Relationships are nothing more than a means of gain

The idea put forward that we indulge in relationships as nothing more than a means of gaining rewards is based purely on an economic perspective. This concept tries to explain how couples regulate their relationships, conveying the idea that we maintain our relationships so long as we feel that we are gaining from it, whether it is in receiving or the fact that we find rewards in fulfilling our other halves needs. We can see that this theory neglects the notion of ‘love and first sight’, and takes a rather selfish outlook on human behaviour. Through research, it is event that there are many studies that both support and contradict this idea.

The social exchange theory which was first developed by Thibaut and Kelley (1959) suggests to us that we focus on the exchange of rewards and costs that occur between partners in on-going mating relationships. Although a number of social exchange theories exist, each with its own particular terminology and ‘take’ on the process of relationship development, they all share a few basic assumptions. The first assumption is that individuals seek to maximise their rewards and minimise their costs. Rewards and costs come in different forms, from concrete and tangible goods such as money, sex, children etc.

to abstract concepts such as love and emotional support. Homans (1971) argues that we run our relationships by keeping an eye on the exchange of rewards and costs. Whether we are satisfied depends on the ratio between costs and rewards which Homans referred to as the ‘outcome’. With this theory it is questionable whether we actually spend a considerable amount of time monitoring relationships in this manner. Argyle (1987) argues that people only really begin to count the costs and monitor relationships after they have become dissatisfied with them.

This takes into consideration actual human behaviour as oppose to viewing our actions as strategic market force ideologies. Duck and Sants (1983) also agree with this point and reject this theory, stating this is only applicable to a person with an individualist culture, ignoring social aspects of a relationship such as communication and shared events. Looking at the bases of the theory which relies on the concept of reward and loss; it is almost incalculable and so makes it difficult for us to measure our real outcome/profit.

As well as disregarding cultural differences it also ignores the fact that the same act completed by each partner can be of greater worth to one than it is to the other, further complicating the calculation of profit and loss. Thibaut and Kelly proposed we develop a comparison level (CL), a standard of which all our relationships are judged upon – this is supported by Bowlby’s internal working model. Our CL is a product of our experiences in other relationships together with general views of what we might expect from a particular exchange.

If we judge that the potential profit of a new relationship is higher than our CL, the relationship will be judged as worthwhile and the person is then deemed attractive within a romantic relationship. Another concept which is related is the comparison levels for alternatives, in which the person weighs up potential increases in rewards from a different partner against any costs associated with ending their current relationships. Simpson et al (1990) study supports the idea of CL. He asked participants to rate the opposite sex in terms of attractiveness; those in relationships gave lower ratings.

This may because their current partner meets or exceeds their CL and so therefore does not find it necessary to look elsewhere. However Social Exchange theory does not, on the other hand explain why some people leave a relationship though having no alternative, nor does it suggest how great the disparity in CL has to be for it to become unsatisfactory. In support of this theory it is able to generalise its proposals to all kinds of relationships including friendships, work colleagues, family etc. This suggests a more ample theory and therefore may be more credible against other theories.

Some argue that this theory does not account for individual or gender differences- in my opinion is does, because it does not claim a monopoly of the truth of what profit and loss is, therefore leaving it as a subjective concept which can be perceived and defined as desired by each individual. Finally, social exchange theory has been criticised for ignoring an essential component of relationships: fairness in exchange rather than seeking a profit. Equity theory was developed to extend the social exchange theory and takes this into account.

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