Reciprocity is often overlooked in family relationships, friendships and romantic relationships until it becomes a factor in a crisis or crises experienced by individuals within the system or the system itself.
Reciprocity is a pattern of behaviors between two or more people that is indicative of mutual dependence. Reciprocity is what drives life, all life- pro-creation, oxygen, food, water- are all dependent on reciprocal processes. In human relationships, at least, reciprocity was and is the key to our survival and progress. Every social framework (real or imagined) deals with the question of reciprocity before it moves on to anything else. Reciprocity allows us to meet our needs by meeting the needs of others; it gives our existence meaning and purpose – reciprocity is concrete evidence that what we do and who we are means something.
We acknowledge this reality in very concrete ways during our day to day lives. Having someone else grow our food, repair our car, cut our hair in return for the product of our labor (money) are all examples of reciprocity. It seems strange then, that all sorts of well-intentioned folks teach us early on that we should strive to “love our brothers and sisters unconditionally”. This idea is both impossible and built on a potentially catastrophic notion of love and fidelity.
Impossible because love is by definition conditional; there are things (roles, qualities, characteristics, behaviors) that lead us to think about and act towards someone in a way that is different than how we think about or act towards most other people. The validity of those reasons maybe the subject of some debate but these reasons represent a “thing” or collection of “things” that we value, want and choose to pursue. Viewing unconditional love as a legitimate concept would mean denying everything we know about how people or the world works.
The idea of unconditional love is potentially catastrophic because it puts us in a position to be used or to use others – if there are no conditions then there are no rules or boundaries.
When it comes to relationships, any relationship, most folks have a price. When we under-value what we have to offer we end up feeling resentment towards the people we are in a relationship with. When we over-value our importance or worth, people may feel we are unreasonable and demanding. Either way the outcome is the same.
So that brings me to self-esteem.
Despite the damage done to our understanding of self esteem by pop-culture, it remains a real and meaningful concept. Not being mindful of it can lead to some pretty bad outcomes. Self-esteem is critical in establishing reciprocal relationships because it is the value you place on yourself and what you have to offer others.
Self-esteem comes down to four factors:
- How you feel about yourself.
- What you say to yourself about yourself and the relationship you have with your environment.
- Your expectations of others in a relationship.
- How you react when others treat you in a manner inconsistent with these expectations.
Since self-esteem drives the value you place on yourself, it will largely determine the reciprocal nature of the relationships you find yourself in. So if how your relationships look like indicate that your emotions and beliefs aren’t good guides to establishing value, you may want to consider focusing your efforts on the last two areas.
One of the best tools I use in helping clients develop these areas comes from the DBT camp (modulating intensity). This skill can help folks with a poor or unreasonably heightened sense of self-esteem stay above water by keeping them focused on reasonable positions (reciprocity is one of them). My thinking in using this skill centers on helping folks mitigate vulnerability. If how you think and feel about yourself leaves you vulnerable in relationships then it may be better for you to filter your decision making within relationships through a protocol that provides some assurance of fairness.
As we become more skilled in using the protocol, the nature of our relationships will likely change. As a result, we will begin to obtain concrete evidence regarding our worth and value. This evidence can act as a useful resource in challenging the thoughts and emotions that drive us to act in a manner that gets in the way of healthy and reciprocal relationships. What makes this skill so effective, in my opinion, is that it seeks to initiate the change incrementally. It uses individual demands and requests as a means to create a shift in the overall picture; the idea being that consistent changes on small things will eventually lead to the bigger picture looking different. For this reason, it is also more protective of existing relationships and feels less overwhelming than having to change “everything” all at once.
The benefits we derive from our relationships and how competent we are in using them to meet our needs plays a large part in what we think and how we feel about ourselves; this is why DBT and CBT place such an emphasis on interpersonal effectiveness and assertiveness.