Romantic Relationship

Dating can be both a fun and daunting experience. So what does psychology have to say about what attracts people to others and how romantic relationships are maintained? Psychological theories explore various aspects of romantic relationships, including social exchange theory, equity theory, investment theory, and Duck's phase model. How do people view romantic relationships? And how do people maintain romantic relationships?

Romantic Relationship Romantic Relationship

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Table of contents
    • We are going to explore romantic relationships from a psychological perspective. First, we will provide a romantic relationship definition.
    • Then we will look at a romantic relationship example.
    • Next, we will mention three types of romantic relationships.
    • After, we will look at some romantic relationship stages and how these stages are affected by aspects such as commitment, satisfaction, and costs-vs-benefit analysis.
    • Finally, we will briefly summarise the various romantic relationship theories, including social exchange theory, equity theory, investment model, and phase model.

    Romantic Relationship, red rose flower laid down on a table, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Romantic relationships are present in many aspects of our lives.

    Romantic Relationships: Definition

    A romantic relationship is when two people form an intimate connection based on attachment, interdependence and a sense of their needs being met.

    Psychologists are interested in all kinds of human relationships and how they form, develop and affect our daily life. Social psychologists study these relationships to learn more about human behaviour.

    We can see romantic relationships in various areas of our lives; parents are engaged in a romantic relationship, and friends may explore feelings for one another if they are romantically attracted to each other.

    The theories on romantic relationships include:

    1. Social Exchange Theory
    2. Equity Theory
    3. The Investment Model (Rusbult)
    4. The Phase Model of Relationship Breakdown (Duck)

    Romantic Relationships: Example

    Romantic relationships are thought to develop in several ways: physical attraction, proximity, the similarity of attitudes, and complementarity, among other things.

    Starting to date someone you regularly see in your class or workplace is an example of a proximity factor that can allow a romantic relationship to develop.

    Meeting someone at a group, club or event you enjoy going to is an example of the ways similarity of attitudes and having something in common can bring people closer together.

    Some psychologists believe that our attraction is an innate, evolutionary force, whereas others view it as a social phenomenon, stating that factors such as the similarity of values influence our attraction.

    Romantic relationships, a blue sky with white fluffy clouds and many white and red heart balloons attached to white ribbon floating in the air, StudySmarter.Fig. 2 - Romantic relationships can form due to many factors, including proximity and attitude similarity.

    Three Types of Romantic Relationships

    There are typically three types of romantic relationships;

    1. Dating.
    2. Cohabitation (living together).
    3. Long-term commitment (marriage, civil partnership).

    The different types of romantic relationships often start out as casual dating and develop into cohabitation and long-term and official commitments. This is one aspect of development through the romantic relationship stages. These stages, however, are affected by other factors.

    Various theories on romantic relationships explore how these factors affect the development of the relationships in question. Commitment to a relationship may be influenced by investment into the relationship, the presence of children, and cost-benefit analysis, according to multiple theories. We will explore these further below.

    Romantic Relationships: Stages

    One research theory on the stages of romantic relationships comes from Thibaut and Kelley's (1959) social exchange theory, which, to summarise, suggests four stages for romantic relationships;

    • Sampling - evaluating the potential costs and benefits of a relationship.
    • Bargaining - negotiating costs and benefits.
    • Commitment - when a relationship is stable, rewards increase, and costs decrease.
    • Institutionalisation - when norms are established to allow both partners to gain from long-term commitment.

    We will discuss more of the principles of social exchange theory as one of the theories of romantic relationships in the next section.

    Romantic Relationships: Theory

    Psychologists are interested in investigating why we form romantic relationships and why they last, as they are an intrinsic part of human life for many of the population. The theories studied here take an economic approach, stating that relationships exchange costs and benefits.

    Some argue that these exchanges should be unequal, whereas others think they should be equitable. Theories of relationship breakdown suggest that it occurs in stages.

    Romantic Relationships Theory: Social Exchange Theory

    Thibaut and Kelley (1959) describe relationships in economic terms. They claim that through a cost-benefit analysis, partners strive to maximise rewards (praise, comfort, etc.) and minimise costs (arguments, compromises, stress, etc.).

    To maintain the relationship, the benefits need to outweigh the costs.

    According to Thibaut and Kelley (1959), partners use comparison levels to assess their relationships' profitability. At these comparison levels, as we mentioned earlier, romantic relationships go through stages: sampling, bargaining, commitment and institutionalisation.

    If people strive to get more than they give in to a relationship, however, it may cause issues with inequality.

    Comparison level is where partners in a relationship compare the cost and rewards of the current relationship to their previous one. If the current one is better, they will be more motivated to maintain the current relationship.

    The alternative comparison level compares the current relationship to possible future relationships. Naturally, this affects whether or not a person decides to stay in a relationship. They may leave the current one if they can find a better relationship.

    Romantic Relationship, woman holding a red heart shaped neon sign to her chest, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Social exchange theory in relationships focuses on a cost-benefit analysis.

    Romantic Relationships Theory: Equity Theory

    Proposed by Walster et al. (1978), equity theory states that partners are concerned with fairness in relationships, concerning the input and output each partner provides and receives from one another.

    When one partner reaps more rewards from a relationship, they feel guilty, whilst the other partner is dissatisfied, and this is known as inequity and distress.

    According to equity theory, partners must strive for equal costs and rewards to maintain a happy, fair relationship.

    Research has identified differences between men and women, however, in their attitudes to inequality in relationships (Argyle et al., 1988)

    Romantic Relationships Theory: Rusbult's Investment Model

    Rusbult (1980) aimed to improve the social exchange theory with Rusbult's Investment Model, as they found that many couples stay together even though the costs outweigh the benefits.

    • Three main factors ensure commitment: satisfaction level, comparison, and, most important, investment (intrinsic and extrinsic).

    Rusbult et al. (2001) also identified maintenance mechanisms (accommodation, forgiveness, ridiculing alternatives, positive illusions, and willingness to sacrifice) that aid the continuance of a relationship.

    Romantic Relationships Theory: Duck’s Phase Model of Relationship Breakdown

    Duck (1988) stated that although breakups seem like one-time events, they are progressive breakdowns in stages. The romantic relationship stages of breakdown are:


    • The first is the intra-psychic stage, in which one person in the relationship contemplates and admits dissatisfaction.
    • In the second stage, the dyadic stage, they admit to their partner that they are unhappy, and both partners are now involved. before revealing this to others in the social stage.
    • The social stage involves making the breakup public to friends and family members. The relationship is not completely unsalvagable, however.
    • Finally, there is the grave-dressing stage, in which partners try to minimise mistakes and maximise positive attributes.

    The model fails to consider individual differences, however.


    Romantic Relationship - Key takeaways

    • A romantic relationship is when two people form an intimate connection based on attachment, interdependence and a sense of their needs being met.

    • Some psychologists believe that our attraction is an innate, evolutionary force, whereas others view it as a social phenomenon, factors such as the similarity of values and proximity influence our attraction.

    • There are three types of romantic relationships - dating, cohabitation (living together) and long-term commitment (marriage, civil partnership).
    • Romantic relationship stages according to the social exchange theory are stages of sampling, bargaining, commitment and institutionalisation.
    • There are many theories about why we form romantic relationships, namely: the social exchange theory (Thibaut and Kelley), equity theory (Walster et al.), Rusbult's investment model and Duck’s phase model of relationship breakdown.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Romantic Relationship

    What is a romantic relationship in psychology?

    According to psychologists, a romantic relationship is when two people form an intimate connection based on attachment, interdependence and a sense of their needs being met. 

    What is the meaning of a romantic relationship?

    It means to have an intimate connection and relationship with another person.

    What are the four types of romantic relationships?

    Casual, dating, marriage.

    How do romantic relationships develop?

    According to psychologists, romantic relationships develop in several ways: physical attraction, proximity, the similarity of attitudes, and complementarity, among other things.

    What happens in a romantic relationship?

    Two people form an intimate connection.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    _____ and _____ explained relationships in economic terms.

    When was the social exchange theory developed?

    What kind of theory is the social exchange theory?

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