Social exchange theory is a concept that has gained significant attention in the field of marriage and relationships. It provides valuable insights into understanding the dynamics of interactions between partners and the factors that influence their decision-making processes. In this article, we will explore what social exchange theory is and how it applies to marriage.

Understanding Social Exchange Theory

Social exchange theory posits that individuals engage in relationships based on a cost-benefit analysis. According to this theory, people are motivated to maximize rewards and minimize costs in their relationships. Rewards can include emotional support, companionship, and fulfillment of needs, while costs can be time, effort, and compromises.

Key Concepts:

1. Comparison Level (CL)

The comparison level represents an individual’s expectations for what they believe they deserve or what they think they can attain in a relationship.

It is influenced by past experiences and societal norms. If a person’s actual experiences exceed their comparison level, they perceive the relationship as satisfying.

2. Comparison Level for Alternatives (CLalt)

The comparison level for alternatives refers to an individual’s assessment of the potential benefits available outside their current relationship. If someone believes they can find more rewarding alternatives elsewhere, they may be less satisfied with their current partnership.

Application to Marriage

Social exchange theory provides insights into various aspects of marriage:

Rewards and Costs


In a satisfying marriage, partners aim for equity, where the rewards and costs are balanced. This means that both individuals feel they are putting in similar effort and receive similar benefits from the relationship.

Decision-Making Processes

Social exchange theory suggests that individuals engage in a constant evaluation of their relationship. They assess whether the rewards outweigh the costs and compare their relationship to potential alternatives. These evaluations influence decisions such as staying committed or seeking alternatives.

Implications for Marriage Counseling

Understanding social exchange theory can be beneficial for marriage counselors:


Counselors can use social exchange theory to assess the perceptions of rewards and costs within a marriage. This helps identify areas of dissatisfaction and areas where improvements can be made.


Counselors can work with couples to enhance the rewards in their marriage, reduce costs, and increase overall satisfaction. They may also help couples re-evaluate their comparison levels and explore alternative ways of meeting their needs within the relationship.

In conclusion, social exchange theory offers valuable insights into understanding marital dynamics. By applying this theory, individuals and professionals can gain a better understanding of the factors that influence satisfaction and decision-making processes in marriages. Remember, a successful marriage involves ongoing assessments, open communication, and efforts to maximize rewards while minimizing costs.