Relationship Maintenance: Social Exchange and Equity

Equity or fairness is a key character strengths in positive psychology. Equity Theory is also a classic theory of romantic relationships, which you can read more about in this article from the Sexology Department of Humboldt University. It may have some useful insights to your relationship especially if you’re feeling that something isn’t quite right.
Underwater Romance 2In the early stages of a relationship you looked forward with excitement to seeing them. You associated them with a good time. Do you still have these associations?

Perhaps you have found that your relationship has changed over time. Perhaps it has got too intense or boring, you worry your relationship is going nowhere. You may even wonder if you are ‘falling out’ of love.

The issues for a couple when they are first dating may be very different to those of a couple who have been together for many years.

Maybe your partner has changed or maybe you have changed? Perhaps your circumstances have changed such as one of you needs to work away from home more. Perhaps a rival for your affections has appeared on the scene.

Some questions to ask yourself

Are you getting your needs met? Is your relationship rewarding? What do you feel you are getting out of your relationship?

  • Attention
  • Affection
  • The experience of falling in love
  • Novelty and excitement
  • Support
  • Someone to confide in who won’t gossip about you behind your back
  • Faithfulness

What do you find rewarding about your relationship? Perhaps it’s as simple as your partner’s smile that often cheers you up.

Do you value the ways that your partner helps you in your day to life? How much do you depend on them? Perhaps you enjoy helping them and fulfilling their needs. But perhaps they are domineering and aggressive. Maybe your whole identity tied up with them?

How much do you feel that you are putting into your relationship?

  • Do you find it draining coping with their immaturity, emotional instability or aggressive behaviour?
  • Do you find it difficult to deal with conflict about housework or finances especially if you are living on a tight budget?
  • Do your partners family interfere too much.
  • Are you are just sick of their distasteful personal habits like biting their toenails!?

And what have you given up for the sake of the relationship? What opportunities have you forgone? Perhaps you could have had more time for other friends?

Balancing your costs and benefits

Social Exchange Theory a forerunner of Equity Theory asks, how do these costs and benefits match up? Perhaps your previous experiences have shaped your expectations. It may be tempting to compare this with alternatives. Would you be better off out of the relationship or with someone else?

It might be a bit contrived but one technique you could try is making your own list of costs and benefits, rate them in terms of importance and how much you actually give and get of each. This way you might be able to get some idea of how much you are putting in and how much you are getting out.

Do you perceive that you are putting in a lot and not getting much out? If so you may feel hard-done-by. But what if you perceive that you are putting little in and getting a lot out? Does this mean that you are very satisfied with your relationship?

Or as Equity Theory says, do you feel guilty for getting so much out of the relationship when you are putting so little in? Perhaps you would be more satisfied with a more equitable balance?

Do you try to get the most out of a relationship and minimize the costs or at least minimize the negative side of your relationship? Remember being over-benefited may also lead to being dissatisfied. Women tend to be more likely to feel under-benefited and more likely to feel guilty if over benefited than men do.

What if your relationship is out of balance?

Do you end your relationship?

Feeling hard-done-by or guilty may be a motivation to end your relationship. It may be tempting to attribute blame or to look for another partner or to have an affair. Or to finish your relationship before your partner does. At times like this you may tend to become withdrawn and perhaps even depressed as you re-evaluate the relationship.

Or do you communicate for change?

Alternatively you could work decide to work on the relationship as a couple by talking to each other to negotiating and redressing the balance.

If you feel a need to increase what you get out of a relationship then you could talk to your partner and discuss how to achieve this together. Or if you feel you are putting too much in then discuss ways of reducing this. Perhaps your partner needs to pull their weight in doing more chores around the house.

As you discuss issues and see things from each others viewpoints it might be your perception of the situation that changes.

It may be that you need to involve others in the process. This may be a professional relationship counsellor or coach or just members of your support network that you go to for support and advice to help you understand each other or to help you negotiate change.


If it had never crossed your mind that your relationship was out of balance before you did this exercise then please feel free to ignore most of this. Often we sacrifice at least some of our own rewards for our partner because we do not see our relationship in terms of exchange but in terms of one of love – both emotionally and altruistically.

It may be that many people have a strong long term relationship and these things are not issues. Some people just don’t keep score like this and even returning favours to some may appear insulting and ungrateful.

But some clear assertive communication about your relationship where you actively express your needs can be very helpful as long as it is kept positive and constructive and you respond enthusiastically when your partner’s needs are met too.

Related Posts

Clarisse Thorn’s Positive Approach to the Dating Game
How to be Assertive

Further Reading

Equity Theory and Intimate Relationships by Walster et al (1978) – reproduced with permission by the Sexology Department of Humboldt University Berlin

Barbara Ehrenreich Exposes the Myth of Positive Thinking

Ehrenreich is a critic of positivity

Author and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich describes herself as a myth buster. In her book, published as Smile or Die in the UK and Bright Sided in the States, she ruthlessly criticises the positive thinking movement and from what I can see she does have a point. But I think it is unfair to lump in positive psychology with the ideas that she is criticising.

I agree that a positive attitude can be helpful in some circumstances but not when it is just delusional preventing you seeing dangers. This is why the authentic strand of positive psychology is so important.

As Barbara Ehrenreich points out, we can see positive thinking gone mad in the financial meltdown a few years ago. Of course we should be encouraging and I believe in hope and optimism but I must agree they do need to be doused in a good helping of caution and realism.

Poor people are not lazy

In 2002 Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book Nickel and Dimed about her experiment of surviving for three months on the minimum wage working in a number of different jobs across America.

She showed that contrary to a lot of people’s opinions those living like this don’t do so because they are lazy and need to take some personal responsibility.

It is good to encourage people who want to steps to get jobs or start in business but I agree that it is cruel to suggest that hard work and a positive attitude will automatically result in success.

Don’t feel guilty for not being happy

In a recent article in the Independent Tim Lott commented that we have followed the American way of thinking that we have a moral duty to be happy.

However there appears to be an inverse relationship between being happy and being intelligent and having an accurate view of the world. His point is that we should not be made to feel guilty for being unhappy. Reciting platitudes such as cheer up and look on the bright side can be really unhelpful when people are going through it. It is important to allow them to be upset even if our desire is that they will get over it in the long term.

Lott refers to Barbara Ehrenreich as a counterblast against American positive thinking – the idea that every disaster or set back is an opportunity for moving on.

Undue pressure to think positively is unhelpful

A couple of years ago Ehrenreich’s own story of her experience with breast cancer appeared in the Guardian. There she tells of how she was transformed from an optimistic person to one who was outraged by the positive thinking culture that she met as a result of her illness.

She later found similar advice being given to those who had been made redundant “Exhortations to think positively – to see the glass half full, even when it lies shattered on the floor – are not restricted to the pink ribbon culture.” she wrote.

These ideas are also found in money management, she explains, where exhortations that a positive attitude will attract money appear to encourage you to start spending that money now.

Positivity doesn’t automatically make everything better

Positive attitude is beneficial to a cancer patient but the research shows that it does not always extend patients lives.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s concern is it can lead to the denial of understandably feelings of anger and fear. Also if the positive thinking fails and if the cancer spreads the patient who has been taught that they must be positive may then blame themselves for not being positive enough.

She sees her encounter with breast cancer as an agonising revelation of an aspect of American culture that encourages us to deny reality and ultimately blame ourselves for our fate.

However there is still a place for positivity

Positivity does have a place but it also has dangers as Barbara Ehrenreich outlines. But I don’t think it is fair to dismiss positive psychology because of the dangers of positive thinking.

In fact I would see that positive psychology largely takes these criticism into account. In fact it is because of this overemphasis of the positive at the expense of being honest with ourselves and others that I have called this blog Authentically Positive.

As a cautious optimist, I believe that as well as being generally positive we need to be true to ourselves and to others.

My Google A to Z of Positive Psychology

A quick way to research what people are searching for on the internet is to use Google’s predictive feature. You start typing a word and Google with give you a few suggestions based on popular searches. By typing a word followed by each letter of the alphabet it is easy to collate an A to Z of that topic by just picking one of the four words or phrases that Google gives you.
I’ve just done this with positive psychology.

googling positive psychology

A is for an introduction
B is for books. Buy positive psychology from and
C is for coaching
D is for definition: What is Positive Psychology?
E is for exercises
F is for flow
G is for gratitude
H is for happiness – as in Authentic Happiness
I is for interventions
J is for journal
K is for kindness
L is for leadership
M is for Martin Seligman
N is for news as in Positive Psychology News Daily
O is for optimism
P is for PERMA – Positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishmant or achievement
Q is for quotes
R is for resilience
S is for Shawn Achor
T is for theory
U is for University East London – where you can do a do an MSc in Applied Positive Psychology
V is for virtues as in Seligman’s Character Strengths and Virtues
W is for weight loss as in the Happiness Diet
X is for XKCD a web comic satirising science takes on positive psychology with this cartoon on Positive Attitude and optimism
Y is for YouTube – where you’ll find plenty of videos on Positive Psychology such as this
Z is for Zeitgeist