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Outline and evaluate two theories of the maintenance of relationships
Social Exchange Theory (SET) is one explanation of the maintenance of relationships. It assumes that
all social behaviour is a series of exchanges where individuals attempt to maximise their rewards and
minimise costs. Exchange refers to when an individual receives an award from others, they feel
obliged to reciprocate. These rewards that we may receive from a relationship may include
companionship, security and sex. Costs are those exchanges that result in a loss or punishment. These
may include physical or psychological abuse and loss of other opportunities. The rewards minus the
costs equal the outcomes or profits.
Thibaut and Kelly developed a comparison level. They introduced two levels; comparison level and
comparison level for alternatives. Our comparison level refers to our past and present and is the
product of our experiences in other relationships together with other general views or expectations.
If the current relationship exceeds our comparison level, we deem the relationship to be worthwhile
and we are motivated to maintain the relationship. If however, the profit is less than our comparison
level, we will be left dissatisfied and the other person will appear less attractive as a partner. The
comparison level for alternatives, on the other hand, is concerned with the benefits of possible
alternative relationships. It involves a person weighing up a potential increase in rewards from a
different partner, minus any cost associated with ending the current relationship.
Thibaut and Kelly also developed a four-stage model of long-term relationships. These consisted of
sampling, where rewards and costs are assessed in a variety of different relationships. Bargaining,
where a relationship is `costed out' and sources of profit and loss are identified, Commitment where
the relationship is established and maintained by a predictable exchange of rewards and finally
institutionalisation where interactions are established and the couple have `settled down'.
At strength of SET is that there is supporting evidence for example from Rusbult. College students
completed questionnaires over a 7-month period and found three underlying factors that
determined whether they were satisfied with their relationship. These factors included, carefully
wighing up the rewards and costs of the relationship, considering the amount they had invested into
the relationship and the existence of an attractive alternative. However, Rusbult identified that SET
did not explain the early `honeymoon' phase of a relationship where the balance of exchanges were
ignored. Methodological issues associated with Rusbult's study was the use of questionnaires which
may lead to social-desirability characteristics where people may not answer truthfully. Participants
may have under-reported or over-reported certain behaviours of views which would affect the
results. Hatfield also provided supporting evidence for SET as he found that people who felt
under-benefited in a relationship felt angry and deprived whereas people who felt over-benefited
felt guilty and uncomfortable. This supports the theory by suggesting that, regardless of whether
individuals are benefited, they may not desire to maintain a relationship.
However, a weakness of SET is that the explanation is reductionist as it breaks down relationships
into basic, social interactions that are focused on selfish awards of a single individual. It also fails to
take into account the notion of fairness between to individuals leading to equity. It believes that
people are only motivated to maintain relationships out of selfish concerns, when often this may not
be the case. This suggests that SET is oversimplified. It is also very mechanistic as not everyone may
evaluate their relationship and it is wrong to assume every single individual in a relationship weights
up the costs and losses.
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It is also difficult to define rewards and costs precisely and these can be subjective and so individual
differences may apply as what may be a reward to one person, another may feel it is a cost.
SET also doesn't account for cultural differences as Moghaddam suggests that these theories only
apply to Western relationships and even then only to certain short-term relationships among
individuals with high mobility.…read more