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Fairness and Reciprocity in Friendships

My friend Richard shook his head as he told me the story of his latest visit with his mother, Harriet, now in her late 80’s.

“I’d really like to see Mildred,” she said.

“So why don’t you give her a call?” Richard replied.

“Well, I had her over for tea two weeks ago and she hasn’t called me since.”

“Did you have a disagreement?” asked Richard.

“Oh no. We’re old friends. We’ve never had an argument.”

“Well then. Why don’t you call?”

“I don’t know. It’s really her turn,” sighed his mom.

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“If you want to see her, then you can call,” said Richard.

“Oh, I can’t do that,” said his mom, shaking her head. “She hasn’t called me since our visit.”

“Maybe something is wrong and you should find out.”

“I’d find out.” Sigh. “It’s her turn and I don’t want to intrude. . .”

At this point, Richard is totally exasperated. His mother is lonely. She and Mildred have been friends for over 60 years. They are the only two left of a once close-knit group of 6 women who raised their kids together, saw each other through life’s various crises, and shared jokes that no one but they understood. But propriety wins out over loneliness and these two probably won’t see each other until it occurs to Mildred to pick up the phone.

For decades, Mildred, Harriet, and their friends had lives that were much alike. They were all stay-at-home moms of about the same age with kids in the same age range. They attended the same church, belonged to the same fraternal organization, and sent their kids to the same schools. The rhythms of their days were very similar. In such a context, taking turns and being scrupulous about returning calls, visits, and invitations to dinner made a kind of sense. To them, being fair meant taking turns and never “taking advantage.”

Fast-forward about 50 years and, at least for some of us, insisting on this kind of tit-for-tat fairness can be a huge mistake. Friends, current and potential, live lives that are often out of step with our own. Dual career marriages, babies born or adopted when their moms are anywhere from 16 to 50, and different levels of flexibility in the workday or career path make it challenging for people who like each other to maintain a friendship unless we redefine what it means to be “fair.” The problem for many of us is that we were raised with our mother’s and grandmother’s’ ideas about the need for immediate reciprocity. It takes some effort to break ourselves of the habit. It takes a commitment to be tolerant, flexible, and creative to get beyond the notion that to be fair means to do the same kinds of things at the same rate.

My friend Judy, for example, says she gives people three strikes, then they’re out. “I’ll invite someone new to three different things. If they don’t reciprocate, I’m done with them.”

“Do you have a good time when you do get together?” I ask.

“Yeah. But I can take a hint,” says she. “If they don’t ask me over or to do something, it means they really aren’t interested.”

Maybe yes. Maybe no. It doesn’t occur to Judy that just maybe people are overwhelmed, or overscheduled, or have something going on in their lives that takes priority over planning a get-together. She doesn’t get it because Judy is one of those people who can manage two rambunctious boys while organizing a fundraiser for their school, launching a small business from her basement, and whipping up a gourmet meal for dinner. She’s just one of those people who has energy and enthusiasm to burn. People enjoy her flamboyant personality and her creative ideas for fun.

Fairness and Reciprocity in Friendships

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Fairness and Reciprocity in Friendships. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.