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

May 30, 2013Permalink Leave a comment

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