The Equity Theory of Love: Definition, Examples & Predictions

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  • 0:05 Equity Theory
  • 0:45 Equality in Relationships
  • 2:59 Predictions
  • 4:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Long-Crowell

Erin has an M.Ed in adult education and a BS in psychology and a BS in management systems.

Sometimes, love isn't enough to sustain a relationship. In this lesson, we discuss the importance of equality in a relationship by defining equity theory. We go through the theory's proposals and how it predicts when we are most likely to stay in certain relationships.

Equity Theory

'All you need is love.' This sentiment may have started with the Beatles' song, but chances are you've heard it dozens of times and used for different meanings. One - the notion that love is the only thing that's needed to keep a relationship going - is certainly romantic, but it may not be very realistic. Sometimes, even if a couple is in love, the relationship doesn't last. Why? One explanation could come from equity theory, which suggests that people are more satisfied with a relationship in which there is equal give and take by both parties.

Equality in Relationships

This theory proposes that a person's motivation to stay in any relationship is based on the equality (or inequality) of the contributions made to the relationship by each person. For example, much like any barter system, we tend to trade our friendship for the friendship of others. Imagine you just met someone new, named Samantha, at work. Over a couple of weeks, as you talk more and spend more time together, you become friendly. You buy her lunch one day, and she buys you lunch a few weeks later in return. She does you a favor; you do her a favor. You invite her to a party; she invites you to a party. As long as the give and take is equal, the relationship remains stable and is considered satisfactory.

Proponents of equity theory say the same is true of our intimate relationships: lovers, best friends, close family members, and so on. An equal exchange of benefits results in the most satisfying, long-term relationships. This may seem shallow; after all, don't we sometimes do things for our loved ones just because we love them? Yes, we do. But, just because the bartering system isn't as short-term as that in casual relationships doesn't mean it's non-existent. In longer-term relationships, the exchange is no longer tit-for-tat, nor is it necessarily kept track of. Instead, it's a more holistic bartering system.

For example, if you are in a serious romantic relationship, you and your partner probably don't keep track of the equality of your relationship by exchanging daily favors. You respond to each other's needs even when reciprocation is impossible. If you take care of your partner when he or she is sick, you aren't looking for instant repayment. The equity comes in the effort each of you is willing to put into the relationship as a whole, during the long-term. As long as the contributions are perceived as equal, the relationship remains stable and happy.

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