Relationships and the Importance of Reciprocity

Woman with her arms around her husband painting togetherMost 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.

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. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Gina

    July 12th, 2010 at 1:41 PM

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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!

  • Ak

    November 26th, 2014 at 11:58 PM

    I tell my partner how I feel about him and what role he plays in my life and he responds with Yeah…. The lack of reciprocity hurts and I felt Stupid childish unloved invalidated embarrassed and totally pathetic….. It’s not the first time either it just feels like I am only here to fulfill his egotistical needs and that I’m only a toy who gets played with when he desires to play.

  • Anne Ream

    December 2nd, 2014 at 9:32 AM

    Hi AK, I’m sorry to hear that your partner is unresponsive, that can feel hurtful. Have you asked him to go to therapy with you? There he can learn why reciprocity is so valuable. Anne Ream LPC, MFT

  • Elizabeth

    May 2nd, 2015 at 3:46 PM

    I’m in a relationship for already 10 years, and thinking to finally leave. I always try to think he is a good guy, loving, a good provider, but when it comes about financial decisions, I always left out. I stopped working three years ago with the promise of finishing my career and pay him back for tuition once I get a job. I feel like I don’t deserve to give an opinion because he is financially in charge. Sometimes, he made me think he takes my advice into account, but later he will change his mind after talking to his brother, father or closest friends. His family don’t respect me at all. We barely have sex, only when he desires.He is always tired or working. I really want to finish my career, get a job ASAP, pay him back, and leave him behind. I feel spiritually weak and broken, and I know that is no reciprocity in this relationship.

  • Sara

    December 8th, 2015 at 2:34 AM

    Hi, just wanted to say thanks for a good therapy blog, a treat. Reciprocity is a topic I keep coming back to focus on in my work with clients. It really is the most important aspect I think to focus on in a relationship, any relationship. I especially see it with teenagers and young adults nowadays, and how they work on things with their parents, or shouls I say, don’t work on things but often expect a working relationship based on a one-way communication stream from the parent without any input from them. A ‘dangerous’ place to be I believe.

  • Nhlanhla

    December 8th, 2015 at 2:24 PM

    The foundation should be the aim to make the relationship work,that is to aim at making the other party happy by considering any agreements if any with their implications ofcourse. Not to be missed is the reality that non is perfect therefor accepting that the relationship has to ever be cultivated and nurtured.

  • kobe bryant

    March 1st, 2016 at 12:07 PM

    why is reciprocity important?

  • Joseph

    March 5th, 2016 at 4:28 AM

    I give massages to my significant other all the time when she complains about her back and asks for one. Did I mention I give great massages? However, sometimes I need a massage, and she is very rarely willing to give a massage when I need it and ask for it. I don’t ask for a massage every time I give her one…maybe every third time. I don’t feel that I’m being unreasonable sometimes when my cup overflows and I refuse to give a massage unless she reciprocates. No one is trying to keep score, but she thinks I am. So, let me get this right… Someone please tell me if I’m wrong. I give her massages when she asks… When she wants one…but she is unwilling to reciprocate the gesture when I am sometimes in need.

  • Fay

    April 26th, 2016 at 7:44 AM

    I googled and found this blog because my bf would not reciprocate massages. I must have done over a hundred back massages for him, and he gave me foot massages only three times… and I have to carry all the grocery while he walk out the supermarket empty-handed… just like the picture of the refugees– the woman carried the child and all their belongings, the man empty-handed while on shore.
    We’ve done Bible studies, went over the Golden Rule multiple times. Lately he’s just massaging his own back lying on a tennis ball, because he doesn’t want to reciprocate with a foot massage.
    This is my dilemma: to go back to the guy who thinks I have sexy feet and wants to give me a foot massage every times he sees me… but he won’t commit ! Or to stay at this relationship where one person gives all the time and is being treated like a mule :(

  • keisha j

    June 17th, 2017 at 4:11 PM

    Nice post, thanks a lot for the great information.

  • Devender

    July 5th, 2019 at 2:11 AM

    I do a lot for others even by going out of ways but in some case i feel that i should be valued and get reciprocity.

  • Devender

    July 5th, 2019 at 2:14 AM

    But i get out of this emotional state feeling that i am meant to help others with whatever good i am bestowed, with. This makes me happy n i forgive others. But, i ask a question to myself if it is so then why i expect reciprocity in the sense that i should be consulted by them they should give importance to me.

  • Girish

    February 15th, 2020 at 9:32 AM

    wonderful advice

  • elva

    July 25th, 2022 at 1:08 AM

    thanks for the information I didn’t know resprocity had so much meaning in our lives today. thanks

  • Paul

    December 27th, 2023 at 1:15 PM

    I’ve never expressed romantic / sexual interest in any woman because I know my feelings would not be reciprocated. Mild fantasies about women I’m attracted to are as close as I will ever get to having a sexual relationship, unfortunately. I’m 43 and have never kissed anyone or been on a date. I am fundamentally incapable of attracting any woman at that level. I have many women friends who seek out and enjoy my company and tell me that if I just tried a little (i.e., tell someone I like her) I’d have no trouble finding lots of ladies who would reciprocate. There has never been any evidence to support this claim – I think they’re just trying to be helpful – they know as well as I do that any woman I try to show romantic / sexual interest in would be offended. I’m not about to be reckless and tell any woman I’m attracted to her because I refuse to set myself up for an accusation.

  • Alex

    January 23rd, 2024 at 9:37 AM

    Thank you for the insight. I just would like to add that reciprocity cannot only exist when a person needs control, but also when a person doesn’t want to pick up any type of commitment or initiative. If I find myself in always having to ask, then this means that the person is not interested in reciprocity. The person is not willing to invest in you, and it’s better to move over to someone who really wants to reciprocate and invest in the same way.

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