The Social Exchange Theory in Relationships

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Social exchange theory proposes that social behavior is the result of an exchange process. The purpose of this exchange is to maximize benefits and minimize costs. According to this theory, developed by sociologist George Homans, people weigh the potential benefits and risks of social relationships. When the risks outweigh the rewards, people will terminate or abandon that relationship.

Most relationships are made up of a certain amount of give-and-take, but this does not mean that they are always equal. Social exchange suggests that it is the valuing of the ​benefits and costs of each relationship that determine whether or not we choose to continue a social association.

Costs vs. Benefits

Costs involve things that you see as negatives such as having to put money, time, and effort into a relationship. For example, if you have a friend that always has to borrow money from you, then this would be seen as a high cost.

The benefits are things that you get out of the relationship such as fun, friendship, companionship, and social support. Your friend might be a bit of a freeloader, but bring a lot of fun and excitement to your life. As you are determining the value of the friendship, you might decide that the benefits outweigh the potential costs.

Social exchange theory suggests that we essentially take the benefits and subtract the costs in order to determine how much a relationship is worth. Positive relationships are those in which the benefits outweigh the costs while negative relationships occur when the costs are greater than the benefits.

Expectations and Comparison Levels

Cost-benefit analysis plays a major role in the social exchange process, but so do expectations. As people weigh benefits against the costs, they do so by establishing a comparison level that is often influenced by past experiences. If you have always had poor friendships, your comparison levels at the start of a relationship will be lower than a person who has always had supportive and caring friends.

For example, if your previous romantic partner showered you with displays of affection, your comparison level for your next relationship is going to be quite high when it comes to affection. If your next romantic partner tends to be more reserved and less emotional, that person might not measure up to your expectations.

Evaluating the Alternatives

Another aspect of the social exchange process involves looking at the possible alternatives. After analyzing the costs and benefits and contrasting these against your comparison levels, you might start to look at possible alternatives.

The relationship might not measure up to your comparison levels, but as you survey the potential alternatives, you might determine that the relationship is still better than anything else that is available. As a result, you might go back and reassess the relationship in terms of what may now be a somewhat lower comparison level.

The Honeymoon Phase

The length of a friendship or romance can also play a role in the social exchange process. During the early weeks or months of a relationship, often referred to as the "honeymoon phase," people are more likely to ignore the social exchange balance. Things that would normally be viewed as high cost are dismissed, ignored, or minimized, while potential benefits are often exaggerated.

When this honeymoon period finally comes to an end, there will often be a gradual evaluation of the exchange balance. Downsides will become more apparent and benefits will start to be seen more realistically. This recalibration of the exchange balance might also lead to the termination of the relationship if the balance is tipped too far toward the negative side.

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  • Cook KS, Cheshire C, Rice ERW, Nakagawa S. Social Exchange Theory. In: DeLamater J, Ward A, eds. Handbook of Social Psychology. Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research. Springer, 2013.​

  • Homans GC. Social Behavior. Harcourt Brace and World; 1961.