The Social Exchange Theory and Romantic 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' of 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 the 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. Meaning 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).
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 was low. For couples with a low CLA, they had a higher level of commitment and satisfaction. These findings support the CLA as a factor influencing relationship success.
An advantage of this theory its 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.
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.
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