3 Ways For Partners To Stop Weaponizing Their Kindness

Relationships don't have to be tit-for-tat. Here's how to protect your relationship from 'weaponized kindness.'

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 18, 2024

We've all heard the saying, "It's the little things." Waking up to a fresh cup of coffee, a surprise bouquet of flowers, being treated to your favorite home-cooked meal without asking—it's these small acts of kindness that can make us feel most loved and appreciated within a relationship. Sometimes, it can feel even more rewarding to be the actor of kindness in these scenarios.

However, as the little things continually add up, we often can't help but create an invisible tally in our minds. We start to keep track of the favors we've done and received, almost as if we're accruing debt in the unspoken currency of kindness. This is where "weaponized kindness" rears its head in our relationships—sometimes knowingly, and sometimes unknowingly. From here, our acts of goodwill are no longer motivated by care or generosity, but rather become means to our own ends.

If your relationship has been overcome by the tit-for-tat mentality, here's three ways for you to balance the weight of gratitude and indebtedness.

1. Be Genuine In Expressing Your Gratitude

Imagine your partner has done something nice for you. For instance, they made you dinner and did some tasks for you when they knew you had a rough day. In this situation, you would likely feel grateful—both happy and thankful for the lovely things they've done for you. However, you might also feel like you owe them something in return, as if you're in their debt.

Research from the journal of Personal Relationships shows that these two feelings, gratitude and indebtedness, can greatly affect how you feel about your partner and your relationship with them. In their study, it was found that one partner's act of kindness had the ability to make the other feel simultaneously grateful and indebted.

Importantly, when both partners felt genuinely grateful for each other's kindness, they felt more connected and satisfied with one another the next day. This was true for both the giver and the receiver of the act of kindness. However, feeling indebted didn't have the same positive effect on the relationship. While the "I'll get you next time" or "You owe me one" sentiments might keep a relationship going, the study found that it doesn't make a relationship any better.

Genuine gratitude, on the other hand, can have a magical impact on a relationship; it allows both partners to witness the effects that their love for one another has. The more partners bask in their gratitude for one another—without feeling worried about needing to return any favors—the closer and more enamored with one another they can become.

2. Make Acts Of Kindness The Norm

It's not abnormal for acts of kindness to be used as a means to avoid problems within a relationship. Sometimes, partners may feel the need to do something nice for the other—not because they genuinely care in the moment, but just to smooth over issues or avoid arguments. Using kindness in this way may make it seem like things are getting better temporarily, but underneath, there could be feelings of resentment or dissatisfaction brewing.

Using kindness as a band-aid solution might not address any real issues at hand, and it could end up causing more harm than good in the long run. Research further highlights how important it is to make acts of kindness the norm in a relationship, rather than using them to keep things even or make a partner feel indebted.

The study found that when kindness is driven by a genuine desire to improve a relationship, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—that is, it improves the relationship in the way the partner had hoped. Conversely, when kindness is used as a transactional tool to maintain fairness or gain leverage, it can damage the trust and intimacy within the relationship. In this way, genuine acts of kindness create a positive cycle of reciprocity and emotional fulfillment, whereas using kindness as a means to an end can lead to imbalance and resentment.

Making kindness the baseline of your relationship, rather than just a special occasion, can lead to a happier and more fulfilling relationship. When acts of kindness become a natural part of how you and your partner interact with one another, you can both help create a permanent atmosphere of tenderness and appreciation. Instead of waiting for a rainy day or using kindness as a bargaining chip, consistently showing kindness and appreciation can—quite literally—spread the love in a way that strengthens your relationship every day.

3. Don't Keep Score

Contrary to what many may think, gratitude and indebtedness are not as similar as they seem. While they both involve feelings that arise from receiving a gift or favor, they represent highly distinct experiences. Research from the journal of Cognition and Emotion exemplifies this, and suggests that as expectations of "returning the favor" accompany a gift, feelings of indebtedness will grow, while gratitude will diminish.

This highlights how crucial it is to refrain from "keeping score" in acts of kindness. When you or your partner start tallying favors given and received, it transforms kindness into a transaction or negotiation—rather than an actual expression of compassion.

The shift from seeing kindness as genuine to seeing it as a means to an end can create a breeding ground for resentment and exhaustion within a relationship. But, by abandoning the notion of quid pro quo and instead giving freely without expecting anything in return, partners can enjoy the simple pleasure of generosity without the weight of obligation or indebtedness.

Engaging in acts of kindness solely for the sake of being kind, without the burden of reciprocation, allows partners to experience the true joy of loving unconditionally. When kindness becomes an inherent part of the relationship—devoid of expectations—partners can revel in the simple pleasure of making each other happy without the need for validation or repayment.

Is weaponized kindness lurking beneath your relationship? Take the Relationship Satisfaction Scale to learn more.

A similar version of this article can also be found on, here, and on, here.

© Psychology Solutions 2024. All Rights Reserved.