Reciprocity

What does it mean for a relationship to be reciprocal?

A lot of relationship advice makes it clear that healthy relationships should be reciprocal.

Assuming it’s true that healthy relationship is reciprocal, what does that mean when one or both people has significant care needs due to physical and/or mental health issues?

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Time banking suggests one way to look at reciprocity.

In a time bank, every hour is valued equally. A time bank is a program helping neighbors trade services. I can spend an hour showing someone how to build a website for their upcoming wedding and in exchange they’ll spend an hour helping me figure out what to do about my leaking toilet tank.

If your time bank is a member of Hourworld, you can trade hours with people in other places. A time bank member in Monmouth County can ask me to help her mom in Toronto with gardening and running errands. In exchange, she can watch my niece after school. That is, assuming everyone involved agrees to it.

In time banking, an hour of time is an hour of time. It doesn’t matter if one person has a PhD and the other didn’t finish high school. An hour spent baking cookies is equal to an hour rewiring an electrical panel. An hour in Canada is worth an hour in South Africa. Time banking operates under the belief that everyone has something of value to offer.

One of the unique things about time banking is that everyone is actively tracking the time we spend helping other people. In most of our lives, we don’t keep a tally of favors performed. We simply have a sense of it and how it balances out.


In mentorship programs, formal or not, a mentor will offer advice and guidance, make introductions, and even provide material favors to a mentee.

If a mentee wishes to return a favor to a mentor, it’s often inappropriate for them to do so directly. If the mentor buys a mentee lunch, they might be insulted if the mentee insists on paying them back.

It’s common to instead expect the mentee to repay favors by becoming a mentor to others in turn. Rather than repaying the mentor with similar acts of career support, the mentee is expected to support the career of someone else.

It’s common for a mentor to say that they gain as much from the experience as their mentee. This is despite the fact that, on the surface, the mentor is giving to the mentee and receiving nothing in return.


Sometimes reciprocity in parenting works similarly. Parents may not want their children to attempt to repay their care. Reciprocity in parenting is achieved by the children providing care to others around them, most obviously becoming parents themselves.

In other families, direct reciprocity is expected. A parent raises a child and the child is thus obligated to repay the parent by supporting them in turn.

There’s no expectation that a parent/child relationship will be perfectly reciprocal or that the child will ever fully repay the parent.

It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where a child can calculate what their parents spent in pregnancy and child rearing and then paying them that amount without it being the end of the relationship.

David Graeber discusses the debt of children to parents and various systems of reciprocity in Debt: The first 5,000 years.


Ways of acquiring lodging as a traveler operates within a range of systems of reciprocity.

With AirBnB you exchange money for lodging.

With HomeExchange you exchange lodging for lodging.

  • The exchange may be direct and simultaneous (you stay in each other’s homes during the same two weeks in the summer).

  • The exchange may be direct and non-simultaneous (you stay in their home for two weeks while they’re traveling for work, then they spend two weeks in your home while you visit family).

  • The exchange may be indirect (you host someone for two weeks while you’re visiting family, earning points. You then use those points to stay in someone else’s home while on vacation).

With CouchSurfing reciprocity isn’t tracked. It’s assumed that hosting a guest provides intangible benefits, just as in other cases where we do not expect or want reciprocal rewards, like hosting an exchange student or being a mentor.

It is expected that guests will serve as hosts, if and when they are able. While I have hosted people who previously hosted me on CouchSurfing, or hosted people they’ve introduced me to, I did so by choice. I was under no obligation to do so. My only obligation was to be a considerate guest, just as they were obligated to be a considerate host.


Care mapping is a way to identify the care we give and receive. It helps us make visible the direct and indirect reciprocity in care work.

It’s easy to make a care map on your own with pencil and paper, following instructions from Atlas of Care:

Download PDF Instructions

Watch an instructional video


Is your caregiving relationship reciprocal? Do you think it should be? Go ahead and comment below or in our private Facebook group.

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If you’re in Canada, you might want to check out the Care Economy campaign that just launched.

If you missed the #CareCantWait Summit in the US last week, you can still catch the highlights.

In the US, there are significant changes coming to the Money Follows the Person program.