Theories of Relationships: Equity Theory and Social Exchange Theory


In this essay, we will delve into two prominent theories of relationships, namely Equity Theory and Social Exchange Theory, and explore their implications for therapists engaged in couples counseling. These theories provide valuable insights into the dynamics of interpersonal relationships, shedding light on how individuals perceive and navigate their connections with others. By examining both the similarities and differences between these theories, we can gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of human relationships.

Equity Theory: Understanding Fairness in Relationships

Equity Theory, as advanced by Elaine Hatfield and her colleagues in their seminal work "Equity: Theory and Research" (Walster, Walster, and Berscheid, 1978), focuses on the concept of fairness within relationships.

This theory posits that individuals strive for fairness and equity in their interactions with others, including intimate relationships.

The Four Propositions of Equity Theory

Equity Theory is built upon four interlocking propositions:

  1. Individuals seek to maximize their outcomes, where outcomes are defined as rewards minus costs.
  2. Groups develop accepted systems for equitably distributing resources among members, aiming to maximize collective rewards.
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    These systems are meant to be adhered to by group members.

  3. Groups tend to reward members who treat others equitably while punishing those who act inequitably.
  4. Individuals experiencing inequity in their relationships feel distress and seek to restore equity, with greater levels of inequity leading to heightened distress and stronger efforts to rectify the imbalance.

At the core of Equity Theory is the assumption that individuals are primarily self-interested and motivated to maximize their personal gains within relationships. This theory has been the subject of scrutiny by some researchers who argue that close relationships should not be solely based on individual calculations of costs and rewards, as such an approach may disregard the mutual concern for each other's welfare and needs.

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Dealing with Challenges to Equity Theory

Challenges to Equity Theory are addressed in several ways:

  • Recognizing variations in "exchange orientation," with some individuals constantly monitoring the equity in their relationships while others pay little attention to it.
  • Considering relational-level outcomes, such as mutuality and shared benefits, as essential components of relationship satisfaction.
  • Exploring the importance of self-interest in relationships by measuring exchange orientation and its impact on relationship quality.

Studies by Susan Sprecher (1998) suggest that different motivations for keeping track of costs and benefits in a relationship can have varying effects on relationship quality. Those who monitor inputs and outputs to prevent under-benefit may be less satisfied, while those ensuring they do not over-benefit tend to report greater satisfaction.

Additionally, relational-level outcomes, such as mutuality and sharing, can play a crucial role in determining relationship satisfaction. In some relationships, partners may see themselves as a unit, with benefits for one partner equally benefiting the other. Such relationships prioritize the collective welfare over individual gains.

Perceived Inequity and Relationship Outcomes

Perceived inequity in relationships can lead to negative outcomes, including reduced sexual intimacy, lower sexual satisfaction, decreased commitment, and overall unhappiness. When individuals perceive their contributions and rewards as unfair, it can strain the relationship and even lead to its dissolution (Sprecher, 1995).

Restoring Equity in Relationships

Equity Theory suggests that individuals in inequitable relationships seek to restore equity to alleviate their distress. This restoration can take two forms:

  1. Restoring actual equity by rebalancing contributions and rewards.
  2. Restoring psychological equity, where individuals perceive equity even when it does not exist.

Therapists can use Equity Theory principles in couples counseling to help clients recognize and address inequities in their relationships. It is crucial to shift the focus from material gains to the value of the relationship itself.

Social Exchange Theory: Analyzing Costs and Benefits

Social Exchange Theory, initially conceived by Homans (1961) and further developed by Thibaut and Kelly (1959), is another essential framework for understanding relationships. This theory views interpersonal interactions as exchanges of costs and benefits, akin to economic transactions.

Costs and Rewards in Social Exchange Theory

Social Exchange Theory revolves around the concepts of costs and rewards within relationships. Costs represent the undesirable aspects of a relationship, while rewards encompass the positive aspects that motivate individuals to remain in a relationship.

For example, a person may perceive their partner's bad habits as a cost, while their partner's kindness, sensitivity, loyalty, and support are viewed as rewards. The balance between costs and rewards influences an individual's satisfaction with the relationship.

Comparing Rewards to Alternatives

Social Exchange Theory emphasizes the comparison of rewards received within a current relationship to perceived alternatives. Individuals assess whether the rewards they receive outweigh those offered by potential alternative partners or relationship statuses.

It's important to note that complete equality in the exchange of positives and negatives is not always necessary for relationship satisfaction. Instead, a balance that each person finds acceptable is the key. People constantly evaluate their relationships based on the perceived fairness of the exchange.

Role of Therapists in Couples Counseling

Couples counseling can benefit significantly from the principles of Social Exchange Theory. Therapists can help clients analyze their behaviors, both positive and negative, within the context of their relationships.

By assessing the costs and rewards experienced by each partner, therapists can identify areas for improvement and guide clients in achieving a more balanced and satisfying exchange. Additionally, therapists can facilitate discussions about perceived alternatives and help couples explore ways to enhance their relationship's rewards and reduce its costs.


Equity Theory and Social Exchange Theory offer valuable frameworks for understanding the intricacies of human relationships. While Equity Theory emphasizes the pursuit of fairness and equity within relationships, Social Exchange Theory focuses on the exchange of costs and rewards as determinants of relationship satisfaction.

In couples counseling, therapists can draw from both theories to help clients navigate their relationships effectively. By addressing issues of equity, perceived inequity, costs, rewards, and alternatives, therapists can guide couples toward healthier and more satisfying relationships.

Understanding these theories not only enhances the practice of couples counseling but also deepens our comprehension of the complex dynamics that shape human connections. As therapists continue to refine their approaches, these theories serve as valuable tools for fostering stronger and more fulfilling relationships.

Updated: Nov 08, 2023
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Theories of Relationships: Equity Theory and Social Exchange Theory. (2017, Feb 08). Retrieved from

Theories of Relationships: Equity Theory and Social Exchange Theory essay
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