Friday, 24 April 2009


When we find ourselves in very similar situations but with different people, this is a good indication that we are being reciprocal in (and somehow contributing to) whatever is happening. In some way, this situation is being maintained by us. Since the early groundbreaking work on reciprocity (Gouldner, 1960; Homans, 1958; Levi-Strauss, 1957; Malinowski, 1922; Simmel, 1950) many studies have examined reciprocity, demonstrating reciprocity in relationship development and maintenance. Its importance to all human interactions is a “vital principle of society” (Thurnwald, 1932: 106).

This can be difficult to accept when relationships are not going so well however in examining this we gain back more control, we reduce our stress and so we are able to better problem-solve rather than remaining in limbo. Often when someone is in an unsatisfactory relationship, friends and family can be heard wondering aloud about why doesn't he just leave or sort out the problems? This person is likely engaged in collusive reciprocity, whereby the buy-in is simply through staying put, through putting up and shutting up. Collusive reciprocity such as this usually comes from being unassertive. The collusion is in avoiding or submerging a problem in the relationship, with an overwhelming desire to keep the peace, for example. Equally, not acknowledging the extent of your anxieties relating to a relationship problem could be considered as being reciprocally colluding. This is not however the same as accepting rationally that important differences exist, nor in ignoring minor negative events or behaviour.

How does one recognise colluding reciprocity? It is usually down to the individual being aware of feeling persistent flashes of anxiety about a recurring problem, but there never seeming to be "the right time" to address it or being closed down by their partner. Equally, making statements such as "I do it to keep the peace"; "there's no point in saying anything because he/she won't listen anyway"; and a general attitude of helplessness or powerlessness are key signs. There are however opportunities to improve one's situation through facing up to where one is caught in colluding reciprocally. Not a guaranteed change in your partner's behaviour however, but ways to improve how you feel about the situation, reducing the anxiety and helplessness and an exploration of problem-solving strategies. This certainly minimises the problem in the longer-term and increases the chances one hundred-fold of changing the outcomes in the longer term. With someone highly unassertive, this usually requires short-term professional counselling for improved self-esteem, assertiveness and communication, with support, understanding and guidance from family and friends. A common problem for a person suffering in this sort of unhappy situation however can be isolation due to a general withdrawal of friends and family over time, sharing in the helpless attitude of the long-suffering party, and therefore disengagement i.e. "there's nothing we can do either if she/he chooses to just stay, put up with it, etc." Again this reduces the problem-solving capability and the self-esteem of the person even further.

There is of course healthy reciprocity in relationships and I call this cooperative reciprocity. This is assertive with respect between the individuals permitting compromise, give and take and negotiation. The reciprocity brings mutually satisfying solutions to the real problems. The healthiest reciprocity is whereby your partner's happiness and well-being is as important as your own, if not more so.

In reality, for most couples, there is a mix of some colluding and more cooperation. Skilled partners recognise the importance of maintaining goodwill and strive to create more opportunities for it to exist, and allow minor differences or problems to exist without this threatening the relationship. There are few things more satisfying for me than guiding individuals to creating more opportunities to create further goodwill and happiness in their relationships. Where our relationships go well, all is well in the world!

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