Orthodoxy Today
Good Marriage II. Reciprocity—The One-Way Contract that can Wreck a Marriage

Making and keeping relationships requires dedication and work. Relationships need to be nurtured and cared for. Several years ago, the cognitive psychiatrist-researcher, A. Beck, wrote an insightful book "Love is Never Enough" that examined misconceptions about love in marriage. Building a healthy marriage is a lot more than feeling "in love" Beck explained. Other researchers discussed the same them. Making and keeping relationships "requires systematic effort over a period of time" (Burns, 1985).

That marriage in particular requires nurture and care seems self-evident at first glance, yet many people either don't understand the point or possess the necessary skills to build a successful marriage. St. Paul addressed the theme in scripture:

(W)e beseech and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God, just as you are doing, you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from unchastity; that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor... (Thessalonians 4: 1-4).

Maintaining a healthy marriage was not a central topic in the writings of the Church Fathers. Perhaps the inherent difficulties of life in earlier times compelled people to look for the deeper truths concerning marriage and much of what is lost today was still self-evident to them. One exception was St. Gregory of Palamas who wrote of the necessary moral foundation for nurturing trust in marriage:

God's law allows you to marry one woman and to love with her alone and to hold her in holiness as your own wife, abstaining entirely from other women. You can abstain from them if you shun untimely meetings with them, do not indulge in lewd words and stories and, as far as you can avoid looking at them with the eyes of both body and soul, training yourself not to gaze overmuch upon the beauty of their faces (Philokalia IV).

Once the moral foundation is understood and obeyed, relational dynamics can be established to make the marriage more certain and secure.

Problems in Marriage: Reciprocityi

The evil one relentlessly seeks to undo the love of Christ in a holy blessed marriage (Morelli, 2006a,b; 2007). The devil's work is made easy if he can sow seeds of anger, resentment, retaliation or depression (Morelli, 2005). Reciprocity is a dysfunctional attitude that arises when one spouse demands that because he is a good and loving person, the other spouse should be good and loving toward him. The behavior is especially insidious because of the human propensity to demand what Elder Paisius called "human Justice". The Elder said:

The Lord said that our justice must exceed that of the Pharisees, because they were aiming at human justice. That is why they were involved in punishments, trials, imprisonments, quarrels, and tried to protect their own rights and could not tolerate...any injustice done to them (Ageloglou, 1998).

The Elder then reminded us of Our Lord's words that "our righteousness must exceed those of the Pharisees" (Matthew 5: 20).

Reciprocal justice

Much "righteousness must be exceeded" when one or both marriage partners (or their children, or even other family members) have adopted the dysfunctional attitude of reciprocity since they view and judge their interactions in terms of violating human justice. The attitude is detected when one spouse indicates that because she is a good and loving person, the other spouse should be good and loving toward her. It often takes a specific form: "I went out of my way and did a favor my spouse, so my spouse should do the favor I am asking." The basic proposition in reciprocity is that favors from the other spouse are earned when a favor is done for them.

By the standards of reciprocal justice, the proposition of tit for tat in the marriage relationship seems fair. An enterprising defender might even quote the scriptural injunction from the Law of Moses, "An eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth" (Exodus 21:24). But Christ foresaw this in ways that apply to our discussion where he delineated between divine and human justice. "You have heard it said, 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'...I say to you, Let you yes be yes, and your no be no; anything more than this comes from evil'" (Matthew 5:37).

Why did Jesus say that it "comes from evil?" He wanted to show that authentic love is selfless. Jesus continued, "But I say unto you, that you resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also." Clearly this verse should not be misread as license for one spouse to abuse the other. Instead, focus on fundamental precept that guides Jesus' teaching: we must bear one another's burden. Marriage requires that one spouse support the other; an attitude that reciprocity undermines and may ultimately vanquish.

Reciprocity: Even failing human justice

Thus, on closer examination, reciprocity even fails as human justice because reciprocity involves one-way or unilateral expectations that exist as "mental contracts" in the mind of the person who did the initial favor. The contracts are inherently dishonest and unfair because most often the other spouse did not know about the contents of the contract. No matter how realistic, valid, and fair the contact may seem the person holding it, the other may be following a completely different mental contract.

An example may help us understand the unfairness of reciprocity. The favor doer may be saying mentally in his own mind: "Ok I did this favor for you, now you owe me one." The recipient may be saying, "Isn't it kind and generous of my husband to do this for me, he must love me very much." The string attached to the favor is not known or agreed upon by the other. This kind of contract would be thrown out of every court in the land because it lacks full and fair disclosure. Contracts between spouses and family members (and even friends) should be fully discussed and agreed upon. Negotiation, involving adaptability and understanding has to underlie the discussion.

Contract disclosure

For example, suppose a wife takes her husband to the airport to catch an early flight. She says to herself: "He owes me one he had better start helping me with the dishes and take the garbage out." She created a unilateral mental contract and her husband has no idea about it. A better way to approach the problem of a full garbage cans and dirty dishes collecting in the sink would be to say something like: "You know, dear, I am happy to give you the ride, but I need help too. Could you bring the trash cans out to the curb? Could you do the dishes on the nights you get home early?"

Open discussion like this diffuses anger; an important objective because anger is the greatest saboteur of attaining desired and appropriate goals (Morelli, 2005). Remember the lesson taught in the previous article on entitlement (Morelli, 2007). We are not entitled to create unilateral contracts just because those on whom we impose the contracts are family members.

After the Letdown: Seeking the facts

What happens when people hold reciprocity expectations toward their spouse they remain unmet? They feel let down. They are especially prone to the "mind reading error" - a technical term that refers to the unrealistic idea that one partner should know what the other is thinking, feeling, or desiring. (As mentioned in an earlier article, all individuals perceive the world differently; it is the spouses responsibility to communicate to his partner what his wants, needs and expectations are [Morelli, 2006a,b]).

A good strategy to resolve conflict is to ask without anger or judgment why the partner did not return the expected favor. The point of the discussion should be to discover the way each spouse perceives the situation; a fact-gathering exercise and no more. the other individuals why they acted they did not do the expected return favor. A mild emotional reaction such as disappointment might result, but this is approach is much less likely to lead to anger, retaliation, or depression.

Respecting the choices of others

Open communication requires that we accept the decisions of others even when we might disagree with them. It respects the freedom people inherently possess. We see the principle applied even in the teachings of Our Lord. Take for example, Jesus' exchange with the rich, young, ruler:

And behold, one came up to him, saying, "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" And he said to him..."If you would enter life, keep the commandments." The young man said to him, "All these I have observed; what do I still lack?" Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished, saying, "Who then can be saved?" But Jesus looked at them and said to them, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matthew 19: 16,-17, 20-22, 25-26).

If Jesus could counsel and at the same time accept the decision of others are we to act any differently? Did Jesus also not tell us: "Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master" (John 13:16). The application to spouse, family or anyone who does not live up to our expectations becomes immediately obvious. We can prefer, desire, wish, advise or counsel, but ultimately in imitation of Christ, we must accept the free decisions of others. Ultimately if one spouse wants something done and the other is not willing to go along, the spouse who wants the task done should shoulder the responsibility.

A marriage in Christ

Eliminating reciprocal "one-way contracts", communicating, negotiating in honesty and truth in Christ's name, are all part of the work and effort that is involved in bringing about a marriage in Christ. Do these works as if the marriage and family depends on you; pray and receive the sacraments as if the sanctity of the marriage depends on God.


Ageloglou, Priestmonk Christodoulos. (1998). Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain. Mt. Athos, Greece: Holy Mountain.

Beck, A.T. (1988). Love is Never Enough. NY: Harper and Row.

Burns, D. (1985). Intimate Connections. NY: Signet.

Morelli, G. (2005, October 14). The Beast of Anger. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliAnger.php.

Morelli, G. (2006a, January 14). Self Esteem: From, Through, and Toward Christ. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliSelfEsteem.php.

Morelli, G. (2006a, January 27). Understanding Brokenness in Marriage. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliMarriage2.php.

Morelli, G. (2006b). Healing: Orthodox Christianity and Scientific Psychology. Fairfax. VA: Eastern Christian Publications.

Morelli, G. (2007, March 15). Good Marriage: How An Attitude of Entitlement Undermines Marriage. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/MorelliEntitlement.php.

ENDNOTE i. This factor emerged from an unpublished study (1981) conducted by Dr. David Burns at the University of Pennsylvania, Department of Psychiatry, in collaboration with the author (Fr. George Morelli) of this article. It has been used successfully in case study clinical trials since 1981.

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: April 27, 2007

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