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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.

“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.

They’re happy to bring contributions to the meals and to lend a hand with cleanup. They’ll even help out at the fundraisers. But they simply can’t match her, invitation by invitation. By discrediting the help and appreciation she does get, and by feeling slighted when less energetic folks can’t do for her what she does so easily for others, Judy may well be depriving herself of important friendships. She often leaves mystified people in her wake, wondering what they did wrong that they are no longer included on her A-list.

A new client, Hannah, is upset. Her best friend, Amanda, hasn’t been able to spend time with her in weeks. Hannah says she makes all the phone calls. She says that she is the one maintaining the friendship. If she didn’t drop by, she thinks she wouldn’t see her friend at all. She feels put upon. “I’m the giver and she’s just a taker,” she tells me.

Maybe yes. Maybe no. Friends since they were in college together, the women’s lives have become increasingly out of sync. On further questioning, I find out that Amanda has had three babies in the last four years. Hannah is single and doesn’t have a child. The difference in their stages of life doesn’t have to mean the end of the friendship. It does mean that Hannah needs to be willing to do the lion’s share of the maintenance for now. When they do get a moment together, Hannah is the first to admit that it can be just like old times. If she values those moments, she needs to learn some tolerance for being the call-er more than she is the call-ee.

Fairness often isn’t a day by day thing. With true friends, it sometimes happens from year to year or even decade to decade. Amanda’s children will grow out of babyhood, more quickly than either of them imagine. At some point, Hannah may be the one with the baby or some other compelling demand on her time and her energy and it will be Amada’s turn to make sure they stay in touch and involved in each other’s lives.

Ed has been coming to see me for help with his anxiety for almost a year. He and Alan work together and enjoy each other’s company. Both are avid Red Sox fans. Alan won a raffle prize of two box seats at a key game and has invited Ed along. Ed is stressed. “Sure I’d love to go to that game,” he tells me. “But I can’t. There’s no way I can ever pay something like that back.”

Maybe yes. Maybe no. “Where is it written,” I wonder aloud, “that there has to be a payback in kind?” I suggest that maybe Alan feels paid back simply by sharing the game with someone who loves the Sox as much as he does. Or maybe Ed holds up his end of the friendship by being there in other ways. Ed isn’t convinced. It’s only after a half-hour of gentle prodding that he is even willing to check it out with Alan. The next week he comes in looking happier than I’ve seen him in awhile. He did ask Alan how he could return the favor. Alan told him he thought that he, Alan, was the one paying back. It seems that Ed had helped him out on the job several times in the last few months and Alan is grateful.

Somehow Richard’s mother’s rules of propriety, of how things “ought to be” between friends, are still in the atmosphere. The expectation for immediate and equivalent reciprocity has the potential to leave people lonelier than they have to be. The truth is that relationships are rarely minute-by-minute in balance. Equality of intent, energy, and caring can’t be measured by exact give and take any more.

The ebbs and flows of complicated lives make one or the other of a pair of friends more able to be on the giving end from time to time. Reciprocity can and should be uniquely defined for each friend depending on his or her situation. As long as both people do what they can when they can and both feel enriched by the contact, the friendship will feel balanced and fair over time. If she could understand that no one is being taken advantage of in the arrangement, I think even Richard’s mother would approve.

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 October 23, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/fairness-and-reciprocity-in-friendships/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.