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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
Instructor: 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.

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 dialectal 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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