“In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Paul McCartney

Are equality and reciprocity essential to romantic relations, as is commonly assumed? The surprising answer is negative: they are not necessary, not always, and not every kind.   

Equality in romantic relationships

“In the arithmetic of love, one plus one equals everything, and two minus one equals nothing.” Mignon McLaughlin

Many scholars have emphasized the role of equality in friendship. Thus, Aristotle states that friendship is ideally a relationship between equals; he even quotes the popular saying “friendship is equality.” Aristotle also discusses friendship between people of unequal status, maintaining that in this kind of asymmetrical friendship there must be some proportional exchange of benefits that bestows a kind of equality upon the relationship.

I examine here the role of equality and reciprocity in romantic relationships, while focusing on status inequality and lack of reciprocity. Status inequality refers to the comparison between the overall status of each partner and, accordingly, to the role of each partner in decision-making processes. Lack of reciprocity may be manifested in (a) the level of investment in the relationship and the household, and (b) the difference in the degree of romantic involvement. I argue that whereas status inequality is destructive to romantic relationships, lack of reciprocity more often occurs in romantic relationships and is not necessarily destructive.

Overall Inferiority in romantic relationships

“I married beneath me. All women do.” Lady Astor

Being in love with someone we admire, and even assuming our comparative inferiority, may give us the good feeling of being close to such a person and sharing her virtues. We love to admire, be admired, and be in the company of those we admire. In this case, as we bask in the reflected glory of the other, our own self-worth may rise too as it is validated by the other’s selecting us. Hence admiration, rather than envy, is generated. However, the beloved’s superiority may generate envy if the superiority is in domains relevant to our self-esteem and if the close relationship constantly reminds us of our underserved inferiority.

The implications of being in an undeserved position is illustrated in a study indicating that being in such a position in your marriage may encourage extramarital affairs (Prins, et al., 1993). This is the case for both the “superior” person, who feels that she could do better, and for the “inferior” one, who feels indignant at being unappreciated by the partner. Involvement in extramarital relationships is more likely for these "superior" and "inferior" people than for those who are considered as equal to their partner. The superior person may perceive extramarital relationships as something she deserves because she is getting “less” than she would in other circumstances. The inferior person tends to be involved in extramarital relationships in order to (a) escape the unpleasant state of inequity, and (b) prove to herself and to her partner that she actually is equal to the partner and is regarded as attractive and desirable by other possible partners.

Research indicates that feeling inferior (as well as superior) to one’s partner is associated with less commitment, less satisfaction, and less love for the partner. The willingness to sacrifice for the partner is lower when reciprocity is absent (Impett & Gordon, 2008).

Lack of reciprocity

“If equal affection cannot be, Let the more loving one be me.” W.H. Auden

The presence of equality in status, as well as similarity in background, enables the presence of another essential feature of romantic relationships, that is, reciprocity. Lack of reciprocity can be related to (a) different levels of investment in the relationship and in the household, and (b) different degrees of romantic involvement, for example, when one person’s love for their partner is greater than their partner’s love for them.

The lack of reciprocity often has a negative impact upon marital satisfaction and increases the likelihood of a breakup. The consequences of this inequality have been described as an example of the "principle of least interest." The least interested partner is less committed and has more control over the continuation of the relationship. Accordingly, this partner is often (but not always) the one who terminates the relationship (Sprecher et al., 2006). A relationship involving significant unequal investment and involvement is often an adverse compromise for both partners, as both of them will experience a low level of satisfaction.

Mechanistic reciprocity

“You never lose by loving. You always lose by holding back.” Anonymous

Mechanistic reciprocity, which is typical of superficial relationships, involves simple calculations about what one gives and what one gets in a given relationship. It involves the "tit for tat" mentality. People quantify what they do for each other and decisions about future activities stems from this calculation. Although reciprocity is central in a loving relationship, it should not involve running an accounting business which lacks a proper sensitivity to the real needs of the partner. Reciprocal equity should take into account the nature and circumstances of each partner, in the spirit of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”

Profound romantic love is incompatible with cases in which only one partner sends loving messages and gives presents, while the other completely refrains from reciprocating. It is not the quantity of messages and presents that counts but the symbolic act of sending and giving them. One may be less prone to writing and giving presents, but still express one's love in other ways. Similarly, there is no precise formula for when one should say "I love you"; expecting a reciprocal answer in the same frequency to such declarations is problematic. The difficulty stems from two major aspects: the different paces at which love develops and the different personal tendency to reveal one's heart. Not everyone develops love or expresses it at the same pace (see here). Likewise, different degrees of sexual desire do not necessarily mean different degrees of love. A complete absence of reciprocity is contrary to profound love. Such love does not mean giving the partner exactly the same as the partner gives you, but it does mean the presence of love and reciprocity in both partners.

The same holds for reciprocity in personal compromises, which are common in romantic relationships. Consider the following true case. A colleague of mine told me that she loves opera and her husband loves football. They have agreed upon a compromise that the husband will join her on a visit to the opera and that he will go alone to football games. From a mechanistic point of view, this might seem an unfair compromise, but if the compromise suits the needs of each of them—if the husband enjoys going to the game with his buddies while the wife enjoys her free time—then it is an optimal solution. We should remember that while going to the opera is a social event in which a couple is expected to be together, a football game is an experience that men often enjoy with their friends (Ben-Ze’ev, 2011).

The non-mechanistic nature of romantic compromise accords with the non-mechanistic nature of romantic reciprocity. Both compromise and reciprocity involve giving and getting. However, while the focus in reciprocity is upon getting what one deserves, the focus in compromise is on giving something of value. In both cases we can distinguish between the superficial and profound senses of the terms. Profound love is constituted by profound reciprocity and non-mechanistic compromises.

The place of equality and reciprocity in profound love

“We are enriched by our reciprocate differences.” Paul Valery

Equality in status is essential to profound love, in which each partner is considered to be autonomous and to deserve to flourish personally. The lack of such equality is likely to reduce satisfaction. However, the presence of equality in status does not imply the necessity of every kind of symmetrical equality and reciprocity, such as an identical share in domestic chores or identical romantic involvement, which can be subject to each person’s personality and circumstance. Although romantic investment and involvement can differ in nature and degree, the gap between the two partners cannot be highly significant to the extent that one lover considers her love to be one-sided or unrequited.

Partners can invest differently in their loving relationship, but this will only work if each partner is fully autonomous and the differences in investment do not stem from distorted traditional norms (such as those related to gender), and if they truly reflect the significant differences in each partner’s personality and unique circumstances. 

People prefer relationships in which both parties give and receive care; indeed, reciprocity strengthens the romantic relationship. Unequal investment and romantic involvement is a strong predictor of romantic breakup. When both partners are equally involved in the relationship, the likelihood of their future togetherness increases. Studies that compared people who received love without giving it and people who gave love without receiving it found that both groups tended to describe the experience as adverse (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).

No doubt, reciprocity is important; however, as reciprocity can differ in type, what may appear as lack of reciprocity can in fact be genuine rather than mechanical reciprocity. Evaluating the parameters of unequal romantic involvements is complex given the difference in people's personalities and in the manner and pace at which they form loving relationships.

Concluding remarks

“Love is about mutual respect, apart from attraction.” George Best

Equality in status is essential for profound love; this pertains in all cases, regardless of personal and contextual circumstances. The situation concerning reciprocity in personal investment and romantic involvement is more complex, as sensitivity to personal and contextual circumstances is essential. Accordingly, lack of reciprocity in romantic investment and involvement is common and does not always indicate that the relationship is of low quality.

References

Baumeister R. F., & Leary M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.

Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2011). The nature and morality of romantic compromises,” in C. Bagnoli (ed.), Morality and the Emotions. Oxford University Press, 95-114.

Impett, E. A., & Gordon, A. (2008). For the good of others: Toward a positive psychology of sacrifice. In S. J. Lopez (ed.), Positive psychology: Exploring the Best in People, Greenwood, 79–100).

Prins, K. S., Buunk, B. P. & Van Yperen, N. W. (1993). Equity, normative disapproval and extramarital relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 10, 39-53.

Sprecher, S., Schmeeckle, M., & Felmlee, D. (2006). The principle of least interest: Inequality in emotional involvement. Journal of Family Issues, 27, 1255-1280.

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