A Careful Balance of Care


Giving and receiving care is an essential part of relationships. But how do you know just how giving you should be or how much you should expect others to give in return? Research indicates that there are two common types of relationships people engage in to ensure balanced giving and receiving. When we interact on a superficial level, such as with a cashier at the grocery store, we engage in exchange relationships.1 In exchange relationships, people give with the expectation that they will receive something directly comparable in return, such as the exchange of cash for food between a customer and a cashier. In contrast, we engage in communal relationships with people we are close with, such as with our best friends and romantic partners. In communal relationships, people give and take on a need-based system—we give care to our relationship partners when they are in need, and vice versa, without any expectation that they will immediately give something back in return, but will be there for us once we need it at some point down the road.1 For example, in a romantic relationship, you may skip going out with your friends one evening to stay home to cheer up your partner if (s)he has a particularly bad day at work. In a balanced communal relationship, you wouldn’t expect your partner to do anything directly in return to compensate you, but you expect that (s)he would behave similarly when you are in a time of need.

A growing body of research suggests that being communal towards others can paradoxically benefit the self. In other words, giving to others is actually good for the giver. People who are highly communally motivated—who give to others based on need without expecting anything directly in return—experience greater happiness and relationship satisfaction when they make sacrifices for their romantic partners.2 Communally motivated people also report experiencing higher self-esteem and greater love and satisfaction in their relationships, with people who are highly motivated to give care experiencing these positive outcomes rather than those who are high in the desire to receive care.3 Thus, giving communal care within relationships is associated with being happier, both personally and within relationships.

Although giving care can be beneficial, engaging in communal relationships can also leave you vulnerable. Being too communal and preoccupied with caring for others can lead to psychological distress when a person cares for a partner to the point that they neglect their own needs or come to derive their self-esteem from how others view them.4 Also, being involved in communal relationships can leave people vulnerable to exploitation because, while a romantic partner may act communally, (s)he may have underlying selfish motivations for doing so. For example, a partner might give you care not because (s)he is genuinely concerned about your well-being, but because (s)he wants something from you (i.e., money or resources).5 Thus, although being communal can be beneficial for you if you are motivated to do so, there are also hazards associated with being too communal and caring. In the case that you are consistently giving but not receiving from a capable partner—when the balance of care is constantly tipped against you—it may be best to leave the relationship.5

In short, it is good to be giving within your relationships, but giving too much can lead you to lose sight of yourself and what you need for personal and relationship happiness. What we can learn from the literature on communal relationships is that for optimal relationship thriving, it can be good for you to give when your partner is in need, but you should also ensure that you are aware of your own needs and that your partner is similarly communally-motivated to meet these needs.

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1Clark, M.S., & Mills, J. (2012).  Communal (and exchange) relationships. In P.A.M. Van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, E.T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology (pp. 232-250). Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage.

2Kogan, A., Impett, E. A., Oveis, C., Hui, B., Gordon, A. M., & Keltner, D. (2010). When giving feels good: The intrinsic benefits of sacrifice in romantic relationships for the communally motivated. Psychological Science, 21(12), 1918-1924. doi:10.1177/0956797610388815

3Le, B. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Webster G. D., & Cheng, C. (in press). The personal and interpersonal rewards of communal orientation. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

4Fritz, H. L., & Helgeson, V. S. (1998). Distinctions of unmitigated communion from communion: Self-neglect and overinvolvement with others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 121-140. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.75.1.121

5Clark, M. S. (2011). In Arkin R. M. (Ed.), Communal relationships can be selfish and give rise to exploitation. New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.

Bonnie Le, M. A. – University of Toronto Website/CV
Bonnie’s research focuses on the factors associated with prosociality and well-being in parent-child, romantic, and interracial relationships. Specifically, she examines behaviors such as caregiving and sacrifice and how they influence well-being by investigating the types of motivations, emotions, and physiological responses associated with these behaviors across relationships.

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