Theories of romantic relationships - Relationships

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Theories of romantic relationships


Social exchange theory sees relationship maintenance based on maximisation of profits and minimisation of costs. Individuals perceive feelings for others in terms of profit (the rewards obtained from relationships minus the costs). Rewards are assessed through the comparison level, by assessing rewards against costs for an existing relationship, and the comparison level for alternative relationships, by assessing rewards and costs for possible alternative relationships. Relationships continue if rewards exceed costs and the profit level is not exceeded by possible alternative relationships. Equity theory sees individuals motivated to achieve fairness in relationships, with maintenance occurring through balance and stability. Inequity, where individuals put in more or less than they receive, leads to motivation to make adjustments to return to equity. Rusbult’s investment model is composed of 3 factors of relationship: commitment, satisfaction level, concerning the degree to which partners meet each other’s needs, and investment size, concerning the amount and importance of resources associated with a relationship. Duck’s phase model sees relationship breakup occurring in four stages: intrapsychic, where a partner becomes dissatisfied, dyadic, where the dissatisfaction is discussed between partners, social, where the dissatisfaction becomes publicly acknowledged, and grave dressing, where a post-relationship view of the breakup is established that protects self-esteem and rebuilds towards new relationships.


Fig 9.3 Equity theory sees relationship maintenance occurring through balance and stability

Focal study

Yum et al. (2009) investigated whether equity theory predicts heterosexual relationship maintenance behaviours in six different cultures: the USA, Spain, Japan, South Korea, the Czech Republic and China. As predicted by equity theory, maintenance strategies differed, with individuals in perceived equitable relationships engaging in most maintenance strategies, followed by those in perceived over-benefited and under-benefited relationships. Over the entire sample most people who perceived being equitably treated within their relationship reported greater use of maintenance strategies than those who perceived not being equitably treated. Therefore cultural factors had little effect, suggesting that equity theory can be applied to relationships across cultures.


• Rusbult (1983) got participants to complete questionnaires over a 7-month period concerning rewards and costs associated with relationships. She found that social exchange theory did not explain the early ’honeymoon’ phase of a relationship when balance of exchanges was ignored. However, later on, relationship costs were compared with the degree of personal satisfaction, suggesting that the theory is best applied to the maintenance of rather than the formation of relationships.

• Rusbult et al. (1998) gave the Investment Model Scale (IMS) questionnaire to student participants in relationships, to find that commitment in relationships was positively correlated with satisfaction level, negatively correlated with the quality of alternatives and positively correlated with investment size, supporting all 3 factors of Rusbult’s investment model of commitment.

• Hatfield et al. (1984) reported that when an individual experiences initial dissatisfaction with a relationship they are burdened by resentment and feelings of being ’under benefited’, which leads to social withdrawal so that the individual can consider their position, therefore supporting the notion of an intrapsychic phase within Duck’s phase model of relationship breakdown.

Positive evaluation

Image Social exchange theory applies to those who ’keep score’. Murstein (1977) devised the exchange orientation tool, which identified such individuals as suspicious and insecure, suggesting the theory applies to those lacking confidence and mutual trust.

Image Equity theory especially applies to females, as women often do most of the work to make relationships equitable.

Image Research indicates that Rusbult’s model, with its focus on commitment and what individuals have invested, is a better predictor of long-term maintenance in relationships than social exchange or equity theory.

Image Duck’s phase theory has face validity as it is an account of relationship breakdown that most people can relate to from their own and/or others’ experiences.

Negative evaluation

Image Fromm (1962) argues against social exchange theory, defining true love as characterised by unselfish giving, rather than ’marketing’ where individuals expect favours returned.

Image Mills & Clark (1982) believe equity cannot be assessed in relationships, as most input is unquantifiably emotional and to attempt to do so diminishes the quality of love.

Image Support for Rusbult’s investment model is over-reliant on self-report measures that are prone to socially desirable and idealised answers, as well as researcher bias.

Image Duck’s four phases are not universal — they do not apply to all breakups, nor do they always occur in a set order.

Practical application

Relationship counselling is based on research into theories of romantic relationships. Sex therapy, workshops and mediation between dissatisfied partners are all based on proven psychology. This even stretches to advice on separation and divorce, including counselling for children of such relationships.