“From the Latin,” says Wikipedia, meaning “something for something.”
It’s implicit in just about every conversation I have with my therapy patients about fairness. It’s the idea that when we do something for someone, we should expect them to do something of roughly equal value in return. We feel taken advantage of if we give something and don’t feel it’s reciprocated.
The balance sheet approach
Friends and couples run into trouble with this. I call it the balance sheet approach to relationships. Only most of the time both people in the relationship feel they haven’t gotten their fair share. And, according to quid pro quo, that equates to getting nothing for something. According to the rules of economics, it’s like getting ripped off. And, when each person feels they’re giving more, not surprisingly, each person in the relationship stops being giving.
Throw out the balance sheet
Whatever your views on economic fairness, it’s plain to see that quid pro quo simply doesn’t work in relationships. Relationships demand a tremendous amount of giving and giving with an expectation of return isn’t really all that giving.
This is a tough one for many of us to swallow. We’ve been raised to be on the lookout for ripoffs–to make sure we always get a sufficient return on our investment. But keeping score isn’t so good for relationships. It comes across as cheap–because it is!
Separate the quid from the quo
Giving is a wonderful thing. It enriches the giver and the given-to, not to mention doing wonders for relationships (more on that in a second). Having people in your life who are giving to you is also pretty terrific, for the very same reason. I couldn’t be more on board with giving. But why “something for something?” Why do we set up giving to the people we care about as being contingent on their giving to us?
But I really don’t want to be taken advantage of!
I know. I don’t want you to be taken advantage of either. Promise. Counting favors and gifts isn’t protecting you from this.
I’d like to propose a new ethic to replace quid pro quo:
Giving is a good thing.
Being given to is a good thing.
Two separate sentences, separated by periods. No contingency. No if/then relationship implied.
Be giving to the people around you. Surround yourself with people who are giving to you. (Again: two separate sentences, two separate positions.) If you’re not being giving enough, give more. If you’re not being given to as much as you’d like, ask the people you care about to be more giving. If they’re not, build relationships with others who are more giving, and move on from those relationships that aren’t very giving. There’s no chance you’ll get taken advantage of in that calculus.
Throw away the balance sheet. Stop keeping score.
Being giving to the relationship isn’t the same thing as being giving to others
When you’re overly focused (which is to say, focused at all) on who’s giving more to whom, the relationship itself gets neglected. That’s right, relationships need to be given to as well.
What’s that look like? It looks like paying close attention to the we and prioritizing what the group needs.
Think about it like this: A hockey team that’s obsessed with who on the team has more assists than whom, who’s getting the most playing time, and who’s working the hardest in practice is going to get creamed because they’re not working as a team, and they’re not focused on the match.
Relationships are a team sport. Quit keeping score.