Most of us do not consciously think about reciprocity in our intimate relationships and when we do, we might say, “of course it is important.” And as we think about the Golden Rule, we recognize it as a valuable principle to live by. Reciprocity is not something that can be exact, because what one person can do, another person cannot. The most obvious example of this dichotomy is that most women do not have the strength men have to lift and carry heavy items. On the other hand men cannot have babies and many have difficulty threading a needle. These are general and physical examples, of course, but they can help us begin thinking about reciprocity in intimate relationships. Reciprocity and cooperation are so valuable, precisely because we do have various strengths and weaknesses.
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 men, as well as women. 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 (1998). 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 he, or she, is 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. Weeks and Treat (2009) point out that “the most useful investments are those that tap into what the partner has contributed emotionally” (P. 112). 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.
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. Aretha Franklin states in her song, “find out what it means to me.” 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 it when he or she he feels disrespected. Examples of a few areas that involve respect are; philosophy, profession, principles, intelligence, creativity, parenting and personal growth process. Reciprocal respect will be difficult or impossible if one partner does not respect the other’s beliefs in those subjects. People need to be honest with themselves first, so 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 order to prevent it from spiraling out of control and to learn how to respond thoughtfully. If partners have built an emotionally healthy relationship, they can work it out by themselves. Sometimes it is helpful to work with a counselor.
Reciprocity in intimate relationships is vital for the relationship to continue growing and becoming a healthy lasting, committed relationship. 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 our 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 partner can help us make a better decision about whether or not we are genuinely capable of building a healthy reciprocal relationship.