Login Blog Post Image
April 10, 2020

Should You Treat Your Relationship Like an Investment?

Social Exchange Theory

Unlike the evolutionary perspective and attachment theory, social exchange theory is mindfully focused on the present. It focuses on how people make decisions, make an investment in, and evaluate their relationships in the present moment. It was born in the 1960s after principles of sociology, anthropology and psychology were combined with psychologist B.F Skinner’s behaviorism which expands ideas on rewards and punishments leading to a broader movement in psychology and ultimately a description of social interactions in economic terms. According to social exchange theory everyone tries to get the most out of every social interaction by exchanging social goods such as information, status, and approval. It even predicts what people will do in social situations by specifically identifying how an investment in a relationship and behaviors will pay off and how people will feel about the outcomes of their actions. It predicts if an investment will be worth it. It is used to understand behaviors not only in administrations, jails, or hospitals but in intimate relationships. For example, relationship satisfaction can be seen as subjective to an individual in a particular relationship, but social exchange theory evaluates what a partner is receiving from into a relationship during a specific time. It then compares it to each investment a partner makes into a relationship during a specific time. Relationship stability is seen as the result of each partner’s decision to stay in a relationship and nourish it or end it. Through a social exchange lens, the negotiation of costs and rewards in a relationship determines how a relationship will grow and flourish or decay. A spotlight on how important and relevant social exchange theory is that Gary Becker, who researched costs and rewards which lead to marital decisions received a Nobel Peace Prize in economics.

Interdependence in Intimate Relationships

Two psychologists, John Thibaut and Harold Kelley were the first to introduce the defining feature of all relationships to be how interdependent partners are; how much one partners actions affect the other partner. Thus, they referred to their perspective on social exchange theory as interdependence theory as it focused on romantic relationships. They were most interested in the effects of interdependence and the rules which predict how interdependent partners will interact, and how the partners will assess the results of their actions. Social exchange theory’s fundamental assumption about intimate relationships is that people evaluate and make decisions about their relationships just like they evaluate and make economic decisions. They decide whether or not to make an investment in a relationship similar to how they decide to make an economic investment. This approach defines the ways a relationship fulfills the needs and desires of a partner as rewards and the elements of the relationship which prevent partners from fulfilling their needs or desires as costs. We, humans, seek to maximize rewards and minimize costs as much as possible and are usually pretty good at finding ways to do so in every situation.

Relationship Rewards

The potential rewards an intimate relationship may provide are often broken down into material rewards and social rewards. For example, a relationship may provide material rewards like food and protection and social rewards like emotional and psychological support through companionship, validation, and security. On the other hand, the potential costs of an intimate relationship include the exact opposite of potential rewards. For example, financial drain, emotional and psychological pain through frequent conflicts, trust issues, especially concerning jealousy, and even physical abuse. Even high-quality relationships involve costs. Intimate relationships require an investment of time and energy, leaving less time for pursuing other interests and often also costing each partner opportunities to explore alternative relationships. Costs like missing out on getting to know other attractive potential partners, job opportunities that would require relocating away from a partner, or even hobbies that a partner would disapprove of and request be discontinued are referred to as opportunity costs. Analyzing the pros and cons, the rewards and costs of an intimate relationship can be hard. Most relationships do not consist of only rewards or only costs, they have a combination of the two. For example, you might enjoy cuddling and being silly with your partner but extremely dislike the way they take too long in the shower or have a hard time adjusting your habits like not blasting music to avoid bothering them. Social exchange theory breaks this process down and clarifies it with the following formula:


Perhaps friends and family have asked you to determine whether you should stay in a relationship or not. However, standards for comparing how rewarding rewards or how costly costs in a relationship are do not exist. Most people would not pursue an intimate relationship if they predict it will make them miserable but there’s no way of knowing exactly what the rewards or costs of a relationship will be in advance. Outside of fairy tales, people have to rely on a combination of what their gut intuitively tells them about a relationship, their past experiences with intimacy, and external factors like guidance from friends and family to estimate how rewarding or costly a relationship will be. They have to decide whether or not the investment they are inclined to make will lead to satisfaction. Subjective probability is your guess of how rewarding or costly a relationship will most likely be. Keeping this in mind, perceived rewards or costs that are easily believable are more likely to influence subjective probability because a smaller reward that you are likely to receive is more appealing than a bigger reward that you will probably not receive. This is why instead of infatuating over a relationship with celebrities, people tend to turn towards their social circles and make an investment there when looking for intimate partners.

Relationship Satisfaction

Just because the rewards of a relationship outweigh the costs does not mean partners are satisfied enough to continue to make an investment in and remain in the relationship. Social exchange theory says satisfaction in a relationship is evaluated by a partner comparing the perceived outcomes of their relationship with a standard comparison level (CL); in other words, with what they think they deserve. Having positive experiences with intimate relationships is not enough, we seek to have the positive outcomes from intimate relationships exceed what we think we deserve. We want a return on our investment that is higher than what we invested. When a watermelon seed is planted, a watermelon is expected. If a watermelon seed is planted and a watermelon does not grow, the seed is then evaluated as an investment that did not pay off. When we do not experience a relationship that makes us happier than we think we deserve to be, even if it’s a positive relationship, chances are we will be dissatisfied. An equation to determine this is:

SATISFACTION = OUTCOME – Comparison Level (CL)

Keep in mind, this equation attempts to determine the satisfaction a relationship results in, which has subjective factors like a predicted outcome and a standard comparison level of what an individual believes they deserve. This is why different people reach drastically different conclusions about the same relationship. Different people will have various opinions about how to make an investment in the same relationship. Think of someone whose investment in a relationship is less than what they get out of a relationship. They are in an intimate relationship which appears to have more rewards than it does costs relationship but isn’t satisfied with it and complains about it all the time. Imagine this person has a highly intelligent, ambitious, friendly, caring, attractive partner which manages conflict constructively. Doesn’t that sound ideal? Their comparison level is so high that a relationship that others would be more than happy to have does not make them happy. Contrastingly, think of someone who is happy in a relationship that appears to have more costs than it does rewards. This person is making a great investment but the return they are receiving is not so great. Imagine this person has an inconsiderate, greedy, lazy, and rude partner. Their comparison level is so low that they don’t expect the negative outcomes of their relationship to be as negative as they really are.

Miss Independent?

Social exchange theory doesn’t just touch on how people feel about their intimate relationships or rate their intimate partners. It also examines how people behave in their relationships, specifically, whether they choose to continue to make an investment in or end a relationship. How satisfied a person is with their relationship is independent of whether or not they will stay in it. The way satisfaction is calculated depends on how partners assess their relationship. How much a person depends on a relationship is directly linked to the available alternatives to the relationship, including being alone. No one wants to feel caged in a relationship. Feeling too free to leave a relationship, however, is correlated with how committed partners will be to stay in a relationship and continue to make an investment in it. The way an individual perceives potential alternatives to a relationship is referred to as the comparison for alternatives (CLalt). For example, whether a young woman named Valentina has high or low standards for her current intimate relationship, and whether or not she is satisfied with the relationship, she is dependent on her current relationship to the extent that its outcomes are better than the outcomes available elsewhere.


Even if Valentina is in a happy relationship with Gianni, and to many outsiders, a relationship with a man like Gianni appears satisfying and worth maintaining, it might not be hard for her to leave the relationship. Let’s make this “Valentina” a famous actor and model. No matter how satisfying her relationship is or how positive the outcomes of the relationship could be, because of her high comparison level alternatives (CLalt) is she is aware that equally positive or more positive outcomes are available to her elsewhere since she has access to more alternatives than the average person does. This also decreases the chances she will be dependent on the relationship even though it may be extremely satisfying. People with exceptionally high comparison level alternatives (CLalt) like Brad Pitt often make decisions the general public does not understand. Brad Pitt’s exceptionally high comparison level alternatives (CLalt) can help us understand why shortly after divorcing Jennifer Aniston he began an intimate relationship with another gorgeous and talented actress, Angelina Jolie. The average person does not have the comparison level alternatives (CLalt) that a celebrity like Brad Pitt does which helps explain why people stay in unsatisfying and even toxic, abusive relationships.

Comparison Level Alternatives in Relationships

An important thing to understand is comparison level alternatives (CLalt) are not necessarily alternate relationships. Alternatives to an intimate relationship include all alternatives to being in that specific relationship, which includes the obstacles one would have to overcome like family members pushing for a relationship and even being single. Another powerful obstacle to overcome when wishing a relationship would end is finding secure income, as many partners rely on each other to maintain a household and ensure all bills get paid. Furthermore, the time, energy, and other resources that have been invested into a relationship often keep people in relationships that don’t make them happy simply because they don’t want to “lose” the resources they invested into the relationship. Relationships that involve children often push people to stay in the relationship even if it doesn’t make them happy because children, a shared home, and the time invested would possibly be lost or threatened. Barriers like these, which act as external forces keeping partners together and substantial investments in a relationship reduce the attractiveness of leaving a relationship. Thinking about relationships through the lens of the social exchange theory may appear to take the romance out of intimate relationships but the external forces keeping a relationship going, forcing two potentially people unhappy with their intimate relationship only become apparent once partners consider leaving the relationship. If Valentina and Gianni’s relationship is not satisfying them, they will think about how their relationship has few rewards and more costs, making ending the relationship a real possibility. In satisfying relationships, partners mostly focus on rewards like love and companionship as the reasons for why they stay together. If Valentina and Gianni’s relationship includes high attraction and is high in satisfaction, then they won’t focus on measuring every single investment they make and will pay less attention to alternatives to their relationship.

Relationship Commitment

Defining the difference between satisfaction and dependence breaks down the reasons why one might stay in an intimate relationship. Partners are satisfied and want to stay in it, or they are dependent and have to stay in it. Commitment, the intention to stay in and connected to a relationship is the sum of all internal and external factors which keep a relationship alive.


The more a relationship has positive outcomes, the more things in the relationship are fulfilling  and partners feel the love they are receiving exceeds their comparison level (CL) and those outcomes are better than the comparison level alternatives (CLalt) the higher the probability is that partners will be committed to their relationship.

Research on intimate relationships has been guided by the equations that social exchange theory shows to help explain how people behave in various relationships and how likely they will continue or end a relationship. There are many memes on the internet about partners that appear committed to a relationship holding their partner’s hand while looking at hot singles nearby. Census data has proven that partners with less perceived alternatives to their relationship are more likely to stay in the relationship. In the same manner, singles that live in neighborhoods containing a lot of eligible partners are more likely to marry and divorce while singles living in neighborhoods containing fewer eligible partners are less likely to get married and less likely to divorce if they are married. Science on intimate relationships no longer only inspects individual qualities in partners when a relationship ends, assuming that character flaws led to the relationship ending. Thanks to the social exchange theory, science on intimate relationships has now broadened its studies to also include external variables that may keep partners together or draw them apart.

Eyes Are Windows to the Soul

Interestingly, modern science often finds evidence to prove what our ancestors tried to teach us. Social exchange theory examines how committed partners behave in relationships when they are satisfied or dependent on their relationship. When partners are committed, it shows in their eyes and in their actions. While pupils dilating while looking at a significant other might not be widely accepted as evidence of love, the conscious decision to protect and maintain a relationship is more easily observed through actions. For example, partners in committed relationships are less likely to look at alternative partners the way they look at their significant other. When asked to rate the physical attractiveness of alternative partners, committed partners rate alternative partners lower than single people would rate those same people. Committed partners diminish the value of alternatives to their intimate relationship and are consequently more satisfied with their relationships. They also are more willing to make sacrifices for their partner and forgive their partner’s wrongdoings. Additionally, they are more likely to manage conflict constructively even when they feel dissatisfied with the relationship because they believe the relationship is worth more than leaving the relationship. Committed partners evaluate the costs of leaving their relationship as being worse than the costs of maintaining their relationship and the rewards of the investment they make in their relationship as being far better than the rewards of leaving the relationship. Happily committed partners take pride in each investment they make in their relationship because their goal is not to win arguments or to squeeze everything they can out of their partner, but to improve how they love their partner each and every single day.

Economics in Intimate Relationships

Social exchange theory does not take the beauty out of love or rename romance as a fair tradeoff. It provides a broad framework for addressing the various factors which affect whether a relationship will succeed and prevail or fail and end. It repackages psychological variables that can be subjective such as personal view of a significant other, feelings of love, alternatives to the relationship, cultural and social norms and standards, and even socioeconomic status by proposing a way to evaluate them as economic variables, which facilitates the age-old process of evaluating the pros and cons of a relationship to determine if an investment is worth it. It can be assumed that seeds for relationships are planted because both partners predict an investment will indeed be worth it. They both predict many rewards, few costs, and outcomes that are more appealing than their comparison levels (CL). Social exchange theory acknowledges that the opinions of a partner about their relationship can change over time possibly leading to a decline in relationship satisfaction when the anticipated rewards are less attractive or less obtainable and new costs are discovered. However, it does not address these questions or try to explain how an initially satisfying relationship becomes less satisfying. It focuses on how couples trying to figure out whether to continue to make an investment in or end a relationship can determine what is most rewarding for them and will lead to the most satisfaction.

Learn How to Improve Your Relationship!


Sign Up For Our Program!

You’ll get access to all of our online tools so you can learn new skills and start building a better relationship.

Start Now your coached program now: $150

© Copyright 2016 – 2020 | Our Relationship | All Rights Reserved | Privacy Policy
Website Design by Green Dot Advertising & Marketing