Interpersonal Relationships: Definition & Theories

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  • 0:41 Uncertainty Reductions Theory
  • 1:49 Social Exchange Theory
  • 2:49 Dialectal Theory
  • 3:29 Attachment Theory
  • 4:10 Equity Theory
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Jade Mazarin

Jade is a board certified Christian counselor with an MA in Marriage and Family Therapy, and a certification in Natural Health. She is also a freelance writer on emotional health and spirituality.

Expert Contributor
Jennifer Levitas

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

To be human is to be involved in interpersonal relationships. In this lesson, we will define interpersonal relationships and discuss the various theories that explain how we create and maintain them.

Social Connections

Interpersonal relationships are social connections with others. They can be brief or enduring. We experience a variety of interpersonal relationships on a daily basis with family, friends, significant others and people at our workplace. While every relationship is unique, there are some common themes that influence the health and continuation of all relationships.

Several theories have been developed to explain how relationships are entered into and maintained, but they all are based on the idea that we are looking for specific things in a connection with others. Let's take a look at some of those theories.

Uncertainty Reductions Theory

The uncertainty reductions theory is the idea that we try to reduce uncertainty about others by learning about them. When we know more about someone, we can then predict their behavior more easily.

For example, when you first meet a classmate, you don't know yet if they could become a good friend. When you go on your first date, you probably don't know if you could have a lasting relationship with this person. Because there is so much you don't know about them, you have to reduce the uncertainty by getting to know them better. That's what the uncertainty reductions theory is about.

This theory posits that two strangers go through several stages in order to start forming a bond and decide whether they want it to continue. The stages include:

  • The entry stage, in which they get to know about each other's family, education and background
  • The personal stage, which involves sharing attitudes and beliefs, and where both people consider if they are really compatible
  • The exit stage, where the two individuals (now in some sort of relationship) either decide to keep moving forward or go their separate ways

Social Exchange Theory

Ever think to yourself, 'What am I getting from this relationship?' or 'I feel like I am giving more than I am getting'?

These are the kinds of thoughts that sociologists consider when talking about social exchange theory. This theory states that individuals continually assess whether a relationship is giving them more or at least as much as they are putting into it. Specifically, it compares cost to reward. It is similar to economic theories, which focus on the exchange of goods and intake versus output. Only when the rewards of the relationship are equal to or more than the cost does the person feel it's worth it.

Since this is a relational theory, many of the goods exchanged are emotional. Costs can include things such as poor communication or sacrificing your interests to please the other person. Rewards include things like companionship, sharing common interests or being understood.

Dialectical Theory

There is a saying that goes, 'The only constant thing is change.' This idea fits dialectical theory perfectly. Under this theory, relationships are in a constant state of flux, making their success determined by how those changes are handled. Marriage partners have times of contradictory desires and goals, for example, so for the relationship to last, they have to find a way to communicate through their differences and reach compromises. Only by working with the fluctuations that inevitably come with life events can interpersonal relationships be maintained.

Attachment Theory

It's common knowledge that people in counseling often talk about the early relationships they had with their parents. This is partly because these early relationships can influence and shape later relationships.

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Additional Activities

Interpersonal Relationships Activities

Prompt 1:

Social exchange theory predicts that people are continuously assessing what they are getting out of a relationship. This theory predicts that a person in a decent relationship may leave that relationship because she perceives better options elsewhere, whereas a person in a bad relationship may stay if he perceives that there is nothing better for him. Think of some couples you know, either in person or celebrities. Can you apply social exchange theory them? For example, do you know a couple who fights all the time but no one leaves, perhaps because they do not see other, more attractive alternatives? Do you know a couple who seems fine, but one spouse leaves, perhaps to find something better? Write a two to three paragraph essay describing the couple and how social exchange theory might apply to them.

Prompt 2:

Have you ever been in a relationship that seemed wonderful, but then changed such that you felt your goals were no longer consistent with those of your partner? Dialectical theory describes how relationships are always changing, and that successful partners adapt to these changes. Write a journal entry describing a relationship that experienced significant changes, and how you handled them. Were you able to adapt to the changes and make the relationship stronger, or did you decide that the changes were too significant and that it was time to move on? For example, your partner may feel that s/he wants more space and independence than used to be the case. You could have addressed this change in the relationship by instituting two nights a week when you are not together and make plans with other friends separately. Alternatively, you could have decided that this is not the direction in which you wanted the relationship to go and ended it.

Prompt 3:

Attachment theory states that a child's first relationship with a parent, usually the mother, becomes a template for future relationships. Can you see parallels in your current relationship to your attachment relationship with your mother? For example, if your mother made you feel securely attached and loved unconditionally, do you expect the same treatment from your significant other? Alternatively, if your mother made you feel unworthy of love, do you form relationships wherein you do not feel fully loved? Write a short essay exploring the parallels between your first attachment relationship and your adult relationships.

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