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What is reciprocity?
Reciprocity can be understood as a human tendency to respond to others the same way in which others have responded to him or her. Reciprocity can be positive or negative. Healthy reciprocity is positive and means thoughtfully engaging one’s partner with kind actions and words that encourage a similar response from the other partner, which then causes the first partner to react kindly again. The cycle continues in this positive and encouraging direction so long as they keep being kind and helpful.

Although positive reciprocity comes from thoughtfulness and purposefully investing into the relationship, reciprocity is more often an automatic process. This means that couples end up in a cycle where comments and behaviors occur without thought. Partners react to one another rather than considering how their words or actions will affect the other person. Therefore, the unconscious nature of reciprocity makes it quite easy for couples to end up in a negative cycle and not even realize how they got there. If the couple can identify the cycle they can BREAK IT!!!

Identifying the cycle of negative reciprocity requires knowing the triggers. Moods, attitudes, and behaviors greatly influence the way couples interact with one another and can act as triggers. For example: 

  • 1.     Coming home from work in a bad mood
  • 2.     Sarcastic remarks aimed to hurt
  • 3.     A strong desire to be right or win the argument

silhouette of two person sitting on chair near tree

Identify Your Cycle
You and your partner can identify the cycle of negative reciprocity in your marriage by evaluating the conflict. However, blaming your partner will not break the cycle, therefore be careful to only reflect on your actions and reactions and how they contribute to the cycle. Begin by asking yourselves questions such as:

  • 1.     If my partner criticizes me, do I criticize him back? If yes, what do I say?
  • 2.     Do I take responsibility for my actions or blame my partner? If yes, what does that look like?
  • 3.     If my partner hurts me, do I try to hurt my partner? If yes, how?

Find Creative Solutions
Once you have identified your cycle, work together to come up with some creative solutions that stop the cycle of negative reciprocity before it spirals out of control. Couples will always have disagreements, but it is how you and your partner handle those disagreements that end you up in the negative cycle. The creative solutions can be your way out. 

Practice, Practice, Practice
You and your partner are now ready to practice stopping the cycle of negative reciprocity. Watch for the triggers that drag you into the cycle and use your solutions to stay out! What might that look like? Say a partner makes a comment that is hurtful and the other partner usually responds with a comment that is equally hurtful. Rather than retaliating, the hurt partner could say: “What you said really hurt my feelings. Is everything okay?” The cycle will be broken.