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Psychological Theories of Romantic Relationship Satisfaction

Updated on January 11, 2013

Theories of the formation of relationships

There are two main theories in this section, the reward/need satisfaction model and the matching hypothesis.

The reward/need satisfaction model (Byrne and Clore 1970)

People form relationships because they find them rewarding. Rewards can be direct or indirect. People reward us directly (operant conditioning) by meeting our needs for friendship, love and sex etc. Argyle (1992) suggests that if we meet someone when we are sad and they help us to escape that state by offering comfort and support, this gives us negative reinforcement. This increases our liking for them and the chances of us forming a relationship with them.

People may reward us indirectly insofar as they are associated with pleasant circumstances (classical conditioning). Individuals are associated with reinforcement (because they provide it) so we are more likely to like them and enter in to a relationship with them. If we meet someone when we are in a good mood, we may associate that person with our good mood and want to form a relationship with them.



People are often more concerned about equity and fairness in rewards in relationships rather than the desire to maximize their own rewards.

Culture differences - some non-western relationships e.g. kinship bonds are very influential and are not dependent on reinforcement.

Gender differences – women tend to be socialized to be more attentive to the needs of others rather than the gratification of their own needs. However, it could be argued that meeting the needs of others is in itself reinforcing.

The matching hypothesis (Walster et al 1966)

This suggests that people form relationships with other people they are similar to. This includes two specific hypotheses;

The more socially desirable a person is (in terms of physical attractiveness, social standing, intelligence, etc) the more desirable they would expect a dating or marriage partner to be.

Couples who are matched (both partners equally desirable) are more likely to have happy enduring relationships.

Individuals looking for a partner will be influenced by the desirability of the potential match (what they want) and the probability of the other person saying yes (what they think they can get).

Murstein (1972) suggests that physical attraction is the major determinant of formation of relationships because it is an accessible way for each partner to rate the other. Walster et al tested that theory in the dance study. 752 undergraduates in an American university were invited to a dance. They believed they had been mat hed with their dates, but actually they were randomly assigned. Results from follow up questionnaires showed that liking for their dates was not influenced by intelligence or personality. Physical attractiveness was more important even than the fear of rejection when it came to requests for a second date. This provides evidence against the matching hypothesis.

However, more recent research has found a stronger matching effect among more committed couples than for less committed couples.



The matching hypothesis has become associated with matching in terms of physical attractiveness alone. However, more recent studies have indicated that individuals can sometimes compensate for their lack of attractiveness by offering other desirable traits e.g. an older wealthy man may pair up with a younger attractive woman. This is called ‘complex matching’.

Gender differences – men value physical attractiveness in women far more than women value physical attractiveness in men. This gender difference means that it is easier for men to compensate for unattractiveness than it is for women to do so.

The role of the third party – sometimes relationship formation is determined not by the individuals themselves but by third parties e.g. friends, family or internet dating sites. In arranged marriages, families may consider themselves better able to judge compatibility in the long run than their children who may be swayed by emotions or hormones.

Research on the evolutionary theory shows that the brain reward system associated with romantic love most probably evolved to drive our ancestors to focus their courtship energy on specific individuals. Even love at first sight may well be a mammalian response that our ancestors inherited to speed up the mating process. This would suggest that the matching hypothesis and the reward/need satisfaction theory are at best incomplete in their interpretation of the causes of relationship formation.

Theories of the maintenance and breakdown of relationships

There are two main theories in this section; social exchange theory and the investment model.

Social exchange theory (Thibaut and Kelley 1959)

Social behaviour is viewed as a series of exchanges between individuals. Each person tries to maximize their rewards and minimize their costs. The exchange part of the process is that when individuals receive rewards from others, they feel obliged to reciprocate (give back). Rewards might include company, security and sexual favours. Costs might include physical or psychological abuse and loss of other opportunities.

When deciding whether to maintain or break up the relationship, there are two levels of comparison to consider;

The comparison between the costs/rewards of the current relationship and what we have been used to in the past.

The comparison between the costs/rewards of the current relationship and what we feel we could have in an alternative relationship.

The rewards of the relationship need to outweigh the costs of the relationship in order for that relationship to be maintained. If the costs outweigh the rewards, then social exchange theory predicts that the relationship will breakdown.


Research has shown that for most people, profit is less important than fairness in relationships. This led to the modification of the social exchange theory in to the equity theory. In this version of the theory individuals are trying to maximize equality and minimize inequality in costs and rewards in the relationship. People trying to maintain the relationship will negotiate the distribution of costs and rewards to achieve fairness. Unfair relationships will produce dissatisfaction which could lead to the breakdown of the relationship (if the loser feels that there is no way to restore fairness and if the degree of inequity is perceived to be large).



Studies supporting social exchange theory often have contrived methodologies which have little ecological validity. Feeney et al (1994) found that equity theory failed to predict relationship satisfaction because it failed to take in to account variance in the contexts of modern day relationships.

Differences have been found in styles of couples. An exchange couple may well engage in the kind of ‘score-keeping’ predicted by the exchange theory, but people in communal relationships are more relaxed about equity and tend to believe that rewards and costs will eventually balance themselves out.

Gender differences – Kahn et al (1980) found that men are more focused on the norm of equity (what you get out of a relationship should be more or less equal to what you put in), whereas women are more focused on the norm of equality (both partners should receive equal benefits regardless of how much they put in). The evolutionary theory would predict that there will be gender differences in what we want from relationships, so this evidence might add support for the evolutionary approach as opposed to the social exchange theory.

Culture bias – Moghaddam et al (1993) argues that the emphasis on exchange and equity is a reflection of the dominant values of individualism and capitalism in western society.

The investment model (Rusbult 1983)

This theory has three main strands;

Satisfaction - as with  social exchange theory, satisfaction is a product of the outcomes of a relationship (the rewards minus the costs). The outcomes are compared to a personal standard of what is acceptable. If outcomes surpass the comparison level then the individual is satisfied in the relationship. If not, they are dissatisfied.

Quality of alternatives – if there is a more attractive alternative (being alone or being with someone else) then a person may be led towards ending the current relationship. If no such alternative exists a person may persevere with the relationship.

Investment – investment is anything a person puts in to a relationship that will be lost if they leave it e.g. time, emotional energy, shared friends or material possessions.

Rusbult predicted that a relationship will be maintained if the rewards outweigh the costs and if there has been significant investments in the relationship. Equally, an individual might maintain a relationship even when the costs outweigh the rewards, because they have invested heavily in the relationship. A relationship is most likely to breakdown when there has been little investment and if the costs of the relationship outweigh the rewards.


Rusbult tested this theory by asking college students in heterosexual relationships to complete questionnaires over a seven month period. Satisfaction, comparison and investment each contributed to commitment and relationship breakdown. High satisfaction and investment seem to be important in committed relationships. The existence of an attractive alternative appears to feature large in deciding to end a relationship. These results were supported by a meta-analysis by Le and Agnew (2003) which studied males and females from different cultures in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships.



Supporting evidence from the meta-analysis by Le and Agnew. However, meta-analyses rely on published research. There does tend to be a publication bias in publishing research that show positive results. This means that the overall results from meta-analyses may not really be indicative of relationships in real life.

This model is supported by the fact that individuals often stay in abusive relationships when their investments are great.

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      3 years ago

      I think that fear of commitment is just BS. Most of the time the guy just ISN'T into that paraicultr girl like that, so they use the commitment fear excuse to avoid keeping it real with the woman. In reality, it's either 1. Look, I'm a man whore. And I can't keep slayin these hoes if I'm tied down to YOU 2. Look, I like you enough to chill and have sex, but I can't take you home to mom. Sorry But trust me, there's always that ONE woman that'll get that ONE guy sprung enough to commit


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