Social Exchange Theory is a sociological and economic theory that explains how individuals make decisions in relationships based on the costs and benefits they receive. This theory can be applied to various forms of relationships, including marriage.

What is Social Exchange Theory?

Social Exchange Theory suggests that people are rational beings who make decisions by weighing the costs and benefits of their actions. This theory argues that individuals engage in relationships that provide them with positive outcomes, such as pleasure, companionship, or support, while avoiding negative outcomes, such as pain, stress, or loneliness.

According to this theory, people constantly evaluate their relationships and make decisions based on the rewards they receive compared to the costs they incur. These rewards and costs can be tangible or intangible and may vary depending on the individual’s perception.

How Does Social Exchange Theory Apply to Marriage?

Marriage is a complex social institution that involves various factors such as love, commitment, shared values, and social norms. However, Social Exchange Theory suggests that individuals also consider the costs and benefits of being married when deciding whether to enter or stay in a marriage.

When two individuals decide to get married, they are essentially entering into a social exchange relationship. Each partner expects certain benefits from the other person while also providing benefits in return. For example, one partner may expect emotional support while providing financial stability.

However, these expectations can change over time as both partners encounter different life stages or situations. If one partner feels like they are not receiving their fair share of rewards compared to the costs they incur in the marriage (e.g., emotional labor), they may become dissatisfied with the relationship and consider leaving it.

The Role of Equity

Equity refers to the idea that people seek fairness in their relationships. According to Social Exchange Theory, individuals are more likely to remain committed to a relationship if they perceive it as fair. In other words, if both partners feel like they are receiving similar rewards relative to their contributions, they are more likely to stay in the marriage.

However, if one partner feels like they are giving more than they are receiving, they may feel resentful and less committed to the relationship. This can lead to a breakdown in communication, decreased intimacy, and ultimately, the dissolution of the marriage.

The Importance of Communication

Communication is a vital component of any marriage. In Social Exchange Theory terms, communication allows partners to negotiate their expectations and discuss any inequities that may arise over time.

Effective communication can help couples identify areas where one partner needs more support or where there is an imbalance in rewards. By discussing these issues openly and honestly, couples can work together to find solutions that benefit both partners and strengthen their bond.


Social Exchange Theory provides a useful framework for understanding how individuals make decisions in relationships based on the costs and benefits they receive. In marriage, this theory suggests that partners weigh the rewards and costs of being married when making decisions about their relationship.

Equity plays a crucial role in maintaining a healthy marriage, as partners seek fairness in their relationship. Effective communication is also essential for identifying any inequities that may arise over time and working together to find solutions.

By understanding Social Exchange Theory’s application in marriage, couples can develop healthier relationships built on mutual trust, respect, and shared values.