In any successful relationship, whether between friends, family, or romantic, there’s an underlying dynamic that plays a crucial role in its health and longevity – reciprocity. The simple act of giving and taking, of exchanging support, love, and kindness, forms the foundation of any solid relationship. Learn the delicate dance of reciprocity in relationships – knowing how to contribute equitably and partnering up with only those who can do the same. (Estimated reading time: 10 minutes)
“Relationships are about to give and give, not give and take. You’ll know you’re with the right person when they give as much as you.”– Rashida Rowe
We’ve all witnessed somebody becoming enamored with someone. Even if the feelings aren’t mutual, they remain engrossed in the fairytale, convinced that someday their object of desire will return their affection. Never mind the agonizing uncertainty and the fact that they must sustain themselves with meager breadcrumbs tossed by the other person.
What if that person is or was you? No matter how rational and level-headed you are, your mind can be clouded by your emotions and blind you to reality. The chase makes you come alive, and you’ve become hell-bent on finding ways to justify your pursuit.
But the excitement of the chase is the equivalent of a sugar high. Sooner or later, we’ll experience a crash – a moment when we finally admit to ourselves what we feared all along – the person simply doesn’t reciprocate our feelings.
Like many, I believed that going above and beyond what’s needed when pursuing someone was a requirement to get their attention. I had to prove my devotion. Whether with a friend or collaborator, I saw it as normal and noble. But after being let down several times, I realized that chasing after anyone who doesn’t reflect the same sentiment is a losing battle that will only diminish your self-worth.
Why settle for breadcrumbs when you can have a banquet? The only love, romantic or otherwise, that’s worth it is the love that comes from reciprocity in relationships, with equality, respect, and the same level of intensity.
In any successful relationship–reciprocity is crucial to its health and longevity. The simple act of giving and taking, of exchanging support, love, and kindness, forms a solid foundation.
Reciprocity in relationships encourages positive behavior and can create a ripple effect. When someone acts selflessly, it often inspires others to do the same. This creates a cycle of generosity and empathy, leading to a stronger bond and increased satisfaction in the relationship.
When reciprocity is absent, and we accept someone who gives us the bare minimum, they take our attention and love for granted. They delight in being chased and occasionally give us small doses of validation to keep us comfortable with the unfair equation.
Not requiring reciprocity in relationships is an act of self-harm. You’re depriving yourself of the beauty and joy of loving and supportive connections. Avoiding this requires learning the delicate dance between giving and receiving – knowing how to contribute to a relationship in equitable ways and partnering up with only those who make you feel seen, heard, and appreciated.
What is reciprocity in relationships, and why is it important?
Reciprocity is the mutual exchange of support, love, and kindness between individuals in a relationship. It involves both giving and taking, with each party contributing to the relationship in a way that is meaningful and appreciated. Understanding reciprocity is essential for building and maintaining healthy relationships.
Reciprocity is not about keeping score or expecting something in return. It is about freely giving and receiving, knowing that the relationship is built on a foundation of trust and mutual support. Engaging in reciprocal behaviors creates a sense of balance and equality, leading to a healthier and more fulfilling relationship.
You may have experienced reciprocity in your friendships, familial connections, romantic relationships, or even business associations. There is a sense of ease in your connections; an intuitive understanding of what’s needed to make the other person feel better.
It’s the friend who knows that they pay for the next round of drinks after you did, the sibling who helps you with your homework after you helped them clean their room, or the coworker who covers for you when you have to step out after you did the same for them last month.
Reciprocity is deeply rooted in human psychology. It is a fundamental aspect of social interactions and is crucial in maintaining social order and cooperation. The psychological principle behind reciprocity is known as the “norm of reciprocity.”
The norm of reciprocity states that individuals feel obligated to return favors, gifts, or acts of kindness they have received. This is something we see across all cultures. It connects us to our humanness because it’s based on the innate desire to maintain social harmony and a sense of fairness. When one person acts in a selfless and giving manner, it triggers a sense of indebtedness in the recipient, leading them to reciprocate.
Reciprocity is not only driven by the need to repay kindness but also by the desire to maintain a positive self-image. It reinforces our self-perception as generous, caring, and empathetic. It becomes part of our identities, which influences our future decisions and actions.
Reciprocity in different types of relationships
Reciprocity looks different in each type of relationship. Breaking it down by categories will make understanding what goes into creating and maintaining a relationship based on reciprocity easier.
Reciprocity in romantic relationships
Reciprocity is a vital component of successful romantic relationships. It is the foundation on which trust, respect, and emotional intimacy are built. In romantic relationships, reciprocity manifests in various ways, including:
1. Emotional support: Both partners provide emotional support and validation for each other. They listen actively, offer empathy and understanding, and provide a safe space to express their thoughts and feelings.
2. Shared responsibilities: Reciprocity in romantic relationships involves sharing responsibilities and making joint decisions. Both partners contribute to household chores, financial responsibilities, and decision-making processes.
3. Quality time: Spending quality time together is essential to reciprocity in romantic relationships. Both partners make an effort to prioritize and dedicate time to each other, nurturing the emotional connection and maintaining a sense of intimacy.
Reciprocity in friendships
Reciprocity is equally vital in friendships, as it forms the basis of trust and mutual support. In friendships, reciprocity can be observed through:
1. Active listening: Friends actively listen and support each other. They offer advice, empathy, and encouragement, creating a safe space for open and honest conversations.
2. Shared interests: Reciprocity in friendships involves engaging in shared interests and activities. Friends make an effort to participate in each other’s hobbies and passions, showing support and fostering a sense of camaraderie.
3. Celebrating milestones: Friends celebrate each other’s successes and milestones, whether big or small. They offer congratulations, provide support, and show genuine happiness for their friend’s achievements.
Reciprocity in professional relationships
Reciprocity is not limited to personal relationships; it also plays a crucial role in professional settings. In the workplace, reciprocity can be observed through:
1. Collaboration: Reciprocity in professional relationships involves collaborating and sharing expertise. Colleagues support each other’s projects, offer assistance when needed, and celebrate each other’s achievements.
2. Networking and mentorship: Reciprocity in professional relationships extends to networking and mentorship. Professionals offer their colleagues guidance, advice, and support, helping them grow and succeed in their careers.
3. Recognition and appreciation: Recognizing and appreciating the contributions of colleagues is an essential aspect of reciprocity in professional relationships. Acknowledging and valuing each other’s efforts fosters a positive work environment and encourages continued collaboration.
Why some people don’t reciprocate
Not everyone is willing to do their share of the work in a relationship. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Steve Harvey pinpointed these individuals by comparing success to pulling a wagon.
“When you are a person who is success-minded, you have a wagon that you are pulling uphill. Attached to this wagon is this very thick rope… You have a rope on your back and you are pulling this wagon uphill at all times,” Harvey says.
What’s inside the wagon can determine how quickly you can reach success or whether you’ll reach it at all. It comes down to the people around you. Everyone must play a role in the uphill climb. The danger, Harvey cautions, is when someone in your wagon does nothing but weigh it down.
Who on your wagon is weighing it down? Can you do anything to make them contribute, or do you have to get them off? The best way to answer this question is to know why they are not reciprocating. It could be due to a lack of communication and understanding or something deeper.
Here are some common reasons you might lack reciprocity in your relationships:
1. Mismatched expectations: Different individuals may have different expectations regarding reciprocity. Not having clarity of what is expected from all parties involved can make it appear that one or both cannot deliver based on the other’s expectations. That’s why it’s crucial to communicate and align expectations to avoid misunderstandings.
2. Lack of awareness: Sometimes, individuals may need to be made aware of their own behaviors and their impact on the relationship. In other words, someone could be oblivious to how their actions (or lack of action) impact the connection. But once they do, they’re willing to change their ways. Self-reflection and open communication can help address this challenge.
3. Feelings of inferiority and lack: Based on studies by Alfred Adler, the father of individual psychology, the more inferior a person feels, the more selfish and self-centered they become. In contrast, those who feel good about themselves and their situation feel empathy towards others. The gnawing doubt that if they give back, they will lose out or have less can block them from reciprocating in their connections.
4. Expression of birth order characteristics and upbringing: According to the birth order theory, children develop different traits based on their birth order. The youngest child generally tends to feel more self-focused than their other siblings. Any child coddled and spoiled by their parents is accustomed to taking without giving anything. While not all children become selfish adults, a lot of them do end up becoming entitled.
5. Past abuse and trauma: If a person grew up or was exposed to an environment where their survival and sense of safety were under threat, looking out for themselves becomes an in-built coping mechanism to survive uncertain and hostile conditions. A common form of this form of trauma is having an abusive parent who lacked empathy and did not provide unconditional love, which will cause a person to take on a dysfunctional stance in their relationships later in life.
Signs of a taker who won’t reciprocate
Knowing why a particular individual does not reciprocate can open the door for a conversation. But the best way to avoid this dynamic is to understand how to identify the takers who won’t reciprocate. These are some red flags to look out for:
- They constantly use the words “me” and “I”.
- They are opportunists that show up only when there’s something in it for them.
- They are poor listeners who don’t seem interested in your life.
- They seldom reach out to check on you.
- They don’t offer compliments or show appreciation and are rarely satisfied.
- You’re always the one making plans.
- It takes a few messages and calls to reach them.
- You cannot rely on them to do what they say they will do.
- You don’t feel supported and encouraged by them.
- They like to hog the spotlight and take credit where credit isn’t due.
- You feel that if you keep giving, they will eventually change, but they never do.
How to cultivate reciprocity in relationships
Cultivating reciprocity in relationships requires conscious effort and commitment from both individuals involved. Here are some actionable tips to help nurture and maintain reciprocity in your own relationships:
1. Practice active listening: Actively listen to your partner, friend, or colleague. Show genuine interest, ask questions, and provide support and validation.
2. Express gratitude: Acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of the other person. Express gratitude for their acts of kindness, support, or assistance.
3. Communicate openly: Foster open and honest communication. Share your needs, desires, and concerns, and encourage the other person to do the same.
4. Be reliable: Follow through on your commitments and promises. Show up for the other person consistently and be someone they can rely on.
5. Be selfless: Act in a selfless manner, not expecting anything in return for your acts of kindness. Give without conditions or ulterior motives.
Sufi poet Rumi said, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” When developing reciprocal relationships, the barrier you need to remove is the ability to receive. To receive, you must believe that you are worthy of others’ love, care, and attention. Only when you feel worthy from the inside will it be reflected by the people around you. The love you seek must first come from within.
All my best on your journey,
Questions for you: Is there reciprocity in your current relationships? Where do you think you or another person is falling short, and how can you fix it?
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