 AM #4

    I know I am not good at reciprocating but can’t figure out a way to do it better.

  • Anne Ream July 13th, 2010 at 8:04 AM #5

    Hi Anita,

    Perhaps a discussion with your partner would help. Asking your partner what he/she wants or what it is that he/she values about you is a great way to start a conversation about reciprocation.


  • Susannah July 30th, 2012 at 7:59 PM #6

    I would observe if reciprocity does not soon encompass much more than negotiations over shared division of labor (who does what, how much, and when) then the relationship is/becomes a “if you… Then I” contract, which is difficult to sustain (probably impossible) as emotionally nurturing. I really appreciate the emphasis on the need for emotional maturity. Commitment is strengthened and deepened by the reciprocity of the individual investment into the “We” of the relationship. Great post!

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