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Forming a relationship may seem relatively easy; however maintaining the relationship will be harder to do. Psychologists have come up with various theories to try and explain how to maintain a relationship alongside to the factors that cause the breakdown of it. One theory that explains the breakdown of romantic relationships is the ‘Social Exchange Theory’ (SET). The theory states that relationships are based on a series of costs and rewards. It considers costs to an individual in a relationship, e.g. time, betrayal and jealousy. These are all costs in a relationship because you need to give up time to be with your partner in order for the relationship to progress. At some point inevitably you will be betrayed or will be jealous for some reason.

The theory argues that individuals in a relationship will unconsciously try to calculate the ratio of these costs and rewards. This therefore gathers that this ratio and the satisfaction of the individual is dependent on the outcome, and without a doubt, will determine the nature of the relationship. It is natural that people will try to maximise rewards, for example the feeling of love and trust, from their relationship but minimise costs, as we are all selfish when it comes it rewards. It follows that if there is an unbalance between the costs and rewards then there will be an element of disappointment of one of the partners which will lead to the breakdown of the relationship. The SET claims that people are selfish and will try to minimise the costs. It’s evident that in order for a relationship to develop the rewards must not be outweighed by the costs.

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As with any other theory, the SET has some criticisms. The theoretical propositions with the theory are consistent with each other. It offers a plausible explanation for the maintenance of relationships because it helps us understand that if an individual is too selfish and maximises the rewards too much, then their partner will become unhappy which will lead to the breakdown of the relationship. Due to this, the theory could potentially generate new hypotheses and therefore expand the range of knowledge on this topic. Psychologists could begin to find out which costs or rewards are more involved in the maintenance of relationships.

The SET is a humanistic theory as it has intuitive credibility as it makes sense so you can relate to it and apply it to other situations. Due to this it helps us understand the costs and rewards of relationships. Furthermore it aids us to predict how to keep and sustain relationships. People will be able to calculate this ratio of costs and rewards, so if an individual realises that they are maximising the rewards and minimising the costs, then they will willingly make a balance in order to maintain their relationship.

The theory assumes that we spend a lot of time monitoring costs and rewards. Argyle (1987) argued that people do this once they are dissatisfied with them and not before. This could be because at the beginning at the relationship individuals tend to be ‘blinded’, for example a particular personality trait may seem very attractive. However as the relationship progresses they start to become annoyed at this trait which is when they start calculating this ratio.

Moreover, the SET views all people as being self-centred and selfish. It ignores individual differences because there is evidence that suggest that some individuals gain pleasure from giving as well as receiving. Some people will be gain happiness through costs. For example, one partner may like satisfying their partner by maybe giving them a gift or other small things. This is a cost for that person; however, because they see how happy their partner has become, the costs become a reward for them to.

The SET is challenged by the Equity Theory (ET). Although it is an extension of the SET as it considers the costs and rewards, it suggests that people expect relationships to be fair and equal. The theory predicts that a couple will only be happy if one partner’s rewards and costs are equal to the others. Therefore, both the male and female will only be happy if they both put in the same amount of effort into the relationship, which will result in the same benefits.

If this balance is unequal, maybe because one partner puts in more effort than the other, then it could lead to the relationship being referred to as ‘inequitable’. This causes the ‘loser’ to feel dissatisfied and the ‘winner’ to feel guilty. The both partners will feel motivated to restore the dynamics of the relationship once ‘inequity’ is experienced. However, if this continues then it is inevitable that the relationship will eventually breakdown.

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