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Theories of Formation, Maintenance and Breakdown of Relationships Essay

The reward/ need satisfaction model (Byrne and Clore 1970) is a good example of how relationships are formed. It is based on the behavioural model which is influenced by both operant and classical conditioning where we form relationships due to direct or indirect rewards. These could be money, status, companionship, sex etc. However this theory is limited as it doesn’t take into account that participants in relationships are often concerned with equity.

For example Hays (1985) found that in student friendships that rewarding someone and being rewarded oneself were valued equally. Also, not all relationships can be explained by this model as it suggests that all relationships are one sided in reward giving and that people don’t do things unless they thought they’d get e reward. This doesn’t explain why relationships continue even when they become satisfactory. The reward/ need satisfaction model is likewise culturally bias; the theory is relevant to Western cultures. Many Collectivist cultures, usually in the East, show little concern for the receipt of reinforcement.

Maintenance of relationships can be explained through the Social Exchange Theory (Thibault and Kelley 1959). This is an economic theory which suggests that people maximise the possible rewards in a relationship whilst minimising their costs; specifically attraction. It also suggests that commitment to a relationship is dependent on profitability of the outcome – a cost-benefit ratio. It is the outcome of this which determines the attraction to one another. The theory also argues that if your partner has a ‘high cost’ then they have to counter balance that with lots of rewards.

A strength of this theory is that it helps to explain why marital dissatisfaction doesn’t necessarily predict divorce. However it fails to explain what can cause initially successful marriages to breakdown. It also suggests that all people are selfish and that they would walk out of a relationship that has become unrewarding. That however does not explain cases of domestic violence. This theory is again culturally bias; it is based on Western cultures so it assumes that people can pick and choose their partners. It doesn’t take into account arranged marriages.

Walster et al (1978), suggested the Equity theory in maintaining relationships. This theory suggests that relationships are maintained by a kind of economic balance to ensure equality between the two partners. This is achieved by matching the giving and receiving between the two partners. If there is an imbalance between them, then this is resolved by either adjusting the levels of giving and receiving, or comparing the relationships to somebody else’s to evaluate whether it is worth staying in the relationship or not.

A supporting study was conducted by Hatfield et al (1979), who found that the happiest newly-weds were those that perceived an equitable relationship; those that were over or under benefited had lower satisfaction. However, Hatfield also said that equity was more important for females than males. This theory however is culturally bias; it was researched in a Western society. In some cultures relationships aren’t assessed on their economic validity, so this theory cannot be generalised.

This theory also suffers from beta bias- there is no comparison between males and females, so it assumes that males and females have an identical attitude to relationships when they may actually look for different things in terms of relationship maintenance. Rollie and Duck (2006) have the most substantial model of relationship breakdown. It is a phase model that describes six stages of relationship breakdown. These start from the initial breakdown, intra -psychic process, dyadic process, social process, grace dressing process to the resurrection process; where at the end a person is supposed to redefine themselves and look for a new partner.

The breakdown process- one or both of the partners becomes unhappy with the relationship- ‘I can’t stand this anymore’. Intra-psychic- the individual begins to over exaggerate the irritating the other one does and focus on the bad times- ‘I’d be justified in leaving’. The dyadic process- the unhappy partner confronts the other one and they bargain and negotiate terms- ‘I mean it, I want to leave’. Social process- both partners tell their friends and family who take sides to either support the relationship or the breakup- ‘it’s now inevitable’.

The grave dressing process and resurrection process is where the relationship dies and decide what they want in future relationships- ‘time to get a new life’, ‘what I learned and how things will be different’. However this model doesn’t explain how couples stay together despite having misgivings about the relationship; as breakdown isn’t necessarily inevitable. The model also assumes that all relationships go through these specific stages which ignore individual differences; not all individuals discuss problems in their relationship.

Some people may ignore their problems or end the relationship there and then. This theory is culturally bias as some Eastern cultures frown upon divorce so a married couple would stay married and therefore be stuck at the social process perhaps and not get the chance to move on. A strength of this theory though is that it addresses both cognitive and behavioural aspects which include people’s feelings. This theory is also reductionist compared to the holistic view on relationship breakdown.

It ignores the fact that past experiences with relationships could have an impact on the stage of dissolution in relationships, or the prevention of the dissolution of a relationship. Although the theory does have good practical applications; if the reasons for relationship breakdown according to this theory are true, then confronting relationship issues with counselling, for example, to solve problems should be effective. Research into the area of relationship breakdown is considered as socially sensitive. Therefore great care must be taken when researching participants to avoid causing unnecessary distress.


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