There are two main theories applied to relationships, Social Exchange Theory and Equity Theory underpin commonly used behavioural therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Enhanced Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Integrative Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. More recent studies in neuroscience and behaviour and the importance of language have led to the development of Relational Frame Theory and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as an alternative approach. In this essay I will outline the relationship models comparing and contrasting them. I will also introduce and briefly touch on Relational Frame Theory and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as an additional approach to couples counselling and offer considerations which an integrative therapist might need to take into account when offering counselling to couples.
Social Exchange Theory explores interactions between two parties by examining the costs and beneﬁts to each. The theory proposed by Homans in 1958 is not exclusively applied to relationships as it also explores all social systems and considers the power balance within those systems. The key point of the theory is that it assumes the two parties are both giving and receiving items of value from each other. Under this theory, relationships are only likely to continue if both parties feel they are coming out of the exchange with more than they are giving up–that is, if there is a positive amount of benefit for both parties involved.
Homans’ work to define and understand society was based around the study of human behaviour in terms of cost and reward. This understanding of behaviour is recognised also in the work of Pavlow and Skinner. Homan later went on to apply his theory to relationships proposing in his Disruptive Justice hypothesis that as human beings we expect a relationship to be proportional and if the reward or reciprocity falls short of the cost we become dissatisfied and are more likely to end a relationship. However he also proposed that if one party perceives that the reward outweighs the cost provided but the other half of the relationship is content the relationship will be satisfactory. Homans (1958, P.606)
“Social behavior is an exchange of goods, material goods but also non-material ones, such as the symbols of approval or prestige. Persons that give much to others try to get much from them, and persons that get much from others are under pressure to give much to them. This process of influence tends to work out at equilibrium to a balance in the exchanges. For a person in an exchange, what he gives may be a cost to him, just as what he gets may be a reward, and his behavior changes less as the difference of the two, profit, tends to a maximum.” In relationships Homan proposed that the reward is more valuable to the individual if it reinforces our self esteem or provides social approval especially in areas of life where we feel insecure and we are drawn to a partner who provides this more than rewards or approval for things we already rate ourselves for.
In return we provide the same kind of strokes to our partner reinforcing and boosting their esteem in areas in which they feel most insecure. This is referred to as the principle of satiation. The costs in a fulfilling relationship can be divided into three categories: Investment costs- mental energy and emotional investment , Direct costs – time, financial and material investments and Opportunity costs- personal sacrifices to benefit the relationship. Because all behaviour is costly in that it requires an expenditure of energy on the part of the individual, only those behaviours that are rewarded or that produce the least cost tend to be repeated. Thus, social exchanges take on an air of consistency in that patterns of rewards often remain stable in social relationships. Thibault and Kelley in 1959 developed a 4 stage model of long term relationships based on Homans social exchange theory research. Thibault and Kelley applied two basic concepts to their work.
Firstly, that all human interaction is motivated by perceived rewards for the action and second relates to how that influences the nature of relationships. The four stages Sampling, Bargaining, Commitment and Institutionalisation describe how a relationship forms and settles. The theory is predominantly behaviourist and assumes that humans operate as rational beings making decisions based on costs and benefits and that their decision making is motivated by the desire to get basic individual needs met. The first stage in the model, Sampling, is exploring the costs and rewards of various interactions through a number of different friendships and relationships and observing various people in their relationships in order to discern what works and what doesn’t.
Psychologists interpret the social behaviour of adolescents and young people as they flit from one relationship/friendship to another as this sampling stage in action. Bargaining is the natural progression undertaken as a new relationship is under consideration. What’s in it for me? If I do/give this what will I get in return? At this stage attraction based around similar attitudes or constructs are explored with a view to establishing the viability of a possible relationship. Both parties might ask themselves ‘Is it going to be worthwhile investing in this?’ Commitment follows when the two parties know enough about each other to develop the ability to predict each others’ behaviour and therefore elicit reward/pleasure/satisfaction from each other. Institutionalisation is the final stage when the two parties know what to expect from each other and settle into established norms.
Equity Theory was developed from Social Exchange Theory by Walster in 1978. Elaine Hatfield worked closely with Walster and Ellen Berscheid in the seventies to understand the human concept of social justice. She says
According to Equity theory, people feel most comfortable when they are getting exactly what they deserve from their relationships—no more and certainly no less. Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology. Hatfield, E. & Rapson, R. L. Glyph International 2011.
She also says of her work with Walster and Bercheid
We believed that a concern with fairness was a cultural universal. We were convinced that during humankind’s long evolutionary heritage, a concern with social justice came to be writ in the mind’s “architecture” because such values possessed survival value. Such concerns were maintained, we thought, because behaving fairly continued to be a wise and profitable strategy in today’s world. Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology. Hatfield, E. & Rapson, R. L. Glyph International 2011.
It is recognised that throughout history, societies have had different visions as to what constitutes “social justice,” “fairness,” and “equity” and that these differences still influence perspectives on what social justice means to the individual and to different societies across the globe. Furthermore their ongoing research takes into consideration the current shifts within society towards gender equality and how this influences relationships. Equity Theory is essentially based around balance within a relationship and can be summarised by 4 key principles.
1.People will try to maximise reward and minimise unpleasant experience in a relationship 2.Rewards can be shared out in different ways and people will decide on what they agree to be a fair system 3.An unfair or inequitable relationship causes personal distress 4.A person in an inequitable relationship will attempt to restore balance and the degree to which the relationship is unfair the harder they will try to restore the balance.
Both theories are based around the assumption that relationships develop out of a fair exchange or trading of costs and rewards. Equity Theory although it takes into account societal changes is less concerned with society and is more concerned with individuals and how they perceive justice. The main difference between the two theories is that where Exchange Theory would propose that people would leave a relationship as it is if they felt they were in the advantaged position where rewards are concerned, Equity Theory suggests that the person would be driven to restore the equity within an unbalanced relationship by either reducing their input or increasing their outputs.
Exchange Theory is more concerned with under-benefit as a disadvantage but Equity Theory places a greater emphasis on both under-benefit and over-benefit. Under-benefits are likely to provoke a sense of anger and resentment and over-benefits are likely to provoke a sense of guilt. Either scenario can become unbearable to the party experiencing either anger or guilt resulting in them attempting to re-establish balance. If this does not appear to work, it is likely that the relationship will breakdown as an equilibrium has not been reached.
Both theories can be useful tools for a therapist in couples counselling in order to discern where a couple is at within their relationship and to help them move towards a state of balance or equity when it has been lost. They both provide the basis from which to look at the behaviour of each individual within a relationship, to consider how it might have changed and how levels of reciprocity have become distorted leading to the experience of over/under benefit and thus to create tools to realign the behaviour and expectations to help regain balance within the relationship as a whole.
There have however been some criticisms of early studies of relationships because they do not consider individual developmental changes which occur in life and which may alter the balance in a relationship or place adequate emphasis on the effects of outside factors which influence an individual’s thinking and consequent behaviour within a relationship, such a family expectations, early role modelling, messages received and fused with about the self from others such as parents. This can be particularly relevant in terms of negative thinking, pain avoidant behaviours, rule following and rigid thinking.
In terms of applying behaviour therapy to couples counselling the therapist will want to look at what interpretations a client is making about a situation and the beliefs they hold based on previous experience and how this then shapes their response or behaviour toward their partner. They will look at where the belief was formed through a process of where? When? Who? and What happened? questions in order to help reframe the past and detach it from the present thus helping the client’s view to change and become more rational in the current situation. In Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy a branch of CBT, using the ABC model, the theory distinguishes between rational and irrational beliefs and seeks to correct irrational beliefs which lead to self defeating behaviours.
‘People are not disturbed by things; rather they disturb themselves when they hold irrational beliefs about things. When they hold rational beliefs they respond healthily to things’ CBT tips for a fulfilling life Windy Dryden Hodder Education 2012
Studies of behaviour from the perspective of a Relational Frame Theory and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can be applied to understanding relationships issues and provide a slightly different perspective emphasising the nuances of language and how they affect function within a relationship and focussing on values and actions as a priority in terms of repairing harmony. RFT sees language and cognition as relational framing, an operant ability that develops through exposure to many kinds of verbal interactions .
‘The goal of integrative behavioural couples therapy is to ‘help couples shift the context, rather than just the content, of their interactions, embracing conflict as a part of relationships and working toward a greater understanding and acceptance of each other’ ACT & RFT in Relationships Dahl, Stewart, Martell & Caplan Context Press 2013
There are many similarities in this approach, for example applying RFT in the context of relationships considers how individuals derive expectations in relationships based on earlier experiences and from perspectives acquired in the past which lead to the generation of self rules and ideals of what the future ‘should’ look like and how a partner ‘should’ behave. The subtle difference lies in the 2 key elements of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, acceptance of psychological events and commitment to values. It offers the couple the opportunity to identify self defeating patterns of behaviour, encouraging clients to embrace the painful aspects of such negative thinking with self compassion and to accept that suffering and pain are intrinsic part of life and moreover relationship experience.
The therapist will help the clients to identify values in all domains of life, perhaps through the use of a Values Compass which identifies 10 separate domains, Work, Leisure, Caregiving, Family, Intimate Relations, Community Involvement, Spirituality, Education and Personal Development, Health and Social network. Clients will be encouraged to identify the reinforcing qualities which support each domain and to then rate how highly they are attending to each domain. This exercise can help couples see where there might be imbalances.
By associating each value with it’s reinforcing qualities the clients can see for themselves and for each other how balance in all domains is essential to maintain balance in their relationship or how a lack of balance might lead them to seek compensatory reinforcement from each other. By doing this exercise the individuals concerned can develop a greater understanding of their needs and how they can get their needs met. In understanding why some areas of their lives have been neglected and recognising the self defeating behaviours which lead to this imbalance they develop self compassion and then extend this to compassion and acceptance for each other. In this kind of therapy couples will learn to recognise and apply flexibility of thought and action, self compassion, compassion, acceptance, mindfulness, self –as –context and values and committed action increasing the potential for balance within themselves and thus enabling a more supporting relationship with each other.
Whatever approach a therapist takes there will be a recognition that the therapy will be more effective if it is holistic and integrative. The Chrysalis TIME model provides a sound basis from which to start all therapy. It is also essential for the therapist to consider the wider social implications and ethical issues surrounding relationships before proceeding with any kind of therapeutic intervention. Cultural differences, religious beliefs, geographic origins, social status, educational backgrounds and family history all influence how an individual perceives a successful relationship and set criteria and rules for that relationship and thus how they might expect therapy to help when things go wrong.
One key consideration in couples counselling which is more relevant in westernised society today is that many relationships are founded on love – or an idea of love, whereas historically marriage contracts were based on other factors such as status, financial security etc. For many people entering into a new relationship one of the driving factors are the feelings and emotions derived from the behaviour of the other person. This as the basis for a relationship is not without its’ problems since initial highly charged emotions and feelings wane as a relationship develops and matures and deeper connections are necessary for quality and longevity.
It is also essential that the therapist applies relevant learning of client centred counselling to ensure that the therapy is client led and balanced, so that neither party feels that the therapist is lacking a position of neutrality, whilst maintaining an empathic and understanding approach to both individuals. The skilled therapist will be aware of the power balance between the 2 parties through careful observation of body language and choice of language by the clients and active attunement. They will maintain an approach of acceptance and non judgement even though their clients may not and will not be drawn by one over the other or allow one to dominate the sessions. All parties must feel safe, demonstrate a willingness to engage in the process and have a clear idea of, ideally, a shared goal for the therapy. An ethical therapist will not see couples clients separately or set up couples counselling where they have previously counselled one party.