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Outline and evaluate two theories of the maintenance of relationships.
There are two main theories of the maintenance of romantic relationships; The Social Exchange
Theory (Thibaut and Kelley, 1959) and The Equity Theory (Walster et al,. 1978).
The Social Exchange Theory looks at profit and loss. This is the assumption that all social behaviour is a
series of exchange, and, naturally, people try to maximise their rewards and minimise their costs.
With the thought that rewards will exceed the costs incurred, people exchange resources with the
expectation that they will earn a profit. In a relationship, the rewards that you get will be love,
affection, companionship, being cared for and sex, whereas, costs may be things such as effort,
financial investment and wasted time. Therefore, this means that the commitment to a relationship is
dependent on the profitability the result of the rewards misusing the costs.
The Social Exchange Theory also looks at comparison levels. Thibaut and Kelley came up with the idea
of developing a comparison level to see if one person offers something better or worse than
another. A comparison level is a standard against which all your relationships are judged. These are
made of our own previous relationships and what general views of what you might expect in one. If
your view on a relationship with someone exceeds your comparison level, you will see that
relationship worthwhile and will maintain it, and that person will be more attractive to you. On the
other hand, if the comparison level is below expected you will not see that as a good relationship,
and will see that person as less attractive. A new relationship can be formed when a person weighs
up potential rewards in a new relationship, and minuses from that the costs of ending their current
one. If the profit level is significantly higher, they will be more likely to end their current relationship.
There is research evidence to support the notion of exchange, explaining why some women stay in
abusive relationships. Rusbult and Martz (1995) argue that when investments are high e.g. children
and alternatives are low e.g. financial status this could be a profit situation so they would stay in
the relationship. This is a strength of the social exchange theory. However, there could be ethical
issues associated with it; protection from harm. For example, if their abusive partner finds out about
their participation in this study, they may disagree with it and it may put the woman in further harm.
Furthermore, there is also research support for the comparison theory. This is looking at how people
in a relationship deal with potential alternatives. Simpson et al (1990) asked participants to rate
members of the opposite sex in terms of attractiveness. They found that those in relationships gave
lower ratings. However, it does not explain why some people leave relationships having no
alternative. Simultaneously, this may be due to cultural differences. Some people will have different
cultures due to the countries they come from which may explain these differences.
A criticism of the social exchange theory is that it has a very selfish nature. It says how the person is
only interested in the rewards of a relationship and that people are only motivated to maintain a
relationship for their own selfish needs. This therefore has a problem of generalisation because this
selfish principle cannot be applied to everyone. However, this may be applicable in individualistic
countries such as UK, USA but will not be so applicable in collectivist countries such as China and India.
Walster suggested there were four main principles of the equity theory:
People try to maximise rewards and minimise negative experiences.
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The distribution of rewards is negotiated to receive fairness.
If the relationship is unfair/inequitable, it produces distress, especially for the disadvantaged
If the disadvantaged person feels there is chance of restoring equity, they will work at the
The Equity Theory assumes that most people try to achieve fairness in their relationships and feel
distress if they perceive unfairness. According to this theory, any kind of inequity has the potential to
cause distress.…read more