What Is Reciprocity in a Romantic Relationship?

Published August 25, 2020
Young woman kissing boyfriend in the city

Understanding what healthy reciprocity looks like in a relationship can give you better insight into your romantic relationships. While reciprocity will vary depending on your particular relationship, there are ways to better understand the balance that feels right to you and your partner.

What Is Reciprocity in a Relationship?

Reciprocity is the balance of giving and receiving in a relationship with the goal of creating a healthy and mutually beneficial partnership. Each relationship will vary in terms of their own unique reciprocal balance, and it's up to the partners to explore what feels right to them. Depending on the relationship, there may be an expectation or lack thereof of the reciprocity given and received.

Reciprocal Relationship

A reciprocal relationship focuses on the balance of what is exchanged between the involved parties. In some circumstances, the reciprocity is unbalanced, while in others, it is more equally balanced. Examples of reciprocity:

  • Letting a family member or friend borrow money with the expectation that you'll get the money back or not
  • Giving your partner a gift with the expectation that you'll also receive a gift
  • Doing something thoughtful for your partner because they did something thoughtful for you

What Is Reciprocated Love?

Reciprocated love is love that is felt by both partners. In other words, this is a two directional love versus a love where only one individual has feelings of love for another. In healthy relationships, when love is reciprocated:

  • Each partner feels emotionally and physically safe with each other.
  • Each partner is willing to work on themselves, develop insight, and communicate their needs to their partner.
  • Each partner is willing to work hard to maintain the health of the relationship.

Examples of Reciprocity in Relationships

Within romantic relationships, the balance of reciprocity will depend on each partner's needs. While some partners are comfortable giving more, others are comfortable receiving more. In some relationships, both partners expect to give and receive about equally. Examples of reciprocity can look like:

  • One partner may comfort the other after a difficult day and in return expects the same amount of emotional reciprocity from their partner when they have a bad day.
  • One partner may feel fulfilled giving a bit more, for example making dinner each night without the expectation that their partner does the same.
  • One couple may have the expectation that when one partner cooks dinner, the other partner does the dishes.
  • One partner may give a back massage in exchange for a thoughtful gesture that their partner did for them.
Father and son chopping vegetables and mother washing dishes in background

What Is Reciprocity and Why Is It Important in a Relationship?

Reciprocity within a relationship means that each partner has an understanding of their own needs, is able to communicate them, and is capable and willing to meet the needs of their partner.

Reciprocity Theory

The reciprocity theory posits that when someone engages in a behavior, it is evaluated based on intention, and people either reward or punish it. This theory has been applied to games, economics, and relationships.

What Does It Mean to Be in the Right Relationship?

Instead of looking at relationships as right or wrong, it's important to examine them more along the lines of the spectrum of relational health. In unhealthy relationships, reciprocity may be grossly imbalanced, while in healthy relationships, each partner feels as if their needs are being met equally.

What Is Important in a Romantic Relationship?

In a romantic relationship, it's important to prioritize and cultivate:

  • Honesty between partners
  • Healthy communication and conflict resolution
  • Trust between partners
  • Staying on the same page in terms of relational goals and values
  • Personal insight into your own behavior
  • Emotional intelligence so you can better communicate with each other
Young couple relaxing at home

Understanding a Reciprocal Relationship

A healthy reciprocal relationship maintains the give and take balance that feels best for both partners, with the understanding that each partner's needs are fluid.

What Is Reciprocity in a Romantic Relationship?