Ever wonder why people stay in relationships or decide to leave? Social exchange theory might give you some answers.

Consider this scenario: You’ve had your eye on an expensive jacket and decide that the jacket’s usefulness will outweigh the stress of spending so much money. You add it to your shopping cart.

Social exchange theory uses similar logic to describe interpersonal relationships and why we choose to continue some and end others.

Social exchange theory, also simply called exchange theory, was first developed in the 1950s and 60s by American sociologists George C. Homans and Peter Blau.

It’s a sociological concept that examines the success and failure of relationships through psychological and even economic principles, like maximizing profit and minimizing costs.

In 1976 one early researcher of social exchange theory referred to it as the “economic analysis of noneconomic social situations.”

Exchange theory basically says that your behavior is the result of a cost-benefit analysis. If you believe that a behavior will yield greater rewards than risks, you’re likely to do it.

Social exchange theory is often used to help explain why some relationships end and others persist. It can be applied to all sorts of interpersonal relationships, like those between significant others, a professional and their client, or parents and children.

The assumptions of social exchange theory suggest that relationships continue when the benefits outweigh the costs for both individuals.

In the case of romantic partnerships, benefits and costs can be both material and immaterial.

Material benefits and costs might include:

  • financial advantage
  • gifts
  • sex
  • time

Immaterial benefits and costs might include:

  • love
  • support
  • companionship
  • shame
  • unhappiness
  • jealousy

The extent to which you’re willing to give more than you can take often changes throughout a relationship, as do the qualities you care the most about in a partner.

The role of expectation

One part of social exchange theory is the fact that an assessment of costs and benefits will vary from person to person. What may be a significant cost for you might not matter that much for someone else.

For example, if you’ve only had affectionate, loving partners in the past, your expectation of similar behavior in future relationships is likely higher than someone who’s had only cold or distant partners.

If you expect lots of love and attention, social exchange theory says that you’ll weigh those qualities more heavily in any future relationship.

Considering alternatives

Relationships don’t exist in a bubble. That’s why the possibility of alternatives plays a role in social exchange theory.

Remember that expensive jacket from before? If you shop around at other stores and realize you can get a better one for less money, you’re much more likely to abandon the original.

Similarly, even if you’re in a positive relationship, you might choose to look for another if you believe that there are better fish in the sea.

Social exchange theory relationship examples

  1. You have a friend who frequently blows you off to hang out with other people. But the enjoyment and support you get out of the friendship outweighs the cost of being blown off, so you keep them as a friend.
  2. You and your significant other have a positive relationship, but you live across the country. You decide that the financial and emotional costs of long distance are higher than the reward of the partnership, so you choose to break up.
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We can use social exchange theory not only to describe behavior but also as a guide for maintaining successful relationships. You might consider:

  • Practicing mindfulness. You may want to figure out what it is that you need from the other person and reflect on whether you’re receiving it. Then try communicating openly about those needs.
  • Remembering that equity is important. Both partners are weighing the costs and benefits. You’ll benefit from taking your own needs and those of your partner into consideration. Research from 2016 shows that both individuals are more likely to be satisfied in an equitable relationship.
  • Not sacrificing too much. According to a 2021 research review, studies show that even if you intend to make your friend or partner happy, sacrificing your own goals or desires can have harmful effects on both you and the relationship overall.

The social structure called exchange theory emphasizes the role of cost-benefit analyses in the maintenance of human relationships.

Keep in mind that this doesn’t have to mean writing out a list of pros and cons or even consciously thinking about the rewards or punishments that come with a relationship.

The theory suggests that it’s part of our nature to do these subconscious calculations when figuring out who we want to keep as friends or partners — or which jackets to buy.