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formation of romantic relationships

Most stimuli in our lives are rewarding or punishing in some way. Therefore we seek rewarding stimuli and avoid punishing stimuli. Most rewarding stimuli represent our unmet needs for example the need for company, financial security and an attractive partner. Mutual attraction occurs when one person fulfils the other person’s needs.

Rewarding stimuli initiate positive feelings within us whilst punishing stimuli initiate negative feelings within us. According to Byrne and Clore’s ‘Need/Satisfaction theory’ we enter into relationships whereby some individuals are directly associated with reinforcement (i.e. they initiate positive feelings within us) and so they become more attractive to us. 

There is research support for the ‘Need/Satisfaction Theory.’ Cate et al asked 337 individuals to assess their existing relationships in terms of reward level and satisfaction. The results found that reward levels was the most superior out of all other factors in determining relationship satisfaction. This therefore increases the reliability of the ‘Need/Satisfaction Theory’ and does explain why we form romantic relationships.

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formation of romantic relationships

Further research support comes from Griffitt and Guay whereby ‘experimenters’ judged participants on a creative task. The pps were then asked to rate how much they liked the experimenter. The ratings were the highest when the experimenters positively evaluated (rewarded) the pps performance on the task. 

Due to this, there is research support for this theory through greater Facebook use. Sheldon et al. discovered that greater Facebook use was positively correlated with positive feelings of connectedness and negative indicators of relationship satisfaction (feelings of disconnectedness). 

However, this theory ignores gender differences. Lott argues that women are socialised into taking care of the needs of others and so feel less concerned by trying to gratify their own needs. Thus, this study reduces the reliability of this explanation into why we form romantic relationships.

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formation of romantic relationships

Also, Hays argues that in real life relationships we strive for equity and fairness and feel less concerned with trying to gain the benefit of rewards. Thus, we don’t form relationships to gain the benefits associated with reinforcement, but in fact we form romantic relationships which are based on equity and fairness.

In the ‘Matching Hypothesis’ Walster et al. uses two specific hypothesises which are based on the idea of the more socially desirable a person is, the more they would expect their dating or marriage partner to be and couples who are matched have long and enduring relationships than couples who are mismatched in terms of social desirability. Therefore, individuals looking for a partner are influenced by both the desirability of the potential match (what they want) and the probability of the person saying yes (what they think they can get). This is known as realistic choices as individuals are influenced by the chances of their feelings being reciprocated. 

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formation of romantic relationships

There is research support for this theory. Walster et al. invited 752 student undergraduates from Minnesota University to a ‘get acquainted’ dance. They were told that they were ‘matched’ to their partners but in fact they were randomly allocated to their pairs. The success of the matches was then measured using a questionnaire during a break in the dance and then in a six month follow up. The results demonstrated that the pps reacted positively to their partners the more physically attractive their partner was and also arranged subsequent dates. Other factors such as personality and intelligence played little importance. This study therefore demonstrates that physical attractiveness influences the formation of romantic relationships. 

This study also has real world applicability as Cavior and Boblett consistently found a strong ‘matching effect’ in couples who were more committed to couples who were less committed. 

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formation of romantic relationships

However, Kalick and Hamilton argue that we must make a distinction between our preferences, realistic choices and what actually occurs. In real life most people would prefer an attractive partner however for those who are less attractive there is conflict between reality and desire. Therefore, in realistic life situation most people go for partners who are on the same level of physical attractiveness as them. This will then reduce the chances of getting rejected. Thus, most people go for attainable choices. 

Hatfield and Sprecher theorised the idea of ‘complex matching.’ Some individuals lack physical attractiveness and so make up for this using other traits such as intelligence, personality, money etc. They also stated that there are often ‘third parties’ that influence matches. This includes friends and family who judge compatibility as they determine who makes a ‘good match.’ Xiaohe and Whyte also suggest that in many collectivist cultures parents are often better judges of compatibility as they are not ‘blinded by love.’ 

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Neither the reward theory or the matching hypothesis appear to provide conclusive evidence to suggest why we form relationships with certain people and not others, for this reason it is impossible to determine which theory is correct. The research into both theories have been flawed by accusations that the studies are reductionist (too simplistic) in their approach to relationships and are deterministic in the sense that it is predicted who you will form relationships with, which in many occasions, the proposed factors are not actually reflected in real-life relationships. In contrast, a common idea proposed in both the matching hypothesis and the reward theory is that we appear to form relationships with others who are similar to ourselves; it could therefore be concluded that similarity is a key feature in the formation of relationships. 

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