In this essay I aim to describe two theories (Equity Theory and Social exchange theory) of relationships and to consider how they might influence the therapist engaged in couples counseling, noting their similarities and differences. Equity theory is a theory about fairness. Its application to close relationships has been primarily advanced by Elaine Hatfield (previously known as Elaine Walster) and her colleagues in the book Equity: Theory and Research (Walster, Walster, and Berscheid 1978).
The book outlines four interlocking propositions of equity theory and discusses the application of equity theory to different types of relationships, including intimate ones.
The propositions are:
Equity theory rests on the assumption that people are self-interested and will try to maximize their personal gains. It has sometimes been questioned by researchers who believe that the nature of close relationships differs from other types of relationships.
They argue that close relationships should not be based on individual calculations of costs and rewards and a self-interested focus on maintaining relationships solely for the personal profit they may provide. Instead, they argue that relationships should be based on a mutual concern for each others’ welfare or needs (Clark and Chrisman 1994; Clark and Mills 1979).
Three primary ways of dealing with challenges to this assumption exist. One is to consider that individuals may vary in “exchange orientation” or the importance they give to monitoring equity in their relationships (Murstein, Cerreto, and Mac-Donald 1977). For example, some individuals may be high in exchange orientation, constantly keeping track of how much they and their partners put into or get out of a relationship. Other individuals may be low in exchange orientation, not paying attention to inputs, outputs, costs, and rewards of their relationships at all.
Measuring exchange orientation may be a way of measuring self-interest in relationships. Research by Susan Sprecher (1998) has supported this notion. Her findings suggest that different motivations for “keeping score” of costs and benefits in a relationship have different effects on relationship quality. People who keep track of inputs and outputs to make sure they are not under benefited by the relationship seem to be less satisfied by their relationship whereas people who keep track of inputs and outputs to make sure they are not over-benefited by the relationship seem to be more satisfied by it.
Another way to account for differences in philosophies regarding self-interest in relationships is to include relational-level outcomes such as mutuality, sharing, and respect as types of benefits that individuals can receive from relationships. Relational partners may see themselves as a unit, with both of them maximally benefiting from the relationship. In this type of relationship, where identities of the individual partners have merged, what benefits one partner will also benefit the other.
Relational-level outcomes have not regularly been considered in equity research, although similar concepts arise during discussions of entitlement processes (Desmarais and Lerner 1994) and fairness rules (Clark and Chrisman 1994) in close relationships. Equity in a relationship may be seen as its own reward. This idea is suggested by proposition 2 that attempts to account for the development of rules, or norms, that limit self-interest behavior. If individuals were to continually strive for the most resources, anarchy and violence would dominate society as each member tried to gain more.
However, proposition 2 asserts that societies, groups, and couples will develop rules that foster fairness to each member in order to prevent such a condition. People who follow the rules of fairness will be rewarded, and people who do not will be punished. Thus, behaving equitably becomes a means to maximize one’s outcomes, and fairness, more so than self-interest, becomes the norm. Proposition 3 that focus on the outcomes of inequitable relationships by asserting that individuals in inequitable relationships will become distressed.
Researchers exploring the area of equitable outcomes in marital relationships often measure outcomes through reports or observations of behaviors rather than perceptions. This is because individuals’ perceptions of their relationships can become skewed through gender-based valuing of relational inputs, because an incongruence often exists between perception of one’s behavior and the actual behavior itself, and because people in low-power positions often feel entitled to less that leads them to perceive an unfair situation as fair.
According to this, people do still report perceived inequity in their relationships, and it has been associated with negative outcomes, including less sexual intimacy, less sexual satisfaction, less commitment to the relationship, decreased happiness and satisfaction with the relationship, and relationship breakup (Sprecher 1995). And proposition 4 states people involved in inequitable relationships will try to restore equity.
Hatfield (Walster) and her colleagues (1978) provide two ways that a person can restore equity to a relationship: by restoring actual equity or by restoring psychological equity (the perception that equity actually exists when it does not). Researchers who use behavior to measure relational equity instead of perceptions may do so because they believe partners in an inequitable relationship do not see the inequity. This assumption is congruent with the concept of restoring psychological equity.
Understanding the concept of fairness is essential to understanding equity theory. Elaine Hatfield (Walster) and her colleagues (Walster, Walster, and Berscheid 1978) argue that fairness rules are culturally bound, indicating that generally one of three rules of fairness can apply: proportionality, equality, or need. Rules based upon proportionality mean that individuals receive “equal relative gains from the relationship”. In other words, each person should get out of the relationship gains that are in proportion to what they have put into the relationship.
The equality rule, on the other hand, means that regardless of how much each person has put into the relationship, they should each reap equal rewards. Finally, the need-based rule indicates that need should be the determining factor in what partners get from a relationship, regardless of their individual contributions to it. Social exchange theory has always been an important component of cognitive-behavioral treatment for families. Most empirically based couple therapies have their foundations in behavioral couple therapy, which focuses on directly changing behavior by maximizing positive changes and minimizing positive exchanges.
This concept particularly important in as much as most unhappy couples report higher daily frequencies of negative events than of positive events (Johnson & O’Leary, 1996). Social exchange theory centers on the costs and benefits associated with relationships. It emphasizes that there is technically a downside to particular social conditions, such as being married or single, and there are moments when a downside may predominate in the mind of an individual, causing him or her to view the social condition with regret. Social exchange theory was first conceived by Homens (1961) and later elaborated on by Thibaut and Kelly (1959).
Thibaut and Kelly applied the concept of social exchange to the dynamics of intimate relationships, in which they identified patterns of interdepency. Social exchange theory is based on economic theories and views couple interaction through the lens of the exchange of costs and rewards. Simply stated, costs are reasons why a relationship would be considered undesirable, whereas rewards pertain to reasons that partners would remain in a relationship. If we think about our own spousal relationships, we may discover many costs and rewards.
Some costs may be our spouse’s bad habits, such as excessive spending of money or his or her temperament. However, these costs may be strongly outweighed by the rewards, which may consist of the spouse’s kindness, sensitivity, and his or her constant loyalty and support. It is balance of costs and rewards that often helps couples to determine whether or not they are satisfied in a relationship. A main concept of social exchange theory is the tendency of individuals to compare the rewards they are receiving with the perceived alternatives.
Equity theory is related to social exchange theory, given their unifying basic premise that outcomes should be evaluated in a relative sense within some frame of reference. Equity theory focuses upon outcome evaluations that result from relationships characterized by economic productivity objectives. Equity theory postulates that parties in exchange relationships compare their ratios of exchange inputs to outcomes. Inequity is said to exist when the perceived inputs and /or outcomes in an exchange relationship are psychologically inconsistent with the perceived inputs and/or outcomes of the referent.
Since parties sometimes need to evaluate each other before engaging in an exchange, role expectations play a crucial role in determining the equity level of a potential exchange relationship. Each party to the exchange has certain expectations about their own role as well as that of the other party. According to role theory, each exchange partner has learned a set of behaviors that is appropriate in an exchange context – this will increase the probability of goal attainment by each partner.
Role stress can affect long-term relationships if role expectations are unclear or if actual behaviors deviate from expectations. Believed inequities lead exchange parties to feel under-rewarded or over-rewarded, angry, or resentful, and will affect behaviors in subsequent periods by encouraging these parties to change their inputs into the relationship, and thus result in suspicion and mistrust of the exchange partner. The closer the exchange relationship, the more likely it is that relationship participants will perceive inequity.
If equity prevails, the ratio of inequity, the ratio of one person’s outcomes to inputs is assumed to be constant across exchange partners, which results in the satisfaction of exchange partners with their outcomes. Equitable outcomes stimulate confidence that parties do not take the advantage of each other and those them are concerned about each others’ welfare. Parties in a relationship can compare their own ratio to that of their exchange partner, to those of others who interact with their exchange partner at the same level, and to that of their best alternative exchange partner.
The social exchange theory is useful for couples counseling; it focuses on what each partner gives and receives from the other. It allows for therapist and clients to analyze their positive and negative behaviors which need to be changed. Members of relationship need not achieve total equality in the ratios of positives and negatives they exchange in order to be happy. The key is to find a balance of exchange over time that each person finds acceptable. Equity theory is based on couples counseling as everything in a relationship has to be equal otherwise it is gone be lots of problems in a relationship.
Therapist can use it in a couples counseling. The members of the relationship who discover the inequity in their relationship feels distressed and it makes harder to restore the equity in their relationship. Therapist can get members of relationship to focus on the value of their relationship than the more material things they are getting from it. Also different motivations have different effects on relationship quality. So it would be another thing for therapist to look at during the couples counseling session.
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