It seems that most people cringe at the thought of keeping tallies of who does what for whom. That seems so ungenerous, calculating, and cold-hearted.
Yet, we’ve all experienced imbalanced, one-sided relationships and that’s no fun either.
I want to believe there’s a middle way — another approach to ‘doing relationship’ that is neither so black-and-white nor such a sure-fire way to feel like a human doormat.
I’d like to believe a healthy, balanced, mutually-fulfilling relationship is reciprocal.
Now, that’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, but what does a reciprocal relationship look like in a practical sense?
I think every relationship is as unique as the two people in it, but there are three general ‘roles’ we can play in a relationship that can be reciprocal so long as the other person in the matching role.
What are they?
Well, as I first started exploring in my Hierarchies in Healthy Relationships post, I’m finding it a useful tool to determine in my own relationships whether I’m in the alpha-dog position, beta-dog position, or if the relationship is roughly 50/50 with both of us ‘taking turns’ as the alpha- and beta-dogs.
Why I find this terminology and concept personally helpful is because it makes it easier for me to understand the relative expectations of being in one of those 3 positions. Because, if you’re the beta-dog, how you interact with your alpha-dog is notably different from how s/he treats you. And that’s how it’s supposed to be.
It’s not a matter of one position being ‘lesser than’ the other — different is just different, not bad.
What is bad is when the parties don’t agree on who is in which position. That’s when conflict happens.
I’m keenly interested in proactively preventing more conflict, and I’m finding this concept of the 3 different relationship positions very helpful. I have a clearer picture of what relational benefits the other person is looking for and can more easily meet them (when, obviously, that’s my free-will choice in the first place).
Both A-dogs and B-dogs ultimately crave acceptance and belonging. But how they experience the fulfillment of those needs is different.
A-dogs want to feel as if they are respected, recognized leaders of the pack.
B-dogs want to feel as if they are protected, provided-for members of the pack.
To draw from the list of 6 conflict hooks I wrote about here, A-dogs are concerned about their status and B-dogs are concerned about their community. That is, the reward an A-dog is looking for is status boosts in terms of public recognition. B-dogs are rewarded by being recognized as worthwhile members of the pack who are worth the responsibilities the A-dog takes on. A-dogs want to be seen as great leaders; B-dogs want to be seen as great supporters of those great leaders.
Let’s first imagine you’re a B-dog in a relationship with an A-dog.
The A-dog provides you with practical support — money, resources, network connections, job opportunities, and the like. The A-dog also supplies emotional support — gives you advice you trust when you need direction, is calm in the face of any calamity, is a strong & stabilizing force in an time of darkness. The A-dog is your dependable rock, a great listener, and is never shocked by any troubling story you have to share.
The A-dog provides for you and protects you. The A-dog considers you worthy of the investment of time, energy, and other resources.
So, what is your A-dog looking for in return from you? You can’t provide similar physical, material, and/or emotional resources (or this would be a roughly 50/50 relationship). What can a B-dog give? How can this still be a reciprocal relationship?
B-dogs give A-dogs privilege.
In return for their hard work and leadership, A-dogs get the privileged first cuts of fresh meat. In people terms, A-dogs get special privileges (best seating, honored positions, bonuses, etc.) to balance out their particular responsibilities that are par for the course in being a leader. Related aspects to the idea of special privileges are that A-dogs receive gifts, respect, and recognition of their service.
What does this look like in the real, modern world?
- Credit (Status Boost)
Here’s a personal example. For the A-dogs in my own life who faithfully provide me with all sorts of support when I need it as the relatively inexperienced, unconnected, unstable, unsure, etc. one of us, I take the following actions associated with the list above.
- I write lots of detailed ‘thank-you’ cards, both at what could be expected times (after a big occasion of their help) and just randomly (because I remain forever grateful).
- I tell others about my A-dog. My A-dogs are the shining knights in my stories, my heroes, my role models. I tell others about what I’ve learned from my A-dogs, how they’ve positively changed my life. If I know I have a particular tool, resource, or idea from one of my wise A-dogs, I reference them — give them the credit. This is more powerful the larger an audience it reaches. For example, writing a blog post or Facebook status update and tagging the A-dog in the glowing review I’m giving. I help bolster my A-dog’s reputation and expand their audience of followers.
- Not only do I remember my A-dogs on special occasions — birthdays, Christmas, any other relevant holiday — but I also have them so present on my mind that I frequently come across books, scarves, or any given thing that I think they’d like, buy, and give it to them ‘just because.’ Of course, a key part of giving gifts well is that I study my A-dogs. I learn what they like so I can give meaningful gifts.
- Part of the whole reason my A-dog is my A-dog is that I respect his or her opinions on at least specific topics (if not on most!). I look to my A-dog for guidance. That is a key aspect of the A-dog / B-dog relationship. In return for how my A-dogs proverbially hold my hand through a lot of challenging situations, I give them the gift of faithful respect. Sure, upon occasion we legitimately disagree on a given topic — A-dogs are not all-knowing and infallible — but by-and-large, I trust my A-dogs. If I have to take a blind leap, I’ll do it on the word of my A-dogs. They have my confidence. I honor their perspectives. If I have no good reason to not take their advice, I’ll follow them even if I’m unsure of where they’re taking me. They’ve earned that respect. I tell my A-dogs how much I appreciate them sharing their stores of knowledge and wisdom with me. And I show them that I’m implementing their counsel.
A-dogs and B-dogs exist on a spectrum. So, not every A-dog is such to the extent that warrants all four of these categories being extensively covered. How much the B-dog returns is a function of how much he receives.
So, we’ve already touched on what A-dogs give B-dogs in a healthy, reciprocal relationship, but let’s spell it out.
- Material provision
- Practical support
- Emotional support
- Physical protection
In terms of practical, real-life examples, this is how I — when I’m the relative A-dog — provide, protect, and support the B-dogs in my life.
- If I know they need something — a new coat, a place to temporarily live, etc. — and I’m in the position to aid, I purchase the needed item or give from my own physical resources, open my home to them, etc. Note: the A-dog in a given relationship typically has more material resources than the B-dog.
- I share my knowledge of an area, a topic, a network of people. I help make sure my B-dog is appropriately prepared for whatever adventure they’re embarking on. I supply connections with other people who can assist. I help them find relevant jobs, or a new apartment. I make sure they know where to find the things they need or that they have rides to the grocery store.
- I’m emotionally available to my B-dog when he or she has a problem or a concern that they need to talk out and receive encouragement and/or counsel. I validate my B-dog by seeing his or her potential and capabilities and faithfully reminding them of their worth and their gifts. I help them find their life purpose and live it out. I support them in the endeavor of finding themselves and living a life true to who they are.
- If my B-dog is ever under my direct physical protection, I make sure he or she feels safe and comfortable. My B-dog doesn’t have to walk dark streets to get from here to there and would never find themselves sleeping under a bridge! Physical protection can relate a lot of the material resources in the sense of maybe helping pay for rent, buying groceries, or doing whatever else it takes to get and keep the B-dog in a safe, healthy, comfortable space.
To be fair, it’s been the rare occasion when I’ve been an A-dog to such an extent that it included physical protection or material provision. But there have been some times in some relationships. Mostly, however, I am a relative A-dog to multiple people in the sense of emotional and practical support.
Side-notes on 50/50 relationships:
50/50 relationships are those in which both parties swap back-and-forth between the A-dog and B-dog roles, which can be topic-specific. For example, I consider my relationship with my husband to be a 50/50 relationship.
Currently both my husband and I materially provide for each other because we both work. My husband was/is the relative A-dog, though, because of the savings he brought into our relationship; I brought just student loan debt. Yay …
We both provide practical and emotional support to each other that is relatively equal. When it comes to some elements of practical and emotional support, I am the A-dog. [Examples: I tend to have a greater body of knowledge on topics of self-awareness, communication, etc. than my husband. I also tend to have larger networks of people or greater knowledge of the resources of the area where we live.]
When it comes to physical protection, my husband is the A-dog … unless I’m packing. 😉
We both respect each other’s opinions, especially on specific topics. Because we both grew up in homes with more-or-less traditional gender roles that had bearing on the areas of knowledge and expertise we personally developed, I usually defer to my husband on decisions regarding our vehicles, technology, and budget. He defers to me on what food I want to buy (no budget there!), how to arrange the interior of our home, and our social calendar. My husband makes the vast majority of the strategic decisions for our business, but I play a huge role in word-smithing and any sort of people management. I do most the reading and writing on relationship-related topics, but he will engage with me in discussion anytime and has great insights.
We don’t give each other tons of gifts beyond our constant practical help (which is awesome), but we work hard to express our appreciation to each other. We definitely speak well of each other to others — we’re just being honest! It’s not a perfect relationship and we’re always working on improving something, but it is a pretty great relationship and we can scarcely imagine being much happier than we already are.
OK, so now let’s consider how A-dog / B-dog relationships can go wrong. How conflict happens.
A-dogs may find themselves feeling triggered and landing themselves in conflict with B-dogs if they don't feel appropriately/adequately considered in those four key ways of appreciation, credit (recognition), gifts, and respect.
B-dogs may feel triggered and find themselves sparking conflict with their A-dogs if they don't feel that they're receiving the material provision, physical protection, and/or practical and emotional support that they feel they need (and that they've come to expect receiving).
Now, there are really just two possible explanations for changes in the relationship: it’s either circumstantial or interpersonal. Meaning: either one or both parties is experiencing some situation that they feel prohibits them from properly reciprocating for the present time OR one or both is stepping back from the relationship because they feel pain whose source they attribute to the other stepping back first by way of not fulfilling their end of the relationship.
Example #1: I once had a relationship with a friend that I thought was reciprocal. That is, although I realized that I was playing an A-dog role for a long time (particularly with extremely intense emotional support), I firmly believed that eventually this friend would also be at a place to be my A-dog when I might need it. Not only did this time never come, but I also ultimately felt that this friend wasn’t even fulfilling the role of a true B-dog. She simply wanted to suck and suck and suck out of me, but give scarcely anything back and certainly not the doses of appreciation, credit, gifts, and respect that I thought seemed warranted. Although it was a painful process, I ultimately decided to not renew that friendship and instead released it.
Example #2: Once, I felt rather abandoned by one of my A-dogs. I was very used to high levels of emotional support, particularly. I tried my best to be a good B-dog (even though this was before my current understanding of the subject) and even worked hard to make the relationship more and more reciprocal to the extent that I was able and that was appropriate. I initially felt very hurt, very triggered, about feeling so abandoned. I thought it was about me, that I had done something wrong and that I was no longer important. But, thanks to good communication, it was ultimately determined that, no, that wasn’t the case and that my A-dog was then simply not at a place to provide so much emotional support. It was about the A-dog’s changed life circumstances and not a reflection on my worthiness. It took me a while to grasp it then, but it turned out to be a great lesson.
Example #3: Again, once-upon-a-time, I had a relationship that I really wanted to be reciprocal. I was getting repeatedly upset that it wasn’t. It took some conflicts and difficult conversations for me to slowly (slooowly) start embracing the idea that I was viewed as the A-dog because of past actions of various kinds of big support. This friend felt most comfortable being my B-dog. Gifts weren’t huge, she wouldn’t often come to me for advice (but it was always big and serious if she did, which honored me a lot), but she was great at faithfully expressing and re-expressing her appreciation for all I’d done that she was convinced had truly changed her life forever. She was also pretty much the queen of giving me public credit and recognition, and boosting my status in any way available. And, really, she did offer me a lot of respect — rather connected to the credit and recognition — because she would so consistently follow my online trail and support any of my professional or personal endeavors. She was a wonderful B-dog who made me eternally happy that I had been her A-dog during a crucial time. Totally worth it.
Example #4: In contrast, I once had a relationship with someone who I thought of as being my B-dog because of all the provision, support, and protection I was repeatedly offering and in substantial amounts. Only it turned out that she didn’t think of me as her A-dog. We ultimately ran into conflict largely because I felt it necessary to step back from the A-dog role I was playing, which in turn caused her to feel hurt and abandoned. I didn’t feel as if I was receiving what I thought was reasonable appreciation, public recognition, gifts, or respect for my advice. In fact, I scarcely felt at all honored as the A-dog I perceived myself to be. It was a necessary healthy boundary call for me to determine to discontinue my A-dog role since I felt it wasn’t being acknowledged. As in example #1, this relationship was at least largely released, though I maintain the possibility of it being renewed if we ever happen to reconvene and reconcile.
*Note: all of these examples have been purposefully put in the past tense so as to further protect identities regardless if the relationship is actually on-going or not.
In closing, unless you think this perspective of A-dogs and B-dogs is totally whacked (in which case I don’t know why you’re still reading), I encourage you to contemplate your own relationships and which categories they fall under. In which relationships are you the relative A-dog? The relative B-dog? Which relationships are largely 50/50?
Then, if you currently have conflict (or ever have) in any of those relationships, consider whether you were providing within any of the 4 categories of need for your B-dog (i.e. material provision, physical protection, practical and/or emotional support) or if you were rewarding your A-dog within any of his 4 areas (i.e. appreciation, credit [recognition], gifts, respect).
Does this framework also help you make more sense of your relationships?
Do you have clearer ideas of how to be an appropriate friend given the A-dog/B-dog dynamic of your relationship?
Is there some action you can take TODAY to be a better A-dog or B-dog to those who deserve it?