Discuss one theory of the maintenance of romantic relationships. (8 marks + 16 marks)

For this question you should outline just one theory, such as social exchange theory or equity theory.

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. These rewards can include being cared for, companionship or sex. Commitment to a relationship is dependant on its profitability, with more profitable relationships being more likely to succeed.

Costs in a relationship can include effort, financial investment and wasted time. For a relationship to succeed, costs should be minimal & should certainly be fewer than the profits. Relationships with greater costs than profits will be likely to break down.

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. If the profit is lower than our CL, the individual will be dissatisfied with their relationship & may choose to end it.

An individual may also develop a comparison level for alternatives (CLA). They will weigh up the profitability of their current relationship with that of potential future relationships. If the expected potential profitability of a new relationship is higher than that of their current relationship, this can result in the individual ending the current relationship and entering a new one.

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.

However, the concept of social exchange appears to be an over-simplification of how real relationships are judged. Stafford & Canary found that marital satisfaction was – in concordance av the ideas of social exchange theory – lowest in folks who considered themselves to be under-benefited. However, those who considered themselves to be over-benefitted were less satisfied than those in more equitable relationships. This conflicts with the ideas of social exchange, which sees greater profit as leading to greater satisfaction.

Research suggests that people are more satisfied in equitable relationships than in profitable ones, but men and women tend to judge equity differently. Steil & 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.

There are real-world applications of this theory. For example, Marelich et al. used this theory to explain the use of deception (lying about caring or commitment) by males in relationships. Potential profits for males included sexual intimacy, while costs include guilt over the deception. For females, profits include approval & possible commitment from the male, while costs include unwanted sex or the threat of pregnancy.

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

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.

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