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Discuss and evaluate the formation of romantic relationships

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Describe and evaluate two or more theories for the formation of romantic relationships (8+16 marks)

The similarity theory by Byrne et al 1986 explains the formation of relationships. The essence of this view is that similarity promotes liking. Firstly, you will sort potential partners for dissimilarity, avoiding people who you perceive as a different personality type and attitudes to yourself. Then you chose someone who is most similar to yourself from the remaining. Couples with similar attitudes tend to have longer relationships and the theory states that attitude alignment will take place where on person changes their attitudes to fit in with the other, forming the relationship. This model emphasises similarity of attitude and personality. For example, if two people are serious and hardworking they are more likely to be attracted to eachother than a serious hardworking person and someone whose main interests are having fun and avoiding responsibility. The more similar we are in these terms, the more likely we are to form and maintain a romantic relationship; this makes it easier for communication, potentially less arguing in the relationship and the relationship will be more rewarding. Hill’s longitudinal study supports the similarity theory by looking at 231 couples over a 2 year period and finding that out of the 128 surviving couples, they tended to be most similar in age, IQ, educational and career plans and physical attractiveness. In addition to this, couples that broke up during the 2 years, recorded that their differences played a role in the breakdown of their relationship.
However, it is difficult to assess the accuracy of the questionnaires as the information given is retrospective and therefore excuses may be made for the breakups, and furthermore, as the study is based on the sensitive area of relationship breakdowns, social desirability effect may significantly influence their answers, attempting to be viewed in the best light hence causing the study to lack experimental validity. Byrne used an artificial situation and questionnaire and found that participants rated people higher on a Likert scale (1-5) and were more likely to say they would like to meet the person if they were similar to them, with A (same attitude and personality) scoring highest, and B (complete opposite) scoring the lowest. This supports the theory as participants demonstrated interest in those similar to them for the basis of a romantic relationship, filtering through those who were dissimilar.

However the similarity theory is too limited, because similarity may only be important in the early stages of a relationship. Kerchoff and Davis’ Filter model backs this up by saying there are three filters; the social/demographic filter, the similarity of attitudes and the complimentary of needs are important long term. Kerchoff and Davis further supported this theory using a longitudinal study from university couples who had either been in in a relationship for under or over 18 months. The questionnaire evidence suggested if the relationship is under 18 months similarity is the most important factor but over 18 months complementarity is most important.

A criticism of the similarity theory is not everyone forms a relationship based on similar attitudes and personality. There are many cases of people who are complete opposites of eachother, but form a relationship. For example many older men may look for younger, attractive women to form a relationship with. This supports the evolutionary theory which is an alternative approach to the similarity theory. Aron et al suggests that the brain reward system associated with romantic love most probably evolved to drive our ancestors to focus their courtship energy on specific individuals. Buss found support for this in that men have a distinct preference for younger women, a finding consistent with the theory of sexual selection because the younger the women, the greater the fertility.

Another theory explaining the formation of romantic relationships is the reward/need satisfaction theory by Byrne and Clore which takes on the behaviourist approach, using the principles of classical conditioning (learning by assosciation) and operant conditioning (learning by consequences.) This theory states that it is possible to learn a new association between a stimulus and an emotion thus creating a conditioned emotional response, eg you hope the sight of your new partner would elicit positive emotions. The reinforcement component is the distribution of reward or pleasure which in turn increases the probability of the behavior being repeated through reinforcement of self esteem, sexual behavior or dependency. The affect component is the emotion or feeling. This tells us we are attracted to people that we want to form a relationship with if they are rewarding or reinforcing us to make us feel good. May and Hamilton support this theory by finding that females rated photos of male strangers more attractive when listening to rock music, which is meant to produce a more positive effect than when listening to avant-garde classical music which is meant to produce a negative effect. However this is a subjective study because what kind of music each individual prefers varies.
Although this is not relatable to real life couples because they are only rating attractiveness, Cunningham found that if male participants watched a happy movie they interacted more positively with a female confederate and disclosed more information than those who had watched a sad movie. This supports the role of positive reinforcement in the formation of relationships as it suggests an increase in communicative abilities which may in turn lead to a romantic relationship.
Cate et al provided evidence to support the importance of rewards in maintaining a romantic relationship. She asked 337 individuals to assess their current relationships in terms of reward level and satisfaction. Results showed that reward level was superior to all other factors in determining relationship satisfaction.
Another limitation is that it may be culturally biased. Lott suggests that in many cultures women are more focused on the needs of others rather than receiving rewards. The theory also implies that we are self centered and only form relationships that give us pleasure; this may not be the case in collectivist cultures. For example in countries with arranged marriages, the formation of relationships is to benefit the family rather than the individual like in the typical western individualist cultures.
Moreover, the theory is somewhat reductionist, reducing a complex concept of forming a relationship in terms of reinforcement, yet other aspects such as similarity and physical attraction must play some role.

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