An initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Vocabulary Term: Reciprocity

Reciprocity-picAsymmetrical Reciprocity

The word “reciprocity” originated in the middle of the 18th century, from the Latin word meaning “moving backward and forward.”[i] It is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “The practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit.”[ii]

Reciprocity is a frequently-used term when referring to the relationship between the sexes. Many theologians, in particular, pair it with the word “asymmetrical,” so today we will look at these two words together.

Human beings like to have reciprocal relationships. With our relatives, friends, and particularly spouses, we do not like to feel as if one person does all the “giving” and the other all the “receiving,” (or, more cynically, the “taking”). We want to experience our relationships as balanced—even if our idea of balance does not match up with that of other people or society at large. Reciprocity means, in relationships, that there is a giving and a giving-back in love. As the actor in Made for Each Other says, marriage is not 50-50, it’s 100-100. But imagine if one spouse, Jack, feels they are giving 100% in the relationship, and the other, Jill, suspects that Jack is really only giving 75% of his effort into it, holding back on X, Y or Z. Trouble is bound to follow.

When I was in high school, I remember getting frustrated with my parents’ relationship, in which, from my perspective, my mom “did everything.” According to my enlightened (i.e., teenaged) mind, their relationship lacked reciprocity. Years later, I found out that my parents did not see it that way. My mom’s doing the chores was her way of showing love (acts of service), which is not the same as my dad’s.[iii] This is a reminder that reciprocity in a relationship cannot be measured from the outside.

Add “asymmetrical” to “reciprocity” and you have a closer approximation of the love of God. He always gives first. Our relationship with Him is always asymmetrical in that way. When we give to God, it is in response to Him who loved us first—“In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

Marriage is also asymmetrical in a number of ways, many of which are based on sexual difference. The most obvious example is that of childbearing. It is indisputable that the woman gives more of herself to the infant for the nine months of gestation and a certain length of time after birth than the man does. This is not “fair” or “equal”; it may not even seem “complementary” since there is not really a parallel for the man. But it can (and must) be integrated into a relationship of reciprocity, albeit “asymmetrical”. A husband can certainly respond to the needs of his wife, especially after having a child, by supporting and encouraging her in any number of ways. Meanwhile, a man may be able give more of himself in some other way. For example, traditionally it is the man who kneels down to ask a woman to marry him; in this way he is imaging an “asymmetrical” type of love, a love that takes the first step and places itself at the service of the other. Marriage is full of little imbalances which, paradoxically, result in true balance.

[i] “Reciprocity.” Oxford Dictionaries. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/reciprocity (accessed February 23, 2016).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] If you’ve never heard of the 5 love languages, check out Gary Chapman’s book, The Five Love Languages.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.