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Reciprocity: It’s not all it’s cracked up to be

“Healthy marriages [are] those [wherein] one partner responds to the other’s good behavior with his or her own good behavior in turn.” (Lessons from the Love Lab – The Science of Couples Therapy, by Julie Schwartz Gottman and John Gottman. Psychotherapy Networker, November/December 2015). That sounds reasonable on the surface. After all, healthy married folks very often DO respond to their spouse’s pleasing behavior by engaging in something pleasing in return; however, if we dig deeper, we’ll find that this “reciprocity theory,” as proposed by Lederer and Jackson (not the Gottmans), is actually a recipe for an unhealthy union.

Lederer and Jackson would have us believe that couples (in an ailing relationship, at least) should create a “contingency contract” wherein each couple member “gives to get.” Couple members who have this marital mentality may engage in kind behavior or say kind words (which is obviously a positive thing), but the unhealthy aspect is their possible expectation for something in return. Unfortunately, it’s all too common for folks to leap from expecting kindness in return to wounding in return. A healthy marriage, without any score keeping, is one in which partners don’t hurt the other because they’ve been hurt; the partners don’t feel justified in engaging in hurtful behavior or hurling hateful words toward their spouse because they’ve been wounded by them.

A healthy marriage is one in which both couple members engage in doing “good” for their partner, assuming they’ll get nothing in return. If we expect something in return, we’re keeping score; there’s an expectation of reciprocity. Pleasing behavior is carried out in healthy marriages without regard for what the other has or has not done, and will or will not do…because loving our spouse means wanting what’s best for him or her, independent of what we get in return.

Are you keeping score in your marriage?


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About Lori Mitton

Lori Mitton is a licensed clinical psychotherapist (MA, LLP) specializing in marriage and family therapy. She is co-founder of Permanent Passionate Partnership.