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The Social Exchange Theory and Romantic Relationships

Angel is currently studying for her A-levels (English, Sociology and Psychology) in the hopes of going to university next year.

What is the social exchange theory and how does it apply to you?

What is the social exchange theory and how does it apply to you?

Social Exchange Theory in Relationships

The Social Exchange Theory proposes that individuals will decide whether a relationship is worth pursuing after a rational calculation of the costs and benefits. Despite the research to back this up, many researchers claim that although this theory may be used in business, it cannot be applied to romantic relationships.

What This Theory Attempts to Explain About Romantic Relationships

The social exchange theory explains why some relationships are long-lasting, and others are not. Thibaut and Kelly assume that social interactions are a series of exchanges; individuals in a relationship hope to earn a 'profit' at as little 'cost' as their own.

  • Rewards in a relationship include companionship, being cared for and sex
  • Costs include financial investment and time wasted

If the rewards are worth the costs, a relationship is long-lasting.

Our comparison level is a product of past experiences in relationships and is used to judge whether the profit of a relationship exceeds our comparison level. Those who have had a series of abusive relationships have a lower comparison level so are more likely to later get into relationships that are abusive or unhealthy because their expectations are low.

The comparison level for alternatives is the extent to which alternatives to one's current partner are more rewarding. If someone else appears to be able to fulfil needs more than a current partner, an individual may choose to leave their relationship.

Kurdek and Schmitt's Research on Romantic Relationships

Kurdek and Schmitt investigated this theory in an experiment with 185 heterosexual and homosexual couples. Each participant completed a questionnaire. They discovered that greater satisfaction was associated with the perception of the benefits of their current relationship and the comparison level for alternatives. This means that when an individual perceived their current partner to be better than alternatives they were more satisfied with their relationship. This provides support for the social exchange theory across a variety of different relationships (married, cohabitating, heterosexual and homosexual).

Levels of comparison in relationships greatly impact the dynamic between participating members

Levels of comparison in relationships greatly impact the dynamic between participating members

Support for the Social Exchange Theory

Supporting research for the comparison level of alternatives was discovered by Sprecher in a longitudinal study of 101 couples. She found that the exchange variable most associated with commitment within a relationship was the comparison level of alternatives (CLA). In relationships where CLA was high, commitment and satisfaction were low. Couples with a low CLA had a higher level of commitment and satisfaction. These findings support the CLA as a factor influencing relationship success.

An advantage of this theory is the real-world application of Integrated Behaviour Couples Therapy (IBCT). Gottom and Levenson found unsuccessful marriages had a positive to negative exchange ratio of 1:1 compared to 5:1 in successful marriages. IBCT aims to increase the number of positive exchanges to improve a relationship. Christianson et al treated over 60 couples, 2/3 of which reported significant improvements in relationship quality as a result. This supports the theory as it implies that when couples increase the rewards, satisfaction increases.

The Limitations of This Theory

A limitation of the social exchange theory is that 'costs' and 'benefits' are difficult to measure as they are subjective opinions. What may be considered rewarding for one person, may be unwanted by someone else. Liltejohn also suggests that in a relationship, preferences may change over time; during the early stages, certain characteristics may be rewarding but can later become a burden. This challenges the assumption that romantic relationship operates based on a 'cost and benefit' system.

Another criticism is stressed by Nakonezny and Denton who point out that it is difficult to quantify the value of costs and benefits in a relationship. This theory is commonly applied to business where costs and benefits can be easily measured in economic terms. They argue that the theory cannot be applied to romantic relationships due to the difficulty of measuring the value of costs and benefits.

A drawback of the theory is the reliance of an economic approach to relationships; some argue this then ignores other factors that can lead to relationship satisfaction. For instance, an individual's own rational beliefs. Some may believe that if you have committed to a relationship, you should live with all that it brings. This would mean that regardless of the costs, they would be more committed to remaining in that relationship. This theory fails to explain individual differences that could influence relationship satisfaction.

Do you think the SET is applicable in romantic relationships?

Do you think the SET is applicable in romantic relationships?

To Conclude

Overall, the Social Exchange theory is an evaluation of the costs and benefits of a relationship. If the costs outweigh the benefits then an individual is likely to leave their partner. The comparison level and comparison level for alternatives also affect this choice.

However, 'costs' and 'benefits' are subjective terms and are difficult to measure. For this reason, many criticise the theory. It also ignores other factors that affect relationship success such as age, religion or cultural beliefs.


Cardwell, M., Flanagan, C. (2016) Psychology A level The Complete Companion Student Book fourth edition. Published by Oxford University Press, United Kingdom.

© 2018 Angel Harper


dashingscorpio from Chicago on November 17, 2018:

Excellent point.

Essentially that was what I was alluding to with regard to the fact that what makes for an "ideal mate" at one point in time may not cut it for us later on. Imagine being with someone who constantly cracks jokes and uses sarcasm. In the beginning you may find them "hilarious" . However the longer you're with them they seem too immature. Maybe there's some truth to the old adage:

"Familiarity breeds contempt."

Ultimately I believe the older we get and more life experience we have we become better at knowing ourselves and what makes us happy over the long term when choosing a mate.

The problem then becomes maintaining the self-discipline to stick to our "must haves list" as opposed to being "impulsive".

Some people say: "Follow your heart."

Never separate your mind from your heart when making relationship decisions. The purpose of the mind is to protect the heart. (This is probably a better way to approach dating.)

Angel Harper (author) on November 17, 2018:

dashingscorpio, I think one of the most tragic reasons relationships don't last is that characteristics someone once found attractive become annoying over time. Adventurousness at first may seem great but it is later regarded as reckless. Just shows how as we get older our 'requirements' change.

Thank you for reading and commenting your opinion with extensive knowledge on the topic.

dashingscorpio from Chicago on November 14, 2018:

Very interesting.

Each of us (chooses) our own friends, lovers, and spouse.

Each of us has our mate selection process/must haves list.

Each of us has our boundaries and "deal breakers"

I believe early on many of us allow impulsive connections and happenstance to dictate our relationship choices. Also what makes for an "ideal mate" at age 17 may not be the same traits one wants in a mate at age 25, 30, or beyond.

Very few people want someone who has absolutely nothing going for them self. Everyone has their own "list". For some it starts with physical attributes, for others it comes down to income/wealth and connections, fame, sense of humor, education/profession/status. Others prefer someone who has a similar background.

Having said that some people could care less about the "cost". In fact they are drawn to the "stray dogs" of the world. They enjoy taking on projects, feeling needed, and trying rescue people.