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Is My Relationship Reciprocal, or Am I Keeping Score?

Amanda Ann Gregory, LCPC, EMDR Certified 

Is Your Relationship Reciprocal? 

All healthy relationships include reciprocity. What’s reciprocity? It’s a mutual exchange between two or more people or groups of people who are in some type of relationships, such as romantic partners, family members, friends, community members, and work colleagues. This blog will focus on romantic partnerships. Reciprocity is also referred to as a “give and take.” What is mutually exchanged in relationships? Some things that are exchanged in romantic relationships are the completion of chores/tasks, belongings, gifts, financial support, emotional support, and affection. 

Reciprocity is never a perfect balance. It’s not 50/50 out of 100. Reciprocity might be 60/40 or 70/30, and it may be different depending on specific aspects of the relationship or the circumstances of the couple. What reciprocity looks like for each couple will vary. Some couples are comfortable with one partner providing 100% of the financial contribution and the other partner providing 100% of the household maintenance. It’s important that the expectations of each partner are communicated, agreed upon, and adaptable if necessary. 

Reciprocity is focused on the relationship — that is, on both partners — as opposed to just one partner. When assessing reciprocity, you must consider what is best for both partners rather than what is best for just one. For example, Andre is a morning person and gets up early to take care of the children while his partner sleeps in. His partner might put the kids to bed because he/she functions better in the evening. This reciprocity takes into account each partner’s preferences and strengths, and it works for their relationship. 

Are You Keeping Score?

Reciprocity is commonly mistaken for the concept of keeping score in romantic relationships. Keeping score is when you are highly focused, and often distracted by, how much you have given in the relationship, how much your partner has given, and your assessment of equality. For example, you might keep score in regards to the following:

  • How many chores does each partner complete, and how often?
  • How often does each person initiate sex per month?
  • Who tackles a majority of the parenting responsibilities? 
  • How much financial support does each person provide to the household/relationship?
  • Who provides the most emotional support in the relationship?

Keeping score is focused on one partner (not both), and one partner always wins while the other loses. The loser is the partner who is considered to not be doing or contributing enough. The problem with keeping score is it’s not focused on the relationship and does not consider the needs of the relationship. It constructs a close personal relationship in transactional terms, which is a toxic distortion of what such a relationship ought to be. For example, consider the example of Andre and his partner. If Andre were keeping score, he would discover that he spends three hours every morning taking care of the children and that his partner spends two hours every night implementing the children’s night routine. If Andre were keeping score, he might feel that this is not fair, but it might actually be fair if Andre prefers to manage the children’s morning routine and/or his partner is unable to help with the morning routine. Keeping score often doesn’t take into account all of the factors that exist in relationships.  

Keeping score is often done according to a rigid arithmetical standard of equality, such as 50/50 out of 100. In order for the relationship to work, Andre would need to contribute 50% of his time or resources, and his co-parent would also need to contribute an exactly equal 50% of time and resources. This system of measurement lacks flexibility and is difficult to establish and maintain in relationships. For example, if Andre is ill and unable to take care of the children in the mornings or evenings for a month, is he not giving enough to the relationship? If his partner were keeping score, Andre would be considered lacking.

A lack of reciprocity in a relationship needs to be addressed, as healthy relationships must involve mutual exchanges between partners. Yet, “keeping score” may not be the healthiest way to measure, establish, or promote reciprocity in your romantic relationship. 

Do you need help establishing or improving reciprocity in your relationship? If so, participating in couples therapy can help. Contact Symmetry Counseling to connect with a Chicago counselor today.

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