Feeling Used: The Lack of Reciprocity In a Relationship

When you feel used, something breaks inside you. That's because the human brain is a social entity that needs secure relationships based on reciprocity.
Feeling Used: The Lack of Reciprocity In a Relationship
Sergio De Dios González

Written and verified by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Last update: 23 January, 2022

Give and take. It’s the foundation of any successful relationship. However, when it doesn’t happen, and you find yourself only giving without receiving anything in return, you feel used. For example, when you’re the one in your relationship who’s always there for your partner, who makes them feel good, and makes their life easier. Nevertheless, they simply don’t respond as you’d expect.

At times like these, you feel sad, disappointed, angry, and distrustful. That’s because one of the most important principles of human relationships is reciprocity.

However, reciprocity can be seen as a double-edged sword. That’s because you tend to trust in it so much. In fact, it’s so ingrained in your way of understanding relationships, that it’s the reason why others start to use and abuse you to get what they want.

When you feel that others use you or abuse your trust and good faith, it isn’t easy to react in a correct or timely manner.

women trapped in threads symbolizing when we feel used

Being used: the effects of manipulation

You’re more likely to tell your secrets to someone who’s also shared something personal with you. In the same way, you’re more likely to do favors to someone who’s done them for you before, no matter how small they were. If these acts are balanced, there’s no problem.

However, in the case of abusers, they offer something, but that something is based on a false reciprocity. That’s when you feel used. This is because your life is largely governed by how you feel and you end up behaving in the only way you know how.

Elizabeth Hoffman, from the University of Michigan (USA), conducted a study based on the game theory enunciated by Nobel Prize winner John Forbes Nash Jr. This was the fact that people suffer from a lack of reciprocity. In fact, it’s like an ‘attack’ on the social principles of respect and commitment in society.

Don’t confuse kindness with naivety

Maybe not doing that favor for someone would make you feel bad. Therefore, you don’t even consider not doing it. However, why would you do something that doesn’t reward you emotionally? What you need to do is to try not to confuse kindness and naivety. Otherwise, you’ll end up feeling used again.

At some point, in this kind of relationship, you realize that something is wrong and that you’re not being compensated or rewarded. This can lead you to behave in a suspicious and paranoid way without much justification. In turn, it feeds a vicious circle.

women symbolizing when we feel used

Nevertheless, feeling this way doesn’t always mean that you’re being used. Sometimes, it’s due to the fact that others don’t react in the way you want them to. This exasperates you and you, mistakenly, feel used. Therefore, you should always be careful and patient and assess the situation before coming to the conclusion that you’re being taken advantage of.

The risk of mistrusting others

If they betray you once, you suffer. However, if they do it repeatedly, something more complex happens. You start to become distrustful. This means you might make mistakes in interpreting the actions of others. Moreover, with this kind of behavior, others will often also end up distrusting you. Gradually, you shape the phenomenon known as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Strong relationships contain trust

Trust is extremely important in any relationship. Therefore, the moment in which another crosses your own personal boundaries and infringes your rights, it could be said that abuse of your trust occurs. At this moment, you feel used, you suffer, and your psychological and emotional muscle that used to give you momentum weakens.

There’s a fine line between the use and abuse of trust. For this reason, you must be careful not to make the mistake of giving in to everything because you feel morally obligated.

Reciprocity: an essential principle in every relationship

Every relationship requires reciprocity. However, relationships shouldn’t ever be reduced to “I’ll give you back exactly what you give me”. Don’t forget, adult love isn’t unconditional and, without reciprocity, the love bond becomes diluted.

Friendships are also based on reciprocity. Therefore, false friends are only interested in their own benefits and don’t consider your well-being or the harm they may cause you. Here’s some advice:

  • Stick to your own jobs. This doesn’t mean that you can’t do a colleague a favor at work. However, you shouldn’t be the one who ends up doing all the groundwork or the most boring duties.
  • Reciprocity doesn’t mean you have to give back in the same way. Nevertheless, it does involve the pleasure of giving and receiving. Both parties must feel it and both parties must transmit it.
girls talking symbolizing when we don't feel used


You need to learn not to enter into and not continue with harmful relationships. Make sure you’re able to say no assertively. Learn to value yourself. Remember that what you do has a price and that price is making you feel good.

Understand that if something seems unfair to you, you shouldn’t keep quiet about it, although you should, of course, be prudent. After all, sometimes showing excessive distrust can make others distrust you. In this way, you might end up alienating people who could be or could become, important in your life.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.