Close Connections: The Dangers of Reciprocity

By Nancy Norman

Where do we get the idea that if we do something for someone, they’ll do something for us? I wonder.

Wherever it comes from, reciprocity is a social norm. Friendships are based on it. One person gifts another, and some kind of gift is returned. It’s used as a measure of whether a relationship really matters to both people.<a href=";

But there’re several inherent dangers in reciprocity:

  •  I expect a return gift of equal value. What’s “equal” to one isn’t equal to another. For Valentine’s I give you a gym membership to the best club in town–and you give me a rose? I feel shorted.
  • I should give something back. When someone does something for me, whether it’s a favor or a present, I try to figure out what I need to do back. What might the other person find valuable? What if they don’t like what I give them? Will they feel taken advantage of in our friendship?
  • I expect reciprocity but you don’t. “If I take care of you, you’ll take care of me.” When that doesn’t happen in some way that matters to me, I work harder to make it more obvious that I’m taking care of you. The more I give, the more you’ll feel my neediness and resist returning the favor. In the meantime, my resentments start.

It’s not that expecting something in return is bad. It’s just that it may not happen. Maybe the other doesn’t know what really matters to you, even if you’ve told them. I have a friend who keeps thinking her husband of 25 years will surely get it that she does so much for him—the laundry, cooking, cleaning, etc. She thinks if he realizes that, he’ll be more affectionate and demonstrate his caring by helping with daily chores. But he sees her housekeeping as “just what women do,” not as a message that she loves him and wants something in return. Therefore, reciprocity doesn’t occur to him.

So, if reciprocity can lead to misunderstandings, what’s to do instead?

  • Tell your friends or lovers what you need, who you are, what’s important to you, what you like and don’t like—straight out. How else will they know what you’d like to receive when time comes?
  • Give with the expectation that you’ll bring pleasure to the other and may or may not receive something in return.
  • If you continue to give for “nothing in return” and nothing returns over time, it may be wise to ask yourself if you can live without reciprocity of some sort. His time? Her skills? His attention? Does your friend just not give these gifts, or is he or she not invested in pleasing you?

Look for a balance in how your friends and family treat you. Some reciprocity needs to be there, I think—not tit for tat but a giving back over time that means something. The danger’s in reciprocity’s silent expectations.

Nancy Norman is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, musician and former “Intimacy” columnist for The Wichita Eagle. Email her at

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