Relationship Maintenance Theories


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The Maintenance of relationships

The matching hypothesis and reward/need satisfaction theories explain why two people would choose each other as partners, other theories go beyond this and explain how relationships are maintained.

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The two most influential theories are Social Exchange Theory and Equity Theory. These are referred to as ‘Economic’ theories as they assume that couples calculate ‘costs and benefits’ and ‘investment’ during the relationship.

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Social Exchange Theory (Thiabut and Kelly 1959)

Satisfaction (profit) is determined by exchange of rewards (sex, affection, support) and costs (providing support & not always having your own way).   Each person tries to maximise rewards and minimise costs.   ‘Exchange’ because if you receive rewards you feel obliged to give something in return.

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Assumes everyone tries to maximise the rewards they obtain from a relationship, and minimises the costs (e.g. devoting time and effort to the other person, coping with another person’s emotional problems) It is also assumed that if a relationship is to continue people expect the other person to reward them as much as they reward the other person.

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Thibaut & Kelly

 Long-term friendships and relationships go through four stages;

Sampling – The costs and rewards associated with each other are explored. Bargaining – A process of negotiation in which rewards and costs are agreed. Commitment – Exchange of rewards and acceptance of costs stabilise. Greater focus on the relationship itself. Institutionalisation – Norms and expectations are firmly established.   Additional assumptions are sometime included in the Social Exchange Theory. For example, how satisfied individuals are with the rewards and costs of a relationship will depend on what they have come to expect from previous relationships. In other words they have a comparison level (CL), representing the outcomes they believe they deserve on the basis of past experiences – so if in the past they have had very poor relationships they may expect very little from subsequent ones.

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Model of long term relationships Thibaut and Kelly’1959 “There are four stages that long-term relationships go through ” But ‘stage’ theories can be criticised for being too rigid – individual differences are not considered.  Will everyone go through all the stages?

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As well as passing through 4 stages, Thibaut & Kelley suggested also carry out a cost benefit calculation on:  a ‘comparison level’ (comparing what you have in this relationship with past) a ‘comparison level for alternatives’ (comparing what you have with what you could have)

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Comparison Level (CL)

Average level of rewards you are used to in a relationship, and is the minimum you would expect in any future relationship.

If your RCR (reward-cost ratio) falls below your CL, the relationship will be unsatisfying     If your RCR is above your CL, you will be satisfied with it.

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Comparison Level for alternatives (CL alt)

This is your expectation about the RCR that could be obtained in other relationships.   If your current RCR exceeds the CL alt., then you’re doing better in the relationship than you could elsewhere.  This is likely to make the relationship satisfying for you, and you’ll want it to continue.     If the CL, alt exceeds your current RCR, then you’re doing worse than you could elsewhere, the relationship is likely to be unsatisfying, and you’ll not want it to continue.

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Rusbult (1983) found that costs are only calculated after the honeymoon phase. Simpson (1990) suggested potential alternatives to relationship might be dealt with by trying to reduce them  - participants who were in a relationship, rated members of the opposite sex as less attractive, showing they close themselves off from attractive alternatives. Rusbult & Martz (1995), idea of ‘exchange’ might explain abusive relationships. If investment is high (have kids, need financial security) and alternatives low (no where else to go, no job), profit of staying in relationship still higher than loss.

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Mechanistic approach (how do you define costs and rewards exactly?) Cannot quantify the point of dissatisfaction. Doesn’t really explain why some people end relationships even if no alternative. Sees relationships as SNAPSHOTS at one point in time – whereas they are DYNAMIC constantly changing.

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Sees people as CALCULATING (selfish – what’s in it for me? Am I giving more than I am getting?) Doesn’t take into account the social context of the relationship E.g. Arranged marriages, religion, parenting, health traditions etc. Cultural bias – theory more suited to explaining short-term Western relationships where give and take and personal profit might be more important.

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Evaluating Social Exchange & Equity Theory

Research evidence is inconsistent (Clark and Mills, 1979 identified two types of couples: THE COMMUNAL COUPLE – giving is motivated by concern and positive regard for the other ~ they give to meet each others needs – not expecting anything in return ~ shared responsibility for relationship. THE EXCHANGE COUPLE – As in social exchange – certain amount of ‘score keeping’ is evident. Expect a return on their investment ~ cost benefit analysis of relationship ~ give but expect same in return. There is also evidence that equity is not the same for everyone (Hatfield) Equity may be more important for females than males. (Gender Issue) Murstein et al (1977) Equity may only be a problem in troubled relationships. (Health of relationship issue) In most relationships fairness is more important then profit.

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Why does a Social Exchange type relationship break

Theory refers to investment, profit, loss, costs & rewards etc. So if relationship is showing a profit then…. It will continue But if showing a loss & high number of attractive alternatives then .... It is likely to fail. Thibaut & Kelly stated that people in a relationship constantly compare their relationships with previous relationships and possible alternatives. If the present relationship compares well with others then the motivation is to maintain in the current relationship.

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