Outline and evaluate one theory of the maintenance of romantic relationships (4 marks + 8 marks)

For this question you should discuss 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.  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.

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