.NET 5 Preserve References and Handle Circular References

To preserve references and handle circular references, set ReferenceHandler to Preserve. This setting causes the following behavior:

  • On Serialize: When writing complex types, the serializer also writes metadata properties ($id, $values, and $ref).
  • On Deserialize: Metadata is expected (although not mandatory), and the deserializer tries to understand it.

The following code shows the usage of the Preserve setting.

public class Employee
    public string Name { get; set; }
    public Employee Manager { get; set; }
    public List<Employee> DirectReports { get; set; }

public static void Example()
    Employee tyler = new()
        Name = "Tyler Stein"

    Employee adrian = new()
        Name = "Adrian King"

    tyler.DirectReports = new List<Employee> { adrian };
    adrian.Manager = tyler;

    JsonSerializerOptions options = new()
        ReferenceHandler = ReferenceHandler.Preserve,
        WriteIndented = true

    string tylerJson = JsonSerializer.Serialize(tyler, options);
    Console.WriteLine($"Tyler serialized:\n{tylerJson}");

    Employee tylerDeserialized = JsonSerializer.Deserialize<Employee>(tylerJson, options);

    Console.WriteLine("Tyler is manager of Tyler's first direct report: ");
    Console.WriteLine(tylerDeserialized.DirectReports[0].Manager == tylerDeserialized);

The above example will print the following output.

Tyler serialized:
  "$id": "1",
  "Name": "Tyler Stein",
  "Manager": null,
  "DirectReports": {
    "$id": "2",
    "$values": [
        "$id": "3",
        "Name": "Adrian King",
        "Manager": {
          "$ref": "1"
        "DirectReports": null
Tyler is the manager of Tyler's first direct report:

You can not use this feature to preserve value types or immutable types. On deserialization, the instance of an immutable type is created after the entire payload is read.

  • So it would be impossible to deserialize the same instance if a reference to it appears within the JSON payload.
  • For value types, immutable types, and arrays, no reference metadata is serialized.
  • On deserialization, an exception is thrown if $ref or $id is found.
  • However, value types ignore $id (and $values in the case of collections) to make it possible to deserialize payloads that were serialized by using Newtonsoft.Json.
  • Newtonsoft.Json does serialize metadata for such types.

To determine if objects are equal, System.Text.Json uses ReferenceEqualityComparer.Instance, which uses reference equality (Object.ReferenceEquals(Object, Object)) instead of value equality (Object.Equals(Object) when comparing two object instances.

For more information about how references are serialized and deserialized, see ReferenceHandler.Preserve.

The ReferenceResolver class defines the behavior of preserving references on serialization and deserialization.