Love and reciprocity

On the Dutch part of this site I wrote a lot of articles about the theme love and relations, I decided to rewrite a view to English as well. Most of the articles I write are based on my own experiences and things I have learned in my life. In short, reciprocity in a love relationship is the feeling that giving and receiving are in balance. Reciprocity can be explained in a business sense as the mutual obligation to respond to a gift or manifestation with a returning gift or a returning manifestation or consideration. This returning gift, manifestation or consideration can take many forms, it can also be attention, gratitude or solidarity for now or in the future. In love relationships there must be at least a sense of reciprocity, if one of the partners gives more than he or she receives, there will be feelings of debt or obligations. Truly unconditional and selfless love seems like a fairy tale, in most romantic relationships giving and taking (getting) must be a little bit balanced. One does not (and should) not use a scale, because this can also be very annoying and oppressive, but when one of the partners feels that he or she is only giving and getting little in return, unfortunately I think something is very wrong. Reciprocity, I think, should be a natural thing where both love partners continue to mutually affirm their love for each other. Regards, Hein Pragt

Copyright © Hein Pragt.

Reciprocity in a love relation


Robbert Cialdini describes in his book "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion" the rule of reciprocity and this rule states that one usually tries to repay what another has done for him. What is returned should have about the same value in proportion as what one has given, but with negotiation and persuasion techniques "profit" can be made. People usually learn from an early age that a service or a gift entails an obligation (even in the form of showing gratitude) and most people also learn at an early age that failure to fulfill this obligation results in disapproval. Most people learn at an early age that getting something also evokes the obligation to give something back, even if that is only gratitude and appreciation. Many business tricks are based on "using" this obligation.

Our current view of love and relationships presupposes reciprocity and equality, everything one invests in the relationship comes back in some way. It is not always about physical things, solidarity, gratitude, affection and intimacy but also in a not easily to define "feeling" that the relationship is right and in balance. As long as partners feel that he or she gets enough from the other partner, he or she will also continue to give. The moment one of the partners no longer has that feeling, most partners will almost automatically and unconsciously take a step back in the relationship.

There are partners who are naturally more givers in the hope that they will get this back and partners who are cooler and more secure because all of the love and attention they receive, that they feel not so obliged to give something back. The giver has embraced the other person and there is a continuous wave of warmth and attention towards the other. The other gives little or nothing in return and often it seems the more the giver tries, the more the other takes it for granted. The giver often becomes insecure and tries even harder in the hope of being seen and acknowledged and receive the love and attention and often intimacy in return of the other partner. When this goes on for a longer time, this can eventually affect the self-esteem of the giver and encourage disrespectful behavior in the other. This often doesn't happen overnight, this process can creep into a love relation after years and will be experienced as painful if it has already gotten way too far out of hand. I know from my own experience that the balance of true reciprocity is hard to restore at this point.

There is also a difference in the perception of reciprocity between men and women, women often concentrate more on social and emotional patterns in the relationship and also talk about this more than men. Men often pay more attention to performance and material things. From my own experience I know that men usually like to be compensated with appreciation and women usually with attention and recognition. This shouldn't be a problem as long as both partners have the "feeling" that things are in be in balance. But reciprocity is also based on mutual dependence, and reciprocity also involves mutual interests. Even when it looks very much like something is almost selfless, there is usually a reciprocal element to it. For example, someone who works as a volunteer for sick people can feel important and indispensable, or be compensated by, for example, gratitude.

Reciprocity can also be explained from the Darwinian survival principle, people cannot survive so well on their own. Since prehistoric times, humans have worked together in groups to survive. So reciprocity is actually not a form of solidarity, it is nothing more or less than a survival principle. Complete reciprocity is also an illusion, because there is no power involved in complete reciprocity. Power is also a means of getting what one wants and making the other do what one wants but power is based on inequality. In many relationships there is a power struggle between both partners that makes a healthy reciprocity impossible. In many relationships there is a (sometimes unconscious) power struggle going on in where both partners no longer experience reciprocity and feel that they are in a losing position. Quarrel about household, about responsibility for the children, feeling unappreciated and the feeling that the other person never even wants to listen, are usually the result. Partners retreat behind their own defense walls and so many people drift apart.

True reciprocity in a love relationship is not weighing with a scale, not negotiable, cannot be captured in a contract, it is the feeling that globally one gets enough in return from the partner for what one gives to the other. The art of a loving relationship is not to calculate, sometimes it is in favor of one partner, sometimes in favor of the other. In addition, many things cannot be compared well, for example, a little appreciation can well compensate for a lot of physical hard work, while this does not outweigh the hard work in real terms. In a good relationship there is certainly reciprocity but this will not be weighed or calculated because both partners have a global "feeling" that the reciprocity is in balance. Usually when there is mutual love and respect, the need to make the other happy is also mutual and then a natural form of reciprocity arises.

A common reciprocity problem is that one person simply no longer sees the hard work and effort of the other and takes it for granted. This is sometimes a problem within the household because after a while people get used to it and assume that the clothes have been washed and that there is food on the table. Because it's taken for granted, it doesn't count anymore for reciprocity and the token of appreciation is often omitted. This can give the other the feeling of ingratitude and being unappreciated. But children, especially in puberty, can take many things for granted and give little in return and won't show appreciation.

But also between brothers and sisters and between friends and girlfriends, the balance can sometimes be really gone. For example, when friends go out together and one of them keeps drinking without even giving back a round, this will often lead to annoyance of the others. When someone reminds every birthday and then notices on his or her own birthday that almost everyone has "forgotten" this one, this can lead to great disappointment. When someone always calls to ask how things are going, but the other never calls back because it is so it is easy that the other person always calls, then there is also an imbalance in the reciprocity.

Many people today are fairly assertive and business-like within relationships and often quickly agree on a return. When I drive today, you will drive tomorrow, I pay this time, next time you will pay etc. When two people are the same they will probably accept this from each other and there will be a healthy balance. The imbalance usually arises when there is a "giver" in the game and a "taker" who thinks everything is fine the way it is. When taking things for granted begins to doom, the odds are gone and the giver can get a bad feeling of disappointment. This is as much the fault of the "giver" as the "taker", because the both have neglected reciprocity in their relation.

A solution for the "giver" not to expect anything back to avoid disappointment and to be happy with everything does come back is a moderate solution. No one is really completely selfless, eventually it will continue to feel bad and every person needs a bit of appreciation and reward. It often ends when the "giver" decides that he or she cannot longer accept it and stop with the free gifts. But that too will often be difficult because the underlying need for appreciation, attention and reward will continue to work. For most "givers" in this situation it is better to learn to negotiate. You don't have to change your personality to do things another way sometimes. Sometimes the problem is lack of selfrespect.

Reciprocity and self-respect

When a relationship is not reciprocal, this is often caused by a lack of self-esteem and self-respect. Many people who feel that they only giving and receive little in return often silently allow this themselves. They feel that deep inside they should not accept that they are treated like this, but usually these people also have a problem with guarding their own borders. In my own case all goes well until someone crosses a border after which I suddenly notice the lack of reciprocity and I instantly stand up for myself. The other who was in the comfortable situation will also protest because he or she thought it was all fine the way it was. In the past, I often tried to avoid these confrontations and I would withdraw myself for a while, but since I have learned to stand up for myself more and more, I know that avoiding these annoying conflicts will not change anything. But the biggest change usually lies within yourself and you have to learn that "no" is also a good answer or to make a statement in return. Failure to do so will reflect the disrespect of the other towards your own lack of self-esteem and self-respect and will not change anything.

Not using a scoreboard in love

scoreboard in a relation If you are looking for a very reliable method for persistent frustration in a love relationship, I present one here that is a guaranteed way to screw up your relationship. The widely used and proven method is called "keeping a scoreboard of what you do and your partner doesn't". To make the problem really effective, it is important to tell your partner regularly how he or she falls short in your expectations. This also gives you the chance to make it clear to him or her that you are right and know better. Unfortunately, this is exactly what many couples, sometimes do every day, without realizing it. For a lot of people it's still tempting to keep a (virtual) scoreboard about household chores, about who does what for the children, about money, about time for themselves.

Why do so many people do this? It can arise from a feeling of lack of appreciation, or because one is dissatisfied with his or her own life, but it can also arise from a power struggle between two partners. Anyway, the effect will always be the opposite of what one really wants to achieve and one will become frustrated and stressed by the perceived inequality in the relationship. As a result of the altercations, feelings of dissatisfaction and pent-up tensions that will inevitably arise, the loving feelings will eventually be affected. Often couples are seen getting bogged down in attacks and defend and counter-attack in which both sides hit each other with the scoreboard. When one of the partners is attacked because he or she supposedly does less in the house than the other, the defense will quickly be that he or she does more in another area. As a result of these discussions, negative feelings will prevail and both partners will often blame the other partner.

When the scoreboard looms in your relationship, try to let go of those thoughts and focus on your feelings of love. First, take care of yourself and remember that you are taking the path of least resistance when you look only at your own efforts looks and not your partner's. Try to find out what the real background is to your frustration, who knows you might work too hard and things grow over your head and the problem is actually more yours than you like to admit. Keeping away from the "it's not fair" thought gives your relationship a positive boost. But even when you're right it's sometimes important to suppress these thoughts in order to keep your own loving feelings alive. I always say its better to be loved than to be right! When there are inequalities that you want to discuss, it is wise to do this in a loving way and at a time when you are both are rested and open to it. A good time may be after making love, when both partners are relaxed, but most important is, talk in a loving way and express your feelings in a positive way and stay away from attacts and criticism. Often it's not the unwillingness of the other partner but not knowing what is really going on. You should bear in mind that with a heart full of love and patience it's easier to discuss problems and find a solution that's best for both partners.

Last update: 20-08-2021

Disclaimer: All pages on this Web site are copyrighted by Hein Pragt, unless otherwise noted. I strive for accuracy but cannot be held responsible for any errors in the content. For questions about the content of this site or persmission to copy you can contact me at: (email: is registered under KvK number: 73839426.