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maintenance of romantic relationships

Social Exchange Theory (SET) claims that in relationships partners have expectations to earn a reward i.e. Rewards are things that exceed the costs incurred. Rewards are things like company, security and sex whilst costs are things that result in a loss. For example, the spare time that is lost or the negative aspects of the relationship that have to be dealt with. Commitment in a relationship occurs if the profitability of the relationship is high which is seen as more desirable therefore the relationship is less likely to break down. 

According to Thibaut and Kelley relationships develop over a 4-model stage. First the couple samples-explores the costs and benefits in a variety of relationships. Then they bargain- cost out relationships. And finally there is commitment and institutionalisation.

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maintenance of romantic relationships

Couples compare their relationship to other relationships. The Comparison Level (CL) is a way of judging whether an existing relationship against some standard. If the profitability of an existing relationship exceeds the CL then it’s judged as worthwhile. The individual may decide to end an existing relationship if the CL of an alternative relationship is significantly higher than the current relationship. A relationship will breakdown if the costs exceed the rewards or if the profitability of a new relationship is higher.

This theory with its comparison levels explains why some people stay in unsatisfactory relationships. Rusbult et al suggests that if the investment in a relationship is high i.e. there are children involved and there are no alternatives then the individual will stay in an abusive relationship as the current relationship is better than no relationship at all therefore will decide to maintain the current relationship.

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maintenance of romantic relationships

There is also research support for the role of comparison levels in a relationship. Simpson et al. found that individuals who were already in a relationship tended to give lower ratings of attractiveness to photographs of members of the opposite sex than those who weren’t in a relationship. This suggests that new alternative relationships are judged as less profitable if the individual is already in a committed relationship. However, this study provides weak support for the role of comparison levels as it lacks ecological validity as it was conducted in a lab using photographs and not how we meet ‘alternatives’ in real life. 

The concept of social exchange may not be an over simplification of how real life relationships work. Clark and Mills found two different types of couples- the communal couple and the exchange couple. Only in the Exchange Couple is the kind of score keeping that is predicted in SET obvious. Individuals in the communal couple are much more relaxed. Stafford and Canary (2006) meanwhile found that marital satisfaction, although lowest amongst individuals who felt under-benefited, was also low amongst individuals who felt over-benefited. 

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maintenance of romantic relationships

Therefore, SET assumes that being over-benefited is positive in a relationship whereas this research provides sufficient evidence that that is not always the case. 

SET is reductionist. It doesn’t explain why some people care for their partners who are terminally ill or why some individuals leave a relationship when there are no alternatives involved. Therefore, emotion overrides cost-benefit analysis and will result in the maintenance of a relationship. 

Most research conducted on SET has been focused on individualist cultures as opposed to collectivist cultures. Therefore, the results may not be able to be generalised to collectivist cultures as they may act differently when in a relationship. In some collectivist cultures women aren’t even given the chance to choose their husband (arranged marriages) and therefore have no chance to carry out a cost-benefit analysis. Therefore, SET may not be applicable to all cultures and may not explain the maintenance of relationships. 

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maintenance of romantic relationships

An alternative theory that has been developed out of SET is the Equity Theory. Here the focus is on fairness rather than trying to earn a profit. Walster et al. suggest that in real life relationships individuals strive for fairness and feel distress if they perceive unfairness in a relationship. Inequity may have the potential to cause dissatisfaction. Walster suggests that as long as the loser feels they have a chance to restore fairness then they will endeavour to re-establish equity within their relationship. 

Support for this study comes from Hatfield et al. who found that couples who felt both under and over-benefited felt unhappy, although those who felt under-benefited felt most unhappy. 

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maintenance of romantic relationships

However, there may be gender differences so this theory may not be equally applicable to men and women. Prins et al. found that males don’t tend to have extra-marital affairs if they felt under-benefited. Whereas more women reported having extra-marital affairs when they perceived inequity in their relationship. However, this study may not provide strong support for the Equity Theory as there may be social desirability bias as the study was conducted using interviews therefore men may have felt less able to admit to having extra-marital affairs. 

SET and the Equity Theory may also be gender biased in that some research suggest that due to socialisation differences women may be more altruistic and therefore less affected by being under-benefited. They may in fact, enjoy giving more benefits to males and therefore decide to maintain the existing relationship.

The Equity Theory doesn’t account for changes over time- at the beginning equity may have been important however as the relationship develops the couple may be more tolerant of inequity. 

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maintenance of romantic relationships

Both these economic theories are determinist. They both view humans as selfish however some people may enjoy giving benefits to their partner. We all also have free will and do as we please and therefore are responsible for our own actions, therefore relationships cannot be pre-determined by theories such as the Equity theory and SET. We aren’t machines and can make decisions to act in ways counter to our own rewards. 

In conclusion, both SET and Equity Theory may not be explain how real life relationships work due to cultural and gender differences therefore questioning the applicability of these studies. However, SET and Equity Theory may explain some aspects into the maintenance of relationships such as why people may stay in unsatisfactory relationships. 

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