5 Signs Your Relationship Is Missing The Crucial Component Of Reciprocity

On the surface, the idea of reciprocity within romantic relationships could seem straightforward. Often defined simply as a mutual give and take, reciprocity functions on the premise that doing nice things for our partners is good, and it feels good when our partners do nice things for us. While this is true on a basic level, reciprocity goes much deeper than an exchange of kindness for mutual gain. Ensuring reciprocity is a crucial component of a healthy relationship — without it, partners can feel insignificant, driven to question both the strength of the partnership and their place in it; not to mention, how much their partner values it. 

Reciprocity might be better understood as the conscious effort to make our partners feel seen, heard, and respected. When one partner makes an effort to do so, but the other does not respond with the same, issues could ensue. A lack of reciprocity compromises the trust between partners, the commitment made to each other, and the ability to be completely ourselves in the relationship. How could you be if you are constantly questioning your worth to someone else? Here's how to spot if your relationship is lacking this important equilibrium, and how to gently work toward restoring it. 

Communication feels forced

One sign of a relationship that lacks reciprocity is if you feel there is no space to share your thoughts or feelings. Perhaps when you ask your partner about their day at work, they never ask you the same. Though subtle, this gesture could leave you feeling ignored over time, as though your thoughts, feelings, or experiences matter less than your partner's. And maybe when you do share them, your partner seems disinterested or preoccupied, leaving you feeling ignored or dismissed. The reverse situation never occurs: your partner never initiates communication about your inner life, or asks you to weigh in on a certain subject. Perhaps you are always the one reaching out to make plans, or they never send a text first. Any of this could signal that your communication is lacking reciprocity. 

As psychologist Dr. Scott Bea noted while speaking to the Cleveland Clinic, this is not a failure on your part, but rather an imbalance in expectations, or a difference in personalities. "People have this idea that everybody ought to be equivalent in their skills," he says. "However, we are all born with different brains." Remember to speak up and ask in a clear and concise way for the communication you may want or need in the relationship. This allows you to reach a mutual understanding, and work toward finding a better balance instead of allowing resentment to build.

You make the sacrifices

Maintaining your own priorities, whether you're working toward a career goal, a personal goal, or making time to do certain activities that make you happy, is imperative to maintaining your independence and autonomy while in a relationship. Due to the day-to-demands of our responsibilities, however, we sometimes have to make sacrifices, including re-prioritizing to meet other needs. While we cannot always expect our partners to put our needs and wants before their own, the same applies to you. Sacrifices can be large or small, from changing what you want for dinner in favor of your partner's preferences, or moving to a new place when your partner must relocate for work. Ask yourself, are you constantly shifting your priorities so your partner does not have to shift theirs? This could signal a lack of reciprocity. 

But according to a study cited in 2022's Current Opinion on Psychology, those who benefit from the sacrifice their partner has made perceive the sacrifice just 50% of the time. Both partners lose in this scenario: the one who makes the sacrifice feels unnoticed, while the one who benefits does not get to feel appreciated (via Psychology Today). Continuing a review of further research, the authors posit that both parties can exhibit ambivalence when a sacrifice is made. Talk to your partner about minimizing the sacrifices you both make, and how you can ensure no sacrifice goes unnoticed or unreturned when necessary.

You are keeping score

Of course, reciprocity does not need to mean achieving a perfectly split, one-to-one ratio on everything you do together. Striving for this could lead you to keep score on your partner, meaning that you are constantly weighing their words or actions against your own. 

Some degree of scorekeeping is to be expected, according to Mayo Clinic psychologist and sex therapist Jennifer Vencill speaking with Vice. "It's normal for us to perceive differences in what we're doing versus what our partners are doing," she says. This can be especially so in the context of cis, heterosexual relationships, when the division of domestic labor has throughout history entailed much more effort for women. Understanding the effort you put into the relationship versus your partner is not inherently detrimental to it — this awareness can actually be helpful when identifying potential imbalances. 

But when taken to the extreme, scorekeeping can signal a deeper problem. You could begin to expect your partner to disappoint you, and engage in a pattern of negativity that can be difficult to break free from. But before then, understand that scorekeeping has its roots in managing communication. Learn to sincerely ask for help from your partner when you need it, and focus on your own role in the relationship. But when you communicate what you need and still see no change, perhaps then you could consider whether or not the relationship is still fulfilling. 

You are investing more emotion

The term "emotional labor" was first used by renowned sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her book, "The Managed Heart," which explored how certain jobs require paid workers to put in a level of emotional effort to succeed. The idea of emotional labor has expanded so much, however, that it has strayed from this concept. Now, emotional labor is used — however improperly — to describe the idea of how much time and effort one partner puts into cultivating a strong, emotional connection within the relationship. When this emotional investment, as we will call it, is out of balance, a lack of reciprocity could be afoot. 

When you are investing more emotionally in the relationship by always beginning conversations about each other's feelings, about the nature of your relationship, or anything else related to your life as a couple, for example, you could begin to feel frustrated that your partner is not doing the same. Constantly wondering whether your partner is as emotionally invested as you can be draining. Even still, make sure you are not masking your own emotions just to keep the peace. "Talk to your partner about what they think is important to do to keep the relationship healthy," therapist Lesli Doares tells Well and Good. Remember that they may have different ideas than you do about priorities in the relationship. Be clear about what you need so you feel less burdened by the emotional obligations you perceive. 

Connection feels conditional

When it comes to reciprocity in a relationship, remember that you are worthy of love and affection without having to prove yourself to your partner. Blaming yourself can feel easy when it comes to what your partner is or is not doing in the relationship. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses when it comes to being in a partnership, and it's important to remember that your partner's might be different from yours. But you should not feel as though you have to change who you are for your partner in order to earn their interest or effort, nor should you expect the same from them. 

Feeling a lack of reciprocity in a relationship could make you feel that the connection you have is conditional; that without doing or saying or being the right things for your partner at each pass, your needs will not be met. But when reviewing your relationship for this issue, think about the overall pattern of your relationship, and not just one or two isolated incidents. A lack of reciprocity could be one of the biggest deal breakers in relationships. Ask yourself if your relationship supports your wellbeing, your personal growth, and your happiness.