Discuss two or more theories of the maintenance of romantic relationships. (8 marks + 16 marks)

Here you should outline and evaluate theories such as social exchange theory and equity theory. Be sure not to include too much AO1 content here: there should be twice as much AO2 as there is AO1 in your answer.


Social exchange theory claims that in relationships, partners will have an expectation of ‘profit’; i.e. that the rewards gained from the relationship will be greater than the costs.  Commitment to a relationship is dependent on its profitability. For a relationship to succeed, its costs should be minimal & should certainly be fewer than the profits.

The comparison level (CL) is used as a standard to judge the quality of our existing relationships. Our CL is determined by our experiences of previous relationships & our observations of others’ relationships. If the profitability of our current relationships exceeds the CL, the relationship is judged as worthwhile. The comparison level for alternatives (CLA) is how people weigh the profitability of their current relationship with that of potential future relationships.

Research has demonstrated the importance of CLs in relationships. Simpson et al. found that participants in existing relationships rated people of the opposite sex as less attractive than participants not in relationships. This suggests that people judge prospects of new alternative relationships as less profitable if they are already in a committed relationship.

The CLA may provide an explanation as to why many women choose to stay in abusive relationships. If investments in the relationship are high (e.g. children, financial security) & alternative prospects are bleak (e.g. poverty, homelessness), then a woman may see staying in the abusive relationship to be more profitable than leaving it.

Social exchange theory has been criticized for focusing only on the individual’s view of their relationships, ignoring any relevant social aspects. These include the way in which partners communicate, as well as the wider context of a relationship (e.g. involvement of families or other people). This theory erroneously assumes that people are only concerned with themselves.

The ‘selfish’ nature of this theory reveals a cultural bias: social exchange may only apply to Western relationships. Moghaddam found that even within Western culture, it may still only apply to short-term relationships among folks with high social mobility. This suggests that this theory does not represent a universal explanation of romantic relationships and thus is culture-biased.

Equity theory proposes that people strive to achieve fairness in their relationships: any inequity can cause distress. Relationship satisfaction is highest when each partner feels that they give the same amount into the relationship & get the same amount of rewards from it. Inequity, when people feel that they are giving a lot & getting little out of the relationships or are giving little and getting a lot, leads to dissatisfaction & distress.

Equity does not necessarily mean that input and output in the relationships is the same for each partner, but that their perceived ratio of inputs & outputs is the same. If we perceive inequality in our relationship, we are motivated to change it. For example, if we feel that we are giving more than our partner, we may decrease our input, try to convince our partner to increase their input or change our own perception of the input ratio.

There is research evidence which suggests that equitable relationships are indeed the most satisfactory ones. Stafford & Canary found marital satisfaction to be lowest in people who considered themselves to be under-benefited and highest in those who felt they were in equitable relationships. This supports equity theory, which proposes that equity in a relationships leads to satisfaction.

Research suggests that people are more satisfied in equitable relationships than in profitable ones, but men & women tend to judge equity differently. Steil and Weltman noted that in couples where the husband earns more, both partners view the husband’s work as more important. This was not reversed when the woman earned more. This tendency for women to seek less for themselves in a relationship makes equity difficult to judge.

Clark & Mills disagreed with this idea that all relationships are based on economics: they felt that exchange relationships (e.g. between colleagues & business associates) are very different to romantic relationships. Communal relationships are driven by a desire to respond to the needs of the partner, not to keep track of rewards & costs.

A problem for equity theory is that it fails to predict whether a relationship will be maintained or will break down. DeMaris found that among 1500 US couples, the only reliable indicator of divorce was the woman’s sense of being under-benefitted. Aspects of equity were unable to predict the likelihood of a relationship failing.

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