Reciprocity is a socialization norm that we've all adopted to some extent at very early stages in our development. Whether you're familiar with the term or not, the general notion of maintaining social balance by paying someone back, sharing, or evening the give-and-take within a relationship is no doubt something you've practiced. So what does the term really mean and how does it impact our relationships?
What Is Reciprocity?
Reciprocity is the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit, especially privileges granted by one country or organization to another.
"Reciprocity refers to the exchanging of resources between people," says psychology and couple relationships expert Kelly Campbell, Ph.D. Campbell offers up some basic examples of this concept, like lending money or providing a service, which can be repaid in a length of time that corresponds to the relationship's intimacy level. For instance, she says you're likely to repay an acquaintance much faster than you are, say, your sibling. "Intimate relationships tend to have a longer period of time to return benefits, whereas strangers are expected to exchange benefits immediately," she continues.
Meet the Expert
Kelly Campbell, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at California State University, San Bernardino. She is also the cohost of Let’s Talk Relationships.
Like anything that's more closely studied, reciprocity gets more interesting—and more challenging—when you consider its nuances. A more intimate relationship tends to be more understanding, but that's not something you should take for granted. "Within relationships, it is important that reciprocity is balanced," Campbell adds. "If one person is doing all of the giving and the other is doing all of the receiving, then the relationship is lopsided and at risk for dissatisfaction, infidelity, or dissolution." In order to build a healthy relationship, it's always good to know where you stand in the realm of reciprocity and where you need to improve.
We asked Campbell to expand on her advice in the hope that reciprocity is pushed to the forefront of your mind as you consider each important person in your life.
Why It Matters
While a romantic partner may first come to mind when considering this concept, that isn't the only relationship that needs to be fostered by regular instances of reciprocity. Any relationship that you have in your life—from parents to siblings to friends to coworkers—can benefit from reciprocity. And since this word is all about acknowledging someone's kindness toward you, it can even be something that you practice with deserving strangers. "Although it sounds a bit cold, people can start to keep tabs on how much they are giving and receiving," Campbell says. "Luckily, the amount you give is largely under your control."
"Conversely, if people aren't giving enough, you can let them know and allow them the time to make adjustments," she continues. "If you've communicated your needs and nothing changes, it may be time to sever those unhealthy relationships."
How to Practice Reciprocity
Campbell notes that satisfaction and commitment build in a relationship that has balanced reciprocity. In most cases, it comes down to open communication, clear expectations, and mutual respect. "The healthiest relationships are ones in which both partners are fulfilling each other's needs on a regular basis," she says.
Keep in mind that reciprocal relationships aren't just exclusive to the ones we have with romantic partners—every relationship contains the possibility for mutual reciprocity. If you're wondering how to adjust your strategy to each group profile, don't fret. We asked Campbell to expand on ways to practice reciprocity and things to keep in mind when facing anyone from a sibling to an intimate partner to your boss.
"Families have different norms regarding reciprocity," Campbell says. "Some families require immediate repayment whereas other families don't keep track of who has done what and when. It is important to know how family members feel about reciprocity because sometimes relationships dissolve when these expectations are unclear. For example, if a sibling loans their brother or sister a large sum of money to make a purchase and they feel the repayment is taking too long, relationship-ending disputes can result."
"It is important to communicate expectations of reciprocity within friendships because everyone has different ideas regarding how long repayment should take, too," she notes. "For example, some people believe that when you go out for dinner or drinks with friends, then they will alternate who pays. In other friendship circles, there is an expectation that if one person pays the bill, each person should render their part immediately. When money is not involved, such as when the resources being exchanged are time and emotional support, there might not be an expectation of repayment until the provider is in a similar situation."
"Work relationships tend to be more formal, so they would follow the 'immediate exchange' rule unless some coworkers are also considered friends," Campbell notes. "In order to ensure that work relationships stay productive and drama-free, it is best to abide by the stranger rules of reciprocity. That is, try to repay immediately."
"These relationships often have an expectation of months or years for repayment because they are among the most intimate," she says. "The only type of relationship that might have more relaxed rules for exchange would be family. As noted above, the types of resources exchanged within these relationships are not necessarily parallel. For example, one partner might provide emotional support while the other provides financial stability. In general, though, both partners require love, so it is expected that this resource is regularly exchanged and is not one-sided."
"Reciprocity between strangers often occurs in marketplace transactions with the purchase of goods and services," Campbell says. "Sometimes, though, a stranger might provide a benefit with no expectation of the favor being returned—that's altruism. Usually, the benefit ascertained by the giver is a feeling of positivity, so no further benefit is expected. Examples could include holding the door open for someone, offering food or money to someone in need, or engaging in volunteer work. It's always a good idea to do this, too."