Reciprocity In Relationships: What It Means & How It Manifests

We’ve all heard the expression that “relationships are a two way street,” but what exactly does that mean? Usually, people are hinting at reciprocity, which is essentially the give and take in relationships. In a healthy partnership, you both put in as much love and attention as you get back.

What is reciprocity in relationships all about?

Reciprocity in a healthy relationship is all about an equal exchange of effort put into the relationship from both sides. This applies to all relationships, including romantic, familial, platonic, and even work relationships. It can manifest into different behaviors depending on those relationships. For example, someone might be quick to pay a co-worker back because of the expectation of professionalism but take longer doing so with everyone else in their life.

According to the theory of reciprocity, people reward kindness and punish unkind behavior – and that kindness is evaluated by both the intention and the consequence of it. In a romantic relationship, it can manifest as both people contributing the same attention, emotional energy, and support. Of course, you’ve probably already encountered someone who expects love and attention but doesn’t put the same effort in, so reciprocity is not always returned or balanced. Also, because everyone behaves differently in relationships, there are three different types of reciprocity.

Types of reciprocity

  1. Generalized reciprocity This means that if you do something nice for another person, you don’t expect something in return. You do the good deed because you know the other person would do the same for you if you needed it.
  2. Balanced reciprocity As the name suggests, balanced reciprocity is about equal contribution and paying back favors. If you do something nice, your partner does something of equal value soon after.
  3. Negative reciprocity This is when one person receives a favor but doesn’t ever feel the need to return it. So, they’re always gaining the benefits of being in a relationship without any of the work or sacrifice that should go in. This type of reciprocity can also manifest when one person hurts the other, so they react with similar energy.

How reciprocity manifests in relationships

  1. Responsibility As mentioned earlier, people are more likely to reciprocate favors from co-workers or their boss since they’re expected to be professional. But, in their private life, they can be laxer or even never pay someone back at all because they’re more comfortable with friends, family, or their partner. People apply different types of reciprocity to different people and scenarios. So, having to ask your partner for the money you lent them weeks ago back is actually still a sign of reciprocity, just not balanced reciprocity.
  2. Sharing chores Balancing chores is another sign of reciprocity in a relationship if you live with your partner. If you cook dinner, it’s an unwritten rule that your partner does the dishes. So, it’s not just one person doing all the housework, but an equal balance. With that said, having an agreement where someone is paying more rent while the other person does more chores or cooking to compensate is also a sign of reciprocity since you’re still both putting equal effort into your lives together. Negative reciprocity would be if your partner never cleans up after themselves so you let the dishes build up in protest.
  3. Money With balanced reciprocity, if you buy your partner dinner, they offer to pay for something else later. Generalized reciprocity would be buying your partner dinner on their birthday because they would do the same for you. Essentially, no one is always paying for everything.
  4. Consideration Being considerate of each other (or not) is also a sign of reciprocity. Maybe you asked your partner to stop chewing food with their mouth open because it grosses you out while they asked you not to leave your things lying around the apartment. With balanced reciprocity, you both oblige to reasonable requests and boundaries because you respect each other.
  5. Gift-giving A sign of generalized reciprocity is giving your partner a gift because you love them but do not expect one in return. While balanced reciprocity means your partner will do something to show their appreciation, like buy you a gift of equal value soon after.
  6. Effort Putting in effort in relationships is more than just gift-giving. It’s also taking a moment to ask your partner how their day was and being emotionally present when you spend time together, so this is another sign of reciprocity since you both give positive attention.
  7. Comfort Emotional support is also a sign of reciprocity. Reciprocity in balanced relationships manifests as you being a shoulder to cry on for your partner because they’ve always been there for you whenever you’ve had a hard time. Essentially, no one is doing all the emotional labor in the relationship.
  8. Conflict resolution With negative reciprocity, you fight fire with fire. So, if your partner hurts you, you try to hurt them back. Whereas, with other kinds of reciprocity, you’ll react in a less hostile way.
Aisling is a 20-something year old Irish writer who is the life and relationship guru of her social circle. She loves music, movies, and coffee.