Maintenance of relationships

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The first theory was proposed by Thibaut and Kelley in 1959 and was called the social exchange theory. This says that people exchange resources (e.g. form relationships with others) with the expectation that they will earn a ‘profit’ i.e. that the rewards will exceed costs incurred. 

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These rewards include being cared for, companionship and sex, while the costs include financial investment and time wasted. Commitment to a relationship is dependent on its profitability, with less profitable relationships being more vulnerable to termination.

 

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Also in order to judge whether one person offers something better or worse than we might expect from another we develop a comparison level (CL)- a standard against which all our relationships are judged. This CL is the product of experiences in previous relationships plus expectations of the current relationship. If potential profit from a new relationship exceeds the comparison level, then it will be judged worthwhile. 

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Comparison level for alternatives (CLA)- potential increase in rewards from new partner minus cost of ending current relationship.

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Mils and Clark found there was a lack of consistent support for social exchange theory and there were two types of couples. The communal couple where each partner gave out of concern for the other, and the exchange couple where each would keep a mental record of ‘point scoring’. 

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This shows there are different types of relationships and that the social learning theory may lack external validity applying to some but not all relationships. Support can be found by looking at *** people in a relationship deal with potential alternatives.

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Simpson et al (1990) asked participants to rate members of the opposite sex in terms of attractiveness, those participants who were already in relationships gave lower ratings. However, social exchange theory does not explain why some people leave relationships despite having no alternative, nor does it suggest how great the disparity in comparison level has to be to become unsatisfactory.

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Another theory was created by Walster et al (1978) and is called the Equity theory. In which people strive to achieve fairness in relationships and feel distressed if they perceive unfairness.

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It is similar to the social exchange theory as it sees behaviour within relationships as a series of exchanges with people trying to maximise their rewards and minimise costs. However, the goal is not for profit but to achieve perceived fairness (equity). 

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Inequitable relationships exist when a person perceives that they give a great deal in a relationship and get little in return. Or that the receive a great deal and give little in return. Both are inequitable relationships and would leave the individual feeling dissatisfied. 

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The greater the inequity the greater the dissatisfaction. An equitable relationship is one where one partner’s benefits minus their costs equals the other partner’s benefits minus their costs. Perception of inequality in a relationship motivates a person to try to restore it (e.g. by changing perceptions of relative inputs and outputs) or to end the relationship.   

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There is research support for this as Stafford and Canary surveyed 200 married couples concerning equity and relationship satisfaction. They found that relationship satisfaction was highest for spouses who perceived their relationship to be equitable. 

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While satisfaction was lowest for spouses who perceived themselves to be most under- benefitted in the relationships. But a limitation to this theory is Clark and Mills argue that a concern for equity may only characterise relationships between colleagues or business associates rather than relationships between friends or lovers (romantic relationships).

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They claim that romantic relationships are governed by a desire to respond to the needs of the partner rather than any concerns about equity. There are gender differences in the importance of equity as Steil and Weltman studied married working couples. 

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They found that the women generally rated their husband’s careers as more important than their own. They concluded that because women tend to seek less for themselves in a relationship, this makes equity a less relevant explanation of relationship satisfaction in real- life relationships. 

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Because of this, it challenges the universality of equity as a determination of relationship satisfaction.

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But such economic theories are reductionist as they assume maintenance is purely down to profit or equity. Relationships are far more complex, with women who are abused by their husbands still choosing to remain in the relationship despite high losses or inequity and these economic theories cannot account for this. 

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The role of ‘love’ is also not factored in either theory and therefore these theories are too simplistic, over- simplified and incomplete in their explanations. 

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Such theories and research has focused primarily of heterosexual relationships only and does not consider homosexual relationships. 

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Therefore, neither theories have universal application and external validity beyond the context of heterosexual relationships.

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Social exchange and equity theory also suffer from cultural bias as are based mainly on the assumption of western cultures. For example, in cultures where arranged marriages bring together families and communities, the maintenance of relationships may not be down purely to selfish desire or equity which the theory’s do not explain adequately. 

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Moghaddam found evidence for cultural bias with US students in relationships preferring equity while Europeans preferred equality suggesting further cultural differences and limited application of each theory dependent on culture. 

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However, the results and findings from this study may limit the results to younger adults and students rather than long- term relationships as is common with older individuals.  

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