Abstract The piston secondary motion significantly influences the major characteristics of lubrication in a reciprocating compressor, such as the oil leakage, the piston slap phenomenon and the frictional power loss. Therefore, the design parameters governing piston dynamics should be carefully determined based upon a reliable dynamic characteristic investigation. As a preliminary research step, this paper is concerned with the finite element analysis for the piston dynamic response. By coupling FDM for the lubricating pressure field with FEM for the piston dynamic motion, we numerically approximate the lubricant–structure interaction in a reciprocating compressor. Numerical results illustrating the theoretical work are presented.