Social Exchange Theory explains how relationships are formed and maintained. According to this theory, there is one simple formula that determines a relationship’s worth and whether or not the relationship will last.
It all comes down to this:
Worth = Reward – Cost
How much a relationship is worth to you is based on both the reward and the cost. The rewards are the positive aspects a relationship brings you, like how often someone makes you laugh, how close you are, how much fun you have together, your similarities, etc. The costs are everything that you sacrifice to be in the relationship, for example your partner’s stubbornness, or the fact that (s)he’s lazy, his annoying parents or his big nose. Whatever it is, as long as the rewards are higher than the costs, the relationship is worth it to you and you are likely to stay in it.
But that’s not all. If it really were that simple, then we would all be in happy, healthy, rewarding relationships, but that’s not always the case. There are lots of people who are in dysfunctional, even abusive or violent relationships. So there’s more to this simple formula; two more dimensions actually. The first is your:
This is where it gets interesting. A comparison level is a subjective standard that you have of what you expect a relationship to be in terms of the rewards and the costs. This is influenced by a number of things, such as your previous relationships, the opinions of those close to you such as your friends and family and popular culture.
For example, if you’re young and have never had a relationship you may think that what you see on Instagram is real life. So, you may watch fit couples smile at each other while flaunting their abs in the sun on a tropical island and think that that’s the way a relationship should be. No matter how (un-)realistic it is, that’s your comparison level and that’s part of what will determine how satisfying your future relationships will be. If your present relationship lives up to or surpasses your comparison level, this means you are happy in your relationship.
That still doesn’t explain why people have unstable, unhealthy relationships. Most of us have a high comparison level and want a caring, loving relationship. So why do some people stay in a relationship that’s not so loving? This is where the second aspect comes in:
Comparison Level for Alternatives
This is basically the lowest standard a person is willing to accept when looking at the alternatives. Plainly speaking, this is a measure for stability, not satisfaction. It means that although your comparison level may be high, your comparison level for alternatives can be really low. Perhaps you feel like the alternative would be to be alone, and that may feel even worse to you than your current relationship. In that case, the fear of being alone may be greater than your fear of staying in the relationship. Or you don’t believe you’ll ever find someone else. No matter what it is, if the alternatives aren’t looking so good, chances are you’ll stay where you are.
Your current relationship status
So your comparison level (CL), your comparison level for alternatives (CLAlt) and the current value of your relationship determine the current state of your relationship. If you put this into a formula, this is what a satisfying, stable relationship looks like:
Outcome > CL > CLAlt
Simply put, this means that the outcome of your relationship (how you feel about your relationship) should be greater than your comparison level and that should be greater than your comparison level for alternatives. You can also switch the CL and CLAlt; that would still suggest a satisfying and stable relationship.
In contrast, this formula suggest the opposite:
CL > CLAlt > Outcome
This formula portrays an unsatisfying and unstable relationship. Basically it posits that if your comparison level (what you believe a relationship should be like) is greater than the comparison level for alternatives and that, in turn, is greater than the outcome of your relationship, then you will be unhappy. This means that if you feel the alternatives (being alone, being with someone else) are better than the actual worth of your relationship, your relationship is likely going to dissolve.
Social Exchange Theory
If you want to know more about this, just research Social Exchange Theory; one of the most interesting theories of relationships. The formulas in this blogposts are based on that theory and although it’s quite economical and rational, it does make a lot of sense. Of course there are many more factors that come into play when it comes to initiating and maintaining relationships, but in essence I do believe it can be as simple as this: the overall worth of a relationship is determined based on the rewards it gives you minus the costs, and this is determined by our views of what a relationship should be and an estimation of the alternatives. It makes perfect sense. Relationships should have more good days than bad, more laughter than tears and more closeness than separateness. The rest will work itself out – right?