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Study Notes

Relationships: Equity Theory

AS, A-Level

Last updated 8 Apr 2018

Unlike Social Exchange Theory that argues how people try to maximise rewards and minimise costs in relationships, Equity Theory suggests that partners are concerned about fairness in relationships. Fairness is achieved when people feel they get approximately what they deserve from relationships.

Equity Theory of Romantic Relationships Explained

Equity theory proposes the winning formula of fairness in relationships: one partner’s benefits minus their costs, should equal another partner’s benefits minus their costs.

If one partner perceives a relationship as unfair, they are going to be dissatisfied with it regardless of whether they are over-benefitting or under-benefitting. According to the Equity Theory, a person who gets more benefits out of relationships than they put in will feel guilt and shame, and those who think they put a lot in but get very little back will be angry and resentful. The longer this feeling of unfairness (lack of equity) goes on, the more likely a  couple is to break up.

Equity doesn’t mean equality, though. It is not about the number of rewards and costs, but rather about the balance between them; if a person puts a lot into a relationship and receives a lot, it will feel fair to them.

Moreover, perception of equity changes over time. For example, it is perfectly normal for many people to put in more than they receive at the beginning of a relationship, but if it carries on like that for too long, it will lead to dissatisfaction.

Finally, a partner’s way of dealing with inequity also changes with time. What seemed unfair in the beginning may become a norm as relationships progress, or the partner who gives more may start working even harder on the relationship until the balance is restored.

Research Examining Equity Theory of Romantic Relationships

The importance of equity in relationships is supported by research findings. Utne et al. (1984) used self-report scales to measure equity and satisfaction in recently married couples. The 118 participants were aged between 16 and 45, and had been together for 2 years or more before marrying. The study found that partners who rated their relationships as more equitable were also more satisfied with them.

Another study, conducted by Stafford and Canary (2006), also found similar trends. In their study over 200 married couples completed questionnaires on relationship equity and satisfaction. In addition, participants were asked questions about the ways they maintained their relationships, such as by dividing chores, communicating positively and showing affection for one another. They found that partners who perceived their relationships as fair and balanced, followed by spouses who over-benefitted from the relationships, experienced the most satisfaction. Those who under-benefitted showed lowest levels of satisfaction.

There is some supporting evidence from animal studies as well. For example, Brosnan and de Waal (2003), in their study of capuchin monkeys, found that they if monkeys were denied their reward (a bunch of grapes) for playing a game, they became very angry. This suggests that the importance of equity in relationships has ancient origins.

Evaluation of Equity Theory of Romantic Relationships

A strength of Equity Theory is that it is supported by research findings. For example, Stafford and Canary (2006) have discovered that partners who perceived their relationships as fair and balanced experienced most satisfaction, thus supporting Equity Theory’s suggestion that perceived fairness is necessary for happy relationships.

However, there is research that contradicts Equity Theory. For example, Berg and McQuinn (1986), conducted a longitudinal study on 38 dating couples. They didn’t find any increase in equity over time, but discovered that a high level of self-disclosure and perceived equity in the beginning of the relationships was a strong predictor that a couple would stay in their relationship, and low equity in the beginning was a reliable predictor of a break-up. In other words, it seems that perceived fairness is either present or not in relationships  from the start, and does not develop with time, contrary  to the prediction of Equity Theory. These findings oppose the central claim of the theory, and contradict the idea that equity increases over time, after the initiation of a romantic relationship.

As with many other explanations of romantic relationships, there may be a cause and effect problem with Equity Theory. Some researchers suggest that dissatisfaction may be the cause, not the consequence, of perceived inequity. However, Van Yperen and Buunk (1990) studied married couples and found that dissatisfaction in inequitable relationships increased with time, not the other way around. Furthermore, there are also some important individual differences in perception of equity. There are people who are less sensitive to inequity and are prepared to give more in the relationships (benevolents, according to Hussman et al., 1987). Other people, entitleds, believe they deserve to over-benefit from relationships and don’t feel too guilty about this.

Issues and Debates: Equity Theory of Romantic Relationships

There are important gender differences in perception of relationship fairness that Equity Theory ignores. Researchers such as Sprecher (1992) found that women tend to be more disturbed when under-benefitting from relationships, and feel more guilt when over-benefitting, while DeMaris et al. (1998) suggest that women are more focused on relationships, and so are more sensitive to injustices. These results indicate clear gender differences between males and females and highlight the importance of conducting research into males and females separately, to avoid gender bias. However, this may then result in an alpha bias and exaggerate differences between males and females that do not actually exist.

Equity Theory, like other theories within the relationships topic, proposes a universal theory of romantic relationships that suggests that people are content in their relationship if the benefits equal the costs. However, Mills & Clarke (1982) argue that it is not possible to assess equity in terms of loving relationships, as a lot of the input is emotional and unquantifiable. Consequently, it may be better to study romantic relationships using an idiographic approach which focuses on the qualitative experiences of individuals, rather than employing a nomothetic approach to generate universal laws for human relationships.

There are also important cultural differences not accounted for by the Equity theory. Studies such as Aumer-Ryan et al. (2006) show that the concept of equity is more important in Western cultures than non-Western cultures. They found that both men and women from non-Western (collectivist) cultures claimed to be most satisfied with their relationships when they were over-benefitting from it, not when the relationships were fair. These results highlight a culture bias in this area of research and suggest that Equity Theory does not explain the development of romantic relationships in all cultures. 

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