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Maintenance of Relationships
Social Exchange Theory:
Profit and Loss:
The theory assumes that all social behaviours are a series of exchanges. Individuals attempt
to maximise their rewards whilst minimising their costs i.e. hoping to gain a `profit' by
Rewards that we may receive from a relationship are being cared for, companionship and
sex. Costs may include effort, financial investment and time wasted.
Rewards minus costs equals the outcome; either a profit or a loss.
Social exchange stresses that commitment to a relationship depends on the profitability of
This theory has been used to explain why women might stay in abusive relationships. It is
argued that when investments are high e.g. children/financial security, and alternatives are
low e.g. nowhere to live, no money, then this can be considered as a profit situation hence,
why women choose to stay.
It has been proposed that we develop a `comparison level' (CL) to judge our relationships.
CL is a product of the experiences in our previous relationships and our general expectations
of what we should receive from a relationship.
If we judge that the potential profit of a new relationship exceeds the CL then it will be
considered as a potential worthwhile relationship, making the other person seem more
attractive as a partner. If the profit is judged to be lower than the CL then we will be
dissatisfied with the relationship and the person will become less attractive.
A related concept is the comparison level for alternatives where rewards from a potential
relationship are weighed up against the costs of ending the current relationship.
If the profit level is higher, a new relationship can take place.
SET does not explain why some people leave relationships without alternatives. Nor does it
suggest how great the difference in CL has to be for the relationship to be unsatisfactory.
The theory has been criticised for focusing too much on the individual's perspective and
ignoring social aspects of a relationship i.e. how partners communicate and interpret shared
However, it is possible that the theory can only apply to individualist cultures due to the
selfish nature of the theory.
This theory's central assumption is that people strive for fairness in a relationship and
become distressed if they become distressed if they observe unfairness.
People can receive inequity if they give more than they receive causing distress. The same is
true for those who receive more than they give.
The greater the inequity, the greater the dissatisfaction and distress.
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Maintenance of Relationships
However, it is possible for both partners to give and take very different amounts and for the
relationship to be equitable.
Although one partner perceives themselves as putting in less, they may also receive less
from the relationship, allowing the relationship to be judged fair. This is explained in terms of
a person's perceived ratio of input and output.…read more