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: 1. Individuals will try to maximize their outcomes (where outcomes equal rewards minus costs). 2a. Groups can maximize collective reward by evolving accepted systems for equitably apportioning resources among members. Thus, groups will evolve such systems of equity, and will attempt to induce members to accept and adhere to these systems. 2b. Groups will generally reward members who treat others equitably, and generally punish (increase the costs for) members who treat others inequitably. 3. When individuals find themselves participating in inequitable relationships, they become distressed. The more inequitable the relationship, the more distressed the individuals feel. 4. Individuals who discover they are in an inequitable relationship attempt to eliminate their distress by restoring equity. The greater the inequity that exists, the more distress they feel, and the harder they try to restore equity.
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,...
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