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Reciprocity versus mutuality in relationships

What is reciprocity?

Reciprocity refers to the act of doing things for another person in exchange for something in return. It can be virtually anything that benefits the individual:

  • Time
  • Gifts
  • Loyalty
  • Money
  • Privileges

For example, a supervisor may give special time or mentorship to an employee in exchange for their loyalty. This can feel transactional.

What is mutuality?

Mutuality refers to behaviors that benefit both/all parties involved (good for you, good for me).

Mutuality encourages and facilitates mutual love and respect for everyone and it requires each individual to think of themselves as a member of a larger group.

For example, a supervisor may support their employee with certain tasks because they understand the employee’s bandwidth is low.

How do reciprocity and mutuality differ?

Reciprocity and mutuality may seem very similar because they both require “giving” or “doing” behaviors in order to facilitate a desired outcome.

However, they are very different because:

  • Reciprocity is transactional, as the “giver” is giving in order to get a benefit.
  • Mutuality is an investment, as the giver is giving in order to get something that is beneficial for the relationship.

Reciprocity in relationships

Relationships are hard and take more than one person to make them work.

Reciprocity in relationships is believing that the relationship is 50/50. This might look like:

  • I planned the last date, so they need to plan the next one.
  • I sent the last text/made the last call, so they need to reach out the next time.

Reciprocity in relationships does not take into account our individual bandwidth, and the goal becomes “what can I get out of this?”

Mutuality in relationships

Mutuality in relationships requires the individuals to understand that everyone’s bandwidth is different and they may not be able to consistently give 50/50, but this doesn’t mean the relationship is unbalanced.

This might look like giving more effort now, but taking on less later:

  • My partner just started a new job, so I will take on more of the chores for a bit.
  • My friend just lost a loved one, so I will reach out more or initiate hangouts more frequently.

Why is mutuality important?

It’s difficult to accept that relationships may not always be equal. This is because we feel that if they are not equal it means that we are prioritizing someone else over ourselves.

However, mutuality is not the same as co-dependency. Relationships should be equitable partnerships, which is different than co-dependency or equality.

Equity or mutuality in relationships take into account each person’s bandwidth during a given time and create a common goal: fostering a loving and understanding relationships.

How to implement mutuality in relationships

  • Break out of the 50/50 mindset. We are always changing and experiencing new stressors, and we cannot always contribute 50/50 to all our relationships.
  • Practice empathy. Relationships require a lot of empathy. This means putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Just because we have the bandwidth and ability to manage our stress and contribute to a relationship, does not mean everyone else does.
  • Reflect on your personal limits for giving and empathizing. When we empathize or give without limits, we create resentment.
  • Communicate consistently. Check in with loved ones when they are going through a tough time and communicate your support. If you feel like the relationship is becoming unbalanced, communicate your needs and boundaries.
  • Remember that giving more now, doesn’t have to mean giving more indefinitely or getting less later on.

This page is also part of the Roamers Therapy Glossary; a collection of mental-health related definitions that are written by our therapists.

While our offices are currently located at the South Loop neighborhood of Downtown Chicago, Illinois, we also welcome and serve clients for online therapy from anywhere in Illinois and Washington, D.C. Clients from the Chicagoland area may choose in-office or online therapy and usually commute from surrounding areas such as River North, West Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lake View, Rogers Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Little Village, Bronzeville, South Shore, Hyde Park, Back of the Yards, Wicker Park, Bucktown and many more. You can visit our contact page to access detailed information on our office location.