**This is a work of nonfiction based on actual events that I have experienced firsthand; used with permission.
I didn’t realize that my former partner kept score in our relationship until it was over. He’d been silently keeping a tally of all the money he’d spent on me for years. Although the things that I did for him made his life better and easier, he did not measure non-monetary deeds in the same way.
At the start of our relationship, he behaved as though he enjoyed gifting and taking care of me. And he seemed to enjoy it when I made his appointments from him, packed his lunches, and talked him off the ledge when his temper flared.
However, after we broke up and I moved on, he told me he felt like I used him. Although he later admitted that he could not put a monetary value on the things that I did for him, his perception of our relationship was that I had taken advantage of him. Of course, his perception of him only changed after I was involved with someone else.
Reciprocal norms in romantic relationships.
Reciprocity norms are the unspoken rules we follow in relationships to maintain balance. We often do things for our partners without expecting anything in return, but when one person consistently gives more than they receive, it can lead to tension and resentment.
The reciprocity theory presupposes that when someone does something for you, you unconsciously evaluate the intention of the deed before responding in the form of reward or punishment. But the reciprocity theory is not only applicable to relationships. It can also be applied in business, economics, and even games.
In my case, my former partner was happy to be waited on hand and foot while we were together. But his assessment of my reciprocity changed once his post-break-up bitterness settled in.
“In nearly all cultures, the process of socialization teaches us to share, take turns and give back to all who give to us. We are likely to be shamed or ostracized if we don’t integrate the rule of reciprocity into our behavior.” — Linda Bloom, LCSW, and Charlie Bloom, MSW, authors of Secrets of Great Marriages: Real Truth from Real Couples About Lasting Love
Why do perceptions about reciprocity change?
Reciprocity norms are often based on our cultural upbringing and beliefs. In some cultures, it is normal for the woman to take care of the household and the man to provide financially. In other cultures, it is more common for both partners to work and share domestic duties.
When our perceptions about reciprocity change, it can be because our cultural beliefs have changed or because we have been influenced by other relationships that we have seen. For example, if we see our friends or family members in relationships where one person is always taking care of the other, we may start to believe that this is how all relationships should be.
Our perceptions about reciprocity can also change when our own needs or circumstances change. For example, if we lose our job or become ill, we may start to feel that our partner should be doing more to help us.
Another thing that can impact perceptions around reciprocity is if one person believes that they are superior in the relationship. This could be because of their gender, social status, or level of education.
My former partner felt that he was the leader in our relationship as the man. Consequently, over time, he began to believe that I owed him more because of his perceived status of him in our relationship.
Genuine reciprocity may improve relational health.
Reciprocity is often confused with fairness, but it is not the same. Fairness is when both partners feel that they are getting the same thing, but reciprocity is when both partners feel that they are giving and receiving in equal measure.
In other words, when both partners feel as though they have equity in the relationship, it can lead to a more satisfying and healthy relationship.
But reciprocity is not limited to deeds, goods, and labor in romantic partnerships. It’s also vital for maintaining trust and mutual respect. Romantic relationships where expectations are clearly communicated and fulfilling each other’s needs are prioritized may prove to be more satisfying.
“The healthiest relationships are ones in which both partners are fulfilling each other’s needs on a regular basis.” —Kelly Campbell, Ph.D.
If you are in a relationship where you feel like you are always giving more than you are receiving, it may be time to talk with your partner about your needs. Your partner may be unaware of the imbalance in the relationship, and a discussion can help to improve the reciprocity.
Do you think reciprocity norms are significant in love relationships? Do you believe they have the potential to forecast longevity? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.