AQA A-Level Psychology Topics - Relationships
Another post in our series of blogs on Psychology A-level topics, today we consider what happens during relationships.
Psychologists Thibault and Kelley (1959) proposed the Social Exchange Theory, which stipulates that one motivation to stay in a romantic relationship, and a large factor in its development, is the result of a cost-benefit analysis that people perform, either consciously or unconsciously.
In a relationship people gain rewards (such as attention from their partner, sex, gifts and a boost to their self-esteem) and incur costs (paying money for gifts, compromise on how to spend their time or stress). There is also an opportunity cost in relationships, as time spent with a partner that does not develop into a lasting relationship could have been spent with another partner with better long-term prospects.
How much value is placed on each cost and benefit is subjective and determined by the individual. For example, whilst some people may want to spend as much time as possible with their partner in the early stages of the relationship and see this time together as a reward of the relationship, others may value their space and see extended periods spent together as more of a necessary investment to keep the other person happy.
Thibault and Kelley also identified a number of different stages of a relationship that progress from the sampling stage, where couples experiment with the potential costs and rewards of a relationship through direct or indirect interactions, through the bargaining and commitment stages as negotiations of each partner’s role in the relationship occur and the rewards and costs are established and become more predictable, and finally arriving at the institutionalisation stage, where the couple aresettled and the norms of the relationship are heavily embedded.
Equity theory builds upon the assumption of Social Exchange Theory that romantic relationships can be viewed as economic models (loss, risk, benefits etc.), but factors in people’s desire for equality in relationships. If one partner is benefiting from more profit (benefits-costs) than the other, then both partners are likely to feel unsatisfied.
Walster et al. (1978) makes the distinction between an uneven level of rewards or costs between partners which may be balanced out over time or be perceived to have different values (perhaps one partner receives less rewards, but also suffers fewer costs from the relationship; they may not help with as much of the housework but treat their partner more for their effort) and the imbalance of profit, where one partner suffers from greater costs but does not receive a higher benefit for their trouble. They are under-benefiting whilst their partner over-benefits, which is likely to make both people feel uncomfortable.
What may be more damaging than initial inequity, which can be identified and dealt with (or perceived as normal) at the beginning of a relationship, is a change in equity over time. One partner may lose interest in the relationship or what is initially perceived as fair (perhaps one partner “chasing” the other) may be viewed as unfair if it continues to develop.
A partner who feels that they are receiving less profit in an inequitable relationship may respond by either working hard to make the relationship more equitable, or by shifting their own perception of rewards and costs to justify the relationship continuing.
Rusbult et al.’s (2011) model of commitment in a romantic relationship builds on the Social Exchange Theory discussed above and proposes that three factors contribute to the level of commitment in a relationship.
Satisfaction and Comparison with Alternatives are the first two factors. They are the extent to which a partner feels a relationship is worthwhile for them when comparing other possible relationships and their investment against the rewards offered by the pairing.
The third factor is an addition to the model, investment size, which explains why relationships do not all breakdown when the CL or CLalt are low.
Investment in relationships can be measured as a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic investments which have been made over the course of the relationship. Intrinsic investments are those which have been added by a single partner such as money towards a date or a gift, time spent with the person and any self-disclosures which have been made.
Extrinsic investments are those which have been created or developed over the course of the relationship that are shared by both partners, such as large purchases (a house or car) or even children.
Rusbult’s model proposes that commitment occurs when the CL (comparison level; the value of the outcomes one expects from their social interactions, according tointerdependency theory) and CLalt (The comparison level for alternatives; the average, overall outcome an individual expects from an alternative relationship or lifestyle) are high and the investment level is high.
We can observe this in a relationship through relationship maintenance mechanisms, or behaviours that only couples who are committed to a relationship will exhibit. These include behaviours such as forgiveness, willingness to sacrifice, and being overly positive about their partner.
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