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Discuss psychological theories of the maintenance and breakdown of romantic
relationships. (9 marks + 16 marks)
There are no clear boundaries of where a relationship stops forming and starts to be maintained.
Rewardneed theories argue that longterm relationships are more
likely to be formed and maintained if the relationship meets the needs of the two people involved and
provides rewards for them. Evidence from Smith and Mackie supports the view that meeting needs,
whether these are biological, social, or emotional needs is important in maintaining a relationship.
Relationships also provide different types of reward at different stages Clark argue that as
relationships progress rewards are not exchanged on a tit for tat basis but are given to provide
pleasure and well being of the other person.
Economic theories explain how relationships are maintained, and also why some relationships break
down. Homans social exchange theory states people aim to reduce their costs, and increase their
rewards in a relationship. If rewards are greater than costs, the relationship is in `profit `but if the
costs are greater than the rewards, the result is a `loss', which leads to dissatisfaction and possibly
breakdown. SET assumes that we monitor costs throughout a relationship but Argyle argues that we
only start to count costs after we have become dissatisfied.
Thibaut and Kelly developed SET to include comparison of the relationship cost and rewards with
alternatives. They suggest we compare the present relationship with a past relationship (CL) and the
present relationship with others on offer (CL Alt). If the current relationship is less rewarding than
either of these, there is dissatisfaction and breakdown is likely. SET is criticised because it assumes
people are selfcentred and spend time thinking about their relationships. Duck argues that people
only start to consider alternatives after they are dissatisfied. Also evidence shows that people often
remain in costly abusive relationships. Those in such relationships argue that they can't leave because
they have too much invested.
The investment model proposes that commitment maintains a relationship and determines when it will
breakdown. Commitment is based on satisfaction with the relationship, belief that it offers better
rewards than alternatives, and substantial investments. Evidence to support this model comes from
Impett's 18 month study of married couples and a study of women in a refuge who had already left
their partners. However in a study of abusive relationships it was found that people who had been
abused most were often most committed to the relationship.
Equity theory is based on the assumption that people expect that a relationship is fair. People will
feel satisfied if what they put into the relationship is comparable with what they get out of it. If one
person thinks the relationship is not equitable, this can lead to resentment and either action to restore
balance and maintain the relationship or to breakdown. De Maris in a study of American couples
found that a womens feeling of poor equity in the relationship was an important predictor of
In a longitudinal study of over 200 couples it was found that, as the model predicts, satisfaction
ratings were related equity ratings made one year earlier. The majority of men and women felt their
relationship was equitable, 65 % women felt they put more into the relationship than they got out of
it as compared with men.
This longitudinal method holds participant variables constant and depicts the sequence and continuity
of relationships rather than just giving a snapshot. But by asking questions about costs and benefits
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Hence the theory may be an "artefact of the methodology".
The equity model seems to explain maintenance and breakdown of western relationships, but is less
effective in collectivist non western cultures or in cultures where the freedom to leave a relationship is
limited by laws and social norms. These economic theories are ethnocentric and an ethic analysis or
an attempt to apply them in other cultures would be inappropriate.…read more