What Does It Mean to Have a Reciprocal Relationship?

Hint: It starts with learning each other's love languages.
Jessica Estrada - The Knot Contributor.
Jessica Estrada
Jessica Estrada - The Knot Contributor.
Jessica Estrada
The Knot Contributor
  • Jessica contributes wedding planning, wedding etiquette and relationship content to The Knot.
  • She also covers lifestyle and wellness topics for print and digital publications such Refinery29, Bustle, Well + Good, Cosmopolitan, Byrdie, The Zoe Report, The Cut and more.
  • Jessica has a journalism degree from Cal State University, Northridge and is certified as a life and success coach.
Updated Oct 14, 2021

Whether a couple just started dating, is engaged, or already tied the knot, an intimate relationship is a two-way street. It requires both partners to be fully invested in the overall well-being of the partnership.

A healthy reciprocal relationship occurs when two partners have mutual respect and support for one another. Wondering whether you have a reciprocal relationship? To help us understand reciprocal relationships deeper, we chatted with Darcy Sterling, a New York City-based clinical social worker, relationship expert and host of E! Network's relationship TV show Famously Single. Keep scrolling to learn what reciprocity is, why it's important and tips for how to have a reciprocal relationship.

In this article:

What Is Reciprocity in a Relationship?

Sterling defines reciprocity in a romantic relationship as the healthy give and take between partners. If your relationship's mutual exchange of support doesn't seem even, don't worry—there tends to be an imbalance.

"There's always going to be one partner taking more and one giving more at a given time," Sterling says. "When you think about reciprocity, don't think about taking a snapshot of a specific moment. It's about having the overall sense that the give and take in your relationship balances out over time."

To have a reciprocal relationship, Sterling says each partner must know what their needs are and be able to express those needs to their partner. If those needs aren't met, they must be able to communicate that to their partner.

Another thing to keep in mind: A person's early childhood can affect how or if they practice reciprocity in their relationship. "People who didn't grow up in a home where family members gave to one another freely have no frame of reference for how to do it or what it looks like when done correctly," Sterling says.

The Importance of Reciprocity in a Relationship

Why is having a reciprocal relationship so important? According to Sterling, the flow of energy in both directions is what allows both partners to feel loved and valued. In other words, reciprocity is not just important in a romantic relationship—it's vital. No one wants to feel like they're giving and giving and not receiving.

4 Ways to Practice Reciprocity in Your Relationship

Improve the reciprocity in your relationship with these four expert-backed tips.

1. Learn each other's love languages.

One way to ensure you and your partner are embodying a reciprocal relationship is by learning each other's love languages and expressing love to each other in those ways.

It's believed that we all give and receive love in different ways. The five love languages, introduced by Gary Chapman's bestselling book of the same name, are: receiving gifts, words of affirmation, acts of service, quality time and physical touch. (To find out your love language, you can read the book or take a short quiz.)

"Most of us know what [our love language] is and we tend to express love in the way we want to receive it," Sterling says. "But if giving gifts is your primary love language and your partner's love language is quality time, your attempts at reciprocity will land flat."

Sterling also recommends asking your partner to share specific things they wish you'd do that would make them feel more loved. For instance, if your partner's love language is acts of service, they may feel loved when you do the dishes or run an errand for them. Check in with yourself regularly to ensure you've done at least a few things on that list.

2. Work on communicating when you disagree.

Even if you know each other's love languages, practicing reciprocity when one or both partners are in an emotional state can be challenging.

"You can't ponder someone else's needs when you're emotionally escalated," Sterling says. "And part of reciprocity requires that each partner knows themselves well enough to know when they can and cannot communicate productively."

3. Avoid keeping score.

Sterling says couples should avoid focusing too much on reciprocity because it can lead to keeping score.

"The natural inclination is to question whether your partner is giving you enough, but that's a question that almost always leads to dissatisfaction," Sterling says. "To avoid the mistake of keeping score in your relationship, use the principle [of reciprocity] to evaluate how well you're contributing to the relationship and to your partner, not the other way around."

In other words, focusing more on your actions instead of your partner's will increase the likelihood that both you and your significant other feel fulfilled.

4. Practice interdependence.

While codependency in a relationship isn't advised, interdependence is the sign of a healthy relationship. "In interdependence, partners value the support they receive from each other while maintaining a clear sense of self," Sterling says. "They are able to disagree and have differing interests, and the relationship dynamic allows for those differences."

To practice interdependence in a healthy reciprocal relationship, both partners must ensure they don't become completely engulfed by the relationship. "The relationship is a part of your life. It's not your entire life," Sterling says. "Maintain your own friends, your own hobbies. Spend time without your partner."

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