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In social psychology,  reciprocity is a social rule that says people ought to repay, in kind, what another person has provided for them; that is, people give back (reciprocate) the kind of treatment they have received from another. By virtue of the rule of reciprocity, people are obligated to repay favors, gifts, invitations, etc. in the future. If someone receives a gift for their birthday, a reciprocal expectation may influence them to do the same on the gift-giver’s birthday. This sense of future obligation associated with reciprocity makes it possible to build continuing relationships and exchanges. Reciprocal actions of this nature are important to social psychology as they can help explain the maintenance of social norms.

The Importance of Reciprocal Relationships

While most of us would agree on the importance of reciprocal relationships, we don’t consciously think about this idea of reciprocity when it comes to friendships and long term relationships. Reciprocity is a mutual exchange of actions, goods, energy, time, emotion, etc. between two people. Reciprocity is similar to a game of tennis or ping pong. There’s a rhythm or a flow of a back and forth exchange. When someone reciprocates our efforts, it can leave us feeling validated in our choices and friendship, energized to keep going in this friendship or relationship and give more, and leaves us with this overall sense that we are valued and appreciated. Meaningful friendships and relationships requires investment, and reciprocity can be the gauge of whether or not the investment is worth it. This article focuses on the reciprocity between peers. Reciprocity cannot be measured in all relationships, for example a parent/child relationship. There is nothing reciprocal about being a parent. You love your child unconditionally often expecting and receiving nothing in return. It’s a much different relationship than relationships with a peer or a spouse, and that is to be expected.

Often when clients are challenged to asses the reciprocity, or the “give and take” in their relationships, a common complaint is they feel guilty and greedy for exploring how their relationships benefit them. Assessing reciprocity is not about “tit for tat,” it about taking an honest look at the dynamics in your relationships and assessing the investment on each side.

Realistically, reciprocity between two people may not always have a constant and even flow. Depending on people’s life circumstances, they may not be able to give as much as they are receiving from you. Maybe they just had their first child, or they lost a parent, or they just went through a significant move. However, this is where the concept of investment comes in. Do you feel the two of you have invested enough in the relationship in the past that you have a strong enough foundation to be more of the giver during this time? The most important question to ask yourself in such a situation is, do you believe your friend would do the same for you? Would he/she sacrifice her needs and be the friend you need during this time? If your answer is yes, then you know you have a strong enough friendships that it can survive temporary inconsistent reciprocity. However, if your answer is no, then what is it that keeps you in this friendship? What is your motivation to continue this relationship?

When the relationship is not reciprocal

You’ve assessed, you’ve explored, and you’ve identified that one of your relationships is not reciprocal, so now what? It is up to you to decide if you want to cut ties completely, confront your friend about the unbalance and how you feel about it, or you can decrease the amount of energy and effort you put into this relationship and simply prioritize this friendship less. Perhaps, there is still something in this relationship you feel is rewarding to you, and you don’t want to let go completely, but you are will to let go slightly. That’s okay. Not every relationship will have the same level of closeness, connection, and time and energy spent.

We have many relationships that fill different needs at different times

Your time is valuable, and so is what you bring to your relationships. It’s okay to be selective in how and who you spend your time with. Who is worth your time? Who is worth investing in? So when that opportunity is there to be social and catchup on your relationships, it’s important that the relationships deserve it. Not every relationship will be worth it, and not every relationship is meant to last forever. Certain relationships are meant to fill a specific purpose and time in your life.

We all need people in our life who contribute to our growth in someway. Whether it’s simply by being support in a time of need, or someone who challenges us to expand our way of thinking, regardless of what it is, it’s important and healthy to have people around you that help you thrive and grow. When we allow people in who do not add to our life in anyway, or simply take without giving back, we are susceptible to stagnation, burnout, or even a poor sense of self. To really take inventory of the quality of your friendships with the goal of eliminating any non-reciprocal or toxic friends, it means we value ourselves enough to believe we deserve better, we deserve to be treated the way we treat others.

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