Respectful relationships: The art of give & take (positive reciprocity)

By Rany Moran

Giving and taking is a vital mechanism inherent to all personal relationships. Discover my 9 tips for achieving positive and respectful reciprocity in any relationship.

There is an African philosophy called “ubuntu”. Directly translated from Zulu, it means “humanity”.

As a guiding principle, it is said to mean “I am, because you are”—a belief that as humans we are defined by our compassion and kindness towards others, and our own wellbeing is deeply connected to the wellbeing of others.

The presence of “ubuntu” is just as apparent across the rest of the world, and we know this better as the practice of “give and take”.

What is “give and take”?

To give and take is basically an investment or “bucket” system of effort, akin to an emotional bank account where both parties can make deposits and withdrawals.

Whether you are faced with a positive or negative balance is where complexity arises, as exemplified by instances where one tends to give or take more time, support or emotion, to or from the other person - which can result in potentially-harmful “debt”.

This can also be influenced by the act of ungenerous giving, where it is imposed or given reluctantly, or when one is ungrateful or unwilling to receive.

Strangely enough, most people are familiar with paying back favours and kind deeds, but just as many are less in tune with the art of reciprocation—especially from the ones we hold dearest.

Giving and taking is a vital mechanism inherent to all personal relationships, and it cultivates and nurtures a sense of trust, cooperation, appreciation and self-worth.

By returning a gesture of love to your partner, it cements the feeling that you are both equally invested in each other’s well-being, and that you are working together to build a solid future.

There is, however, a negative side which can lead to pettiness. One partner could be more calculative than the other, keeping track of things they’ve done for the other person, and getting upset or suffering in silence when their gestures and efforts are not reciprocated accordingly.

This is more an issue of self-awareness and self-reflection, where one needs to reassess where these feelings of unfair treatment originate from, rather than projecting or burdening your partner with such expectations.

No one can read your mind - remember that. The golden rule is to always do unto others what you want others to do unto you.

Here are 9 ways to respectfully give and take in any relationship:

1. Focus on two-way, open conversations

Having a discussion with someone else, isn’t just about exchanging information. People talk to each other to share feelings, to get relief, and to reassure themselves when they are dealing with problems.

A common mistake is when one only talks about their own problems and doesn’t actively listen to the other person. Be mindful to listen to what the other person is saying, just as you would like one to listen to you talking about your own day, concerns or opinions.

When you speak about your problems, also offer the other the chance to reply instead of interrupting them and focusing back on what you are trying to communicate. Perhaps they’re trying to empathise or have helpful solutions for you but need a moment to settle on what to say—leave space for their response.

Listening is an underrated skill, and few people understand or appreciate the complexities and intricacies of good, active listening. When we listen well, we are connected, and can also pay more attention to our own internal dialogue, understanding and responses to what we hear.

2. Return the favour

There are people who are natural givers, who find joy in giving time, effort and even physical gifts to people. While it may be a gift you didn’t expect or ask for, and even if you aren’t the voluntarily giving type, it’s good to consciously receive and appreciate such gestures, and to reciprocate when you can.

Any friendship, relationship or any other kind of partnership works best when effort is mutual. A dynamic that is one-sided—where one makes all the effort and the other just takes—will be unstable, unbalanced and unfulfilling no matter which side you’re on.

3. Positive reinforcement

Actively compliment each other. Most importantly, give credit where credit is due. In psychology, there is a study of how humans partake in behavioural motivation called ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’. At the top of this five-tier pyramid of human needs is self-actualisation, where one strives to reach their full potential (to be the best that they can be). And a lot of the time, people thrive from being noticed, praised, and encouraged.

So if your partner is doing something amazing, say it. If your partner isn’t doing as good as they hoped they would be, compliment their efforts and achievements thus far—this will encourage them to strive and try harder next time.

4. Accept the flaws

Nobody is perfect, that’s for sure. But some people can react more negatively to their partner’s mistakes than others. This can stem from deeper personal issues like anger management or projected expectations of self unto others.

For example, the next time you get angry because your partner or roommate left the house in a mess, think about a similar situation where you didn’t meet their expectations either, but they reacted less intensely. Is the fight worth it? Probably not.

5. Give each other space

Being involved in a relationship doesn’t mean you need to be together 24/7. Even married couples need their personal space and reflective alone time.

We shouldn’t impose the need to spend time with each other constantly—opt for quality time over quantity of time—and understand that people can enjoy and partake in different hobbies and activities with other people as well. You don’t always have to do things together, even at home. There’s nothing wrong with unwinding over Netflix, while watching different shows on your own devices. You can do things alone, while together, and being comfortable with this concept will do both of you good.

6. Language of love

The thing about one’s love language is that we typically ‘give’ the way we want to ‘receive’—and vice versa. We expect our partners to love us in the same way that we love them, but this can set unrealistic expectations that are bound to leave us feeling unsatisfied or unfulfilled. What we need to realise and understand is how we express love versus how our partners express love can be different, and we need to find a good balance of giving and taking in each of our ways. If your partner shows affection through hugs, kisses and hand-holding, his or her love language is most likely physical, and therefore they would likely love for you to reciprocate with similarly warm, loving gestures. However, if your love language is more verbal - words of affirmation for example - don’t be afraid to ask for their opinion, support or words of encouragement if you don’t feel like they’re saying what you need to hear—they might not even realise this is what you need. There is no harm in spelling out what you want and need in terms of affection.

Often, we unconsciously project our unmet needs onto our partners, imposing our own expectations or self-guilt on them. We tend to react to our own story and emotions rather than seeing the genuine efforts of our partners, who are expressing affection in their own, individual ways. Because of this, we need to take the first step to identify our love languages, and make conscious efforts to give and receive in equal parts.

7. THINK before you act

Your words should hold weight. Promises should be kept, and apologies should be expressed genuinely from the heart—with the intent to make amends and change for the better.

So, before speaking, in any situation, THINK. Is what I’m saying:

  • True?

  • Helpful?

  • Inspiring?

  • Necessary?

  • Kind?

This T.H.I.N.K strategy works wonders when you’re faced with doubts, decision fatigue, feelings of uncertainty, or at a crossroads—unsure of which way to turn. An example of this could be when you’ve seen or experienced something unpleasant and feel the need to rant on social media. Posting online is a ‘pseudo satisfier’ which gives you the impression that you are venting your frustrations when in actuality it can add to the conflict - making things much worse without lessening your existing emotional burden.

8. Treat each other with respect and kindness

This is a basic one, but actually requires constant reminding. Respect and kindness form the foundation of any strong, understanding and reciprocal relationship, and offer both parties equal opportunities to let their guards down with complete trust and acknowledgement.

The relationships in your life should keep you feeling supported, cherished and loved—not emotionally, physically or mentally drained.

9. Learn to self-heal

You can’t help someone who can’t help themselves. And we should never burden someone else to fix us, especially when the problem could be much more personal and deep-seated than we think.

The key here is to learn how to self-heal, by identifying the underlying pain or cause of your hurt, addressing your trigger points, and learning how to deal with and heal from these emotional responses.

Acknowledge that your own feelings are valid, do the same for your partner’s feelings, and try your best to stay aware of and empathetic towards all perspectives of a story.