Last week I talked about balance as a first step to understanding reciprocity. This week I’ll refine my focus and discuss the term itself.

A few years ago I was in my car, either listening to an audio book or the radio. I was in the off phase of a painful and confusing on and off relationship. Whoever I was listening to asked the question: “Is he crying about you?”

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This was a real Aha! moment for me, because I myself was crying all the time and the answer to the question was no. I didn’t even need to think about it. I’d given him all the power. He was calling the shots. I wanted to be with him but he didn’t want to be with me — at least for the moment.

That was my first introduction to reciprocity. It didn’t come with context, language or tools, but that question was like a piece of grit in my eye and it continues to pop up in all my relationships.

Before we discuss it further, let’s define reciprocity. A 3-second internet search yields: “Exchanging things with others for mutual benefit.” Good enough.

What I understand now is that reciprocity is at the core of healthy connection and relationship. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, it matters. I see the presence of reciprocity as an indicator of equality. No one has power over anyone else. The playing field is level. Giving and receiving happen in balance. We see the needs of others as being as important as our own. Reciprocity is the old Golden Rule in action.

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It sounds so easy. In fact, it is easy. A reciprocal relationship is a delight. Trust and respect are present. Drama and trauma are absent. Both parties show up with an intention to create healthy connection. Communication is loving, respectful and honest. Both parties take responsibility for their words, actions and choices. When we walk away from a reciprocal interaction we feel valued, understood, respected and connected — and so does the other party.

Reciprocity in relationships cannot be achieved if both parties are not internally balanced, which is why I started with balance last week. This is like boundaries. If we can’t manage our own boundaries within ourselves, we won’t have effective boundaries with others. If we don’t function well enough to self-care, make choices that reflect our priorities, and control our time and energy in a balanced way, we can’t create healthy, reciprocal relationships.

“Exchanging things with others” is not limited to concrete things. In fact, a commercial exchange doesn’t imply reciprocity at all. Reciprocal exchange means he heats water for my tea while I’m in the shower and I dry his socks in the dryer instead of on the line because he likes them soft. Reciprocity implies an equal but not necessarily identical contribution of time, energy, expression and caring. In many ways, it’s a subtle kind of dance. It’s a gift of ourselves to others.

Reciprocity is flexible, affectionate, creative, curious and cooperative. Reciprocity says: “What can I do? What do you need? What would be useful? What would create connection? Reciprocity requires we allow ourselves to be seen and we’re open to receiving as well as giving. It requires communication about what we want and what we can give.

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Sadly, I think many people have never experienced a truly reciprocal relationship with a human being, although many of us have with animals. If that’s true of you, then there’s an important question to explore.

Is it you or is it them?

What’s been true for me is that it’s both. I’ve only lately begun to truly self-care and develop a sense of being valuable in the world. Most of my life has been defined by my sense of failure. What this means is that I’ve been a people pleaser, which is to say inauthentic and without good boundaries and balance. Naturally, that created problems, as well as attracting all kinds of people into my life who were also dysfunctional.

I have no power to change the behavior of others, but I can certainly learn and grow myself. Having language and context for aspects of relationship is enormously helpful. Being able to ask the question “Is he/she crying about me?” forces me to take a wider view and keep an eye on reciprocity. It empowers me.

It’s a great mistake to assume everyone wants reciprocity. I always forget that piece. I can’t quite get my head around the fact that some folks have no desire to be in a relationship like this, but I know it to be true. I can’t explore that effectively, having a great longing for it myself, so I’ll leave that aspect alone, except to note it’s not effective to make up stories or have expectations and assumptions about another’s desire or intention in this arena. Reciprocity doesn’t exist without mutual consent and a willingness to share power. The good news is after you run into the absence of reciprocity (for whatever reason) enough times, you stop trying to force it.

It’s also worth noting there are many different forms of relationship, and lack of reciprocity doesn’t mean there’s no value in the connection. Not at all. The quality of our relationships declare and define themselves pretty quickly, it’s just that sometimes we’re so focused on our determination that things be a certain way, we don’t pause to consider what is actually present — and what is not. Denial is a powerful thing, and we can stay stuck in it for years.

Reciprocity is a high standard. If you decide you want it, many possible relationships will be disqualified in the early stages. On the other hand, if you accept nothing less than reciprocity in close relationships, the ones you do find will be joyful and vibrant, and you won’t have to cry alone in the first place, let alone wonder if your partner is, too.

(This is the second post in a series on reciprocity. See also Parts 1, 3, and 4.)

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