Reciprocal Relationships: The Reality We Should All Reach For With Our Partner

All personal relationships, whether they are familial, platonic, or romantic, should be a two-way street –– and healthy relationships are best maintained when both partners are equally as invested in the relationship and there is an even amount of give and take. When it comes to romantic relationships in particular, ensuring they are established on a foundation of reciprocity and equivalent dedication to the relationship –- and to the effort required to maintain it -– is an essential part of guaranteeing that each partner feels loved and valued within the partnership while laying the foundation for romantic growth and progression. "The healthiest relationships are ones in which both partners are fulfilling each other's needs on a regular basis," says psychologist and relationship expert Kelly Campbell, Ph.D. (via Brides).

And while no relationship is without its issues, an imbalanced relationship now can spell major trouble down the road. "If one person is doing all of the giving and the other is doing all of the receiving, then the relationship is lopsided and at risk for dissatisfaction, infidelity, or dissolution," Dr. Campbell adds. Identifying your own shortcomings when it comes to reciprocating your partner's efforts to show you love and making an effort to improve, while also holding them accountable for doing the same is essential in maintaining a healthy relationship based on mutual love, attention, effort, and sacrifice.

Signs your relationship isn't recriprocal

If your relationship isn't reciprocal, you will notice that either you or your partner noticeably fall behind the other when it comes to making an effort to meet their emotional needs. "One person is overly empathetic in considering their emotions and needs whereas the other person is overly apathetic and indifferent to others' experiences," says family and marriage therapist Joanne B. Kim (via MBG Relationships).

It can be difficult for people to notice that their partner isn't reciprocating their efforts, especially if the relationship started out as a two-way street and has since evolved to become one-sided. According to clinical psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD, (per Cleveland Clinic) if your relationship leaves you feeling drained, you notice that your partner never makes personal sacrifices for you and that you're the one always apologizing after an argument or disagreement, or you feel like your connection with your partner isn't all that deep or meaningful, you may be in a one-sided relationship. If you are pouring yourself into a relationship with a partner who consistently isn't giving much back, you may even begin to experience emotional and physical reactions from how emotionally draining and stressful it can be. "You may have challenges to how you nourish yourself, move your body and take care of your general health," says Dr. Bea. "You can become depressed, anxious, frightened and have poor sleep habits."

Causes of one-sided relationships

Relationships can become one-sided for a multitude of reasons, and before you get upset at your partner and accuse them of not giving the relationship as much attention as you are, it's important to know that their lack of reciprocation is likely not intentional. After all, being an effective communicator is a necessary skill to have in any type of relationship, and your partner may not be intentionally slacking –- they simply might not know how to properly invest in those relationships in the same way you do or may not share your natural inclination for picking up on the needs of others. "People have this idea that everybody ought to be equivalent in their skills," says Dr. Bea (via Cleveland Clinic). "However, we are all born with different brains. Some brains may be designed in ways that incline them to be really good communicators and teammates. Others are perhaps born without those traits."

This lack of natural ability to practice reciprocity in relationships often stems from the way someone grew up. "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," says clinical social worker and relationship expert Darcy Sterling, who also hosts E! Network's relationship TV show "Famously Single" (via The Knot). Being open with your partner about your needs can help them better understand how to meet them.

How to boost relationship reciprocity

If you feel like your partner hasn't been pulling their weight in the relationship lately or if you notice that you haven't been returning the energy that your partner has consistently been giving you, it's time to rebalance the relationship -– and you can do so by making an effort to intentionally show your partner love in their love language and encouraging them to do the same with you. "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 (via The Knot). "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."

In addition to tuning into your partner's specific love language, Sterling recommends asking your partner to share examples of specific ways in which you could make them feel the most loved that fall under the umbrella of that particular love language. If you've been focused on everything but your partner lately, regular check-ins with yourself can help make knowing how to show your partner love in the way they need second nature. Likewise, if your partner has been guilty recently of not showing up for the relationship like you are, ensuring they are familiar with your specific love language as well and giving them a refresher on the things they do that give you butterflies can keep the relationship from becoming lopsided.

Relationships aren't always 50/50 – and that's okay

The duties of each partner in a relationship aren't clearly defined, with Dr. Campbell noting via Brides that the benefits exchanged within romantic relationships in particular are "not necessarily parallel," making it impossible for any partner's efforts to be looked at and clearly defined as being exactly "equal" to that of their other half.

Similarly, individuals in romantic relationships can find themselves running into serious personal stressors such as job loss, death in the family, or personal illness that are out of their control and that require them to shift the bulk of their focus from the relationship for a temporary amount of time. For that reason, it's not uncommon for one partner to find themselves carrying the brunt of the relationship load while the other works through whatever else it is that may require their attention. However, Campbell notes that while a relatively uneven distribution of effort is common at certain points in the relationship, it is neither healthy nor sustainable for any one person to continue pulling all the weight for an extended period of time without the tide eventually shifting and the relationship balancing out again.

When relationships have to temporarily go through periods of imbalance to accommodate the struggles and stressors of one partner, it should be looked at by the partner carrying the load as a natural sacrifice to be made for the good of the relationship –– as long as the sacrifice is returned when needed.

Keeping score can hinder natural efforts of reciprocation

In natural periods of growth and change both personally and within the relationship that trigger a shift in the weight the load from one partner to the other, it can be easy for the partner temporarily carrying the load to want to keep score based on their increased efforts over that period of time. "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 (via The Knot). "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." Focusing on ensuring your own actions fill your partner's tank instead of focusing on the things they might not be doing for you that you are for them can help maintain a balance within the relationship that is built to survive its inevitable ebb and flow.

"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," Sterling adds (via The Knot).

Communicate if you feel like you aren't getting enough in return

If you are feeling drained by your relationship and feel like your partner consistently isn't matching your efforts when it comes to feeding and maintaining the relationship, it's important to talk to them about the way you are feeling. "If the over-benefitted cares about the other's well-being, they will seek to improve the balance and take on more of the work or put in more effort," explains Dr. Campbell (via Brides).

And while it's true temporary imbalances in relationships do not always indicate a red flag, Mychelle Williams, M.A., LPC says via MBG Relationships that "if you do try to bring up the disproportionate effort contributed to the relationship" to your partner and they attempt to "minimize or downplay it as if your experience is exaggerated or false," you are more than likely in a one-sided relationship –- and your partner failing to put forth more of an effort even after talking to them about it indicates that they do not care about reciprocating your efforts.

While it's entirely possible for a conversation from the heart to inspire change in a well-meaning partner, it's important to know that some people simply aren't capable of loving you in the way that you need them to. "You may hope somebody that isn't a great teammate will become a great teammate as a result of your effort towards them," says Dr. Bea (via Cleveland Clinic). "But you can't change another person's brain."