Theories of Romantic Relationships - Equity Theory

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  • Created on: 26-04-19 16:36

Developing Social Exchange Theory

-          Developing Social Exchange Theory: equity theory (Walster 1978) has all the assumptions of social exchange theory but Hatfield (1979) suggested that SET is missing the important factor or equality in a relationship.

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-          Equality: people are more satisfied in a relationship if they feel that the balance of rewards and costs between partners is similar or they feel that they are getting what they deserve.

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-          Balance: each partner’s “profits minus losses” should be the same, even if these are different. For example, if one partner puts a lot in and gets a lot out but the other partner puts less in and gets less out then this would still be a stable and successful relationship because the overall profits are the same.

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Over Benefits and Under Benefits

-          Over-Benefits: if one partner feels that they are getting more out of the relationship than they put in, then this may result in feelings of shame, pity and guiltiness.

-          Under-Benefits: if one partner feels that they are putting more into the relationship than the other partner but are getting less out of the relationship then this may lead to feelings of resentment and may cause anger towards the other partner.

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Change in Perspective

-          Change in perspective: as time goes on and the relationship develops, what is considered as unfair may change. Early in the relationship, attraction is more important than equity. However, Hatfield (2011) suggests that in later stages of a relationship, successful couples are less likely to “keep score”.

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Evaluative Research - Utne et al (1984)

-          Utne et al (1984): a self report questionnaire was carried out on newly-wed couples who had been married for at least 2 years. They were asked questions of the perceived level of equality in the relationship and feelings of stability and distress. They found that couples who saw more equality in the relationship said they felt happier and though the relationship was more stable as a result. They also found that there were no sex differences in concern for equality. This suggests that as predicted by equity theory, equality is important in the stability of relationships.

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Evaluative Research - Utne et al (1984)

-          However, this research is correlational, which means that a cause and effect relationship cannot be established. It may be that dissatisfaction leads to feelings of inequality, rather than feelings of inequality leading to dissatisfaction.

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Building Evaluations

-          Social Exchange and Equity Theory assume that people are logical in calculating their relationships. However, it can’t explain why some people get into very illogical relationships, whereas Rusbult’s Investment Model may be able to shed more light onto these types of situations, looking at investment size.

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Building Evaluations

-          Clark and Mills (2011) argue that we should differentiate between the role of equity in romantic and business, casual or friendly relationships. In a meta analysis, they found that there was more evidence for equity being a deciding factor in continuing a non-romantic relationship than a romantic one. This suggests that as it is an economic theory, equity theory may be more appropriate for describing business relationships than romantic ones.


-          SET/ET may be seen as culturally biased. Individual satisfaction levels are not taken into account in collectivist societies such as China where there are often arranged marriages. However, SET and ET could be adapted to these situations in saying that the families might consider profits and losses on behalf of the partners. 

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