Love is complicated, relationships are messy and we spend an awful lot of time trying figure out the best way to have them. Mostly because anguish, loneliness and drama seem to hijack our experiences of love without apparent good reason. Psychologists in particular are working hard to help us understand the dynamics of relationships; where and why we go wrong in order to reduce the stress that arises in the messiness.
In reality, a relationship is a concept. It’s not a ‘thing’ – we cannot physically measure it, point to, see, touch or hear it, yet we can sense it. We can sense whether 2 people are relating to one another, even if it is not always clear what that relation is. For that we need labels .… sibling, parent, colleague, lover, partner, spouse. And even then we negotiate, subconsciously, how that relation plays out and whether indeed it actually exists! For example one person may have the impression they have a relation to someone, who thinks otherwise, as in a situation of unrequited love. This technicality aside, my point is, in order to understand a concept, we need to approach understanding relationships in different ways. I am going to reveal to you one such way, a powerful one, that helps us understanding the difficulties we experience in relationships and how we may improve them: in psychology we call it ‘social exchange theory’.
Social exchange theory, basically says that we all have an invisible bank with the people we care about. Anyone we have a relation with, however big or small will have an account with us and we have one with them. Any exchange we have with someone is considered ‘a unit’, which can have a positive, neutral or negative value, and therefore we can deposit or withdraw from our accounts depending on the value. (I hope I haven’t lost you – I did say it was unsexy!!).
This is how it works: let’s say I give my husband a gift that makes him happy. That would be regarded as a positive unit and I will have deposited it in the account I have with him. I will be in credit! The more positive units I can deposit, (being understanding when he comes home late and drunk, supporting him when he’s had a bad day, cooking him his favourite meal, rooting for him in sports etc.) the more credit I will have in my account with him. I will have some ‘social capital’ in my account. Similarly, he will deposit positive units in his account with me, when he does things that make me happy. The more capital he has with me, the more happy I will be. It feels good to have overflowing accounts.
However, if either of us do something that is considered a negative unit, a withdrawal from our social capital in the respective accounts will be made. Let’s say he forgets a date with me, constantly criticises or ignores me, the social capital in his account with me will go down. And like with an ordinary bank account, you can go into minus and even bankrupt an account. Infidelity or physical abuse can close an account with immediate effect. Accounts in minus will manifest as more arguments, fights, less understanding of one another, blaming, finger pointing, emotional turmoil, burnout and eventually disintegration of the relationship. Having an account in minus makes us feel dissatisfied and unhappy, especially if the account holder is someone we love. It’s upsetting to loose an account.
All in all it’s relatively straightforward: Do good things and you will have a happy partner. But we all know that is not how the world works. Sometimes the forgotten date was a result of an important meeting that dragged on and phone battery died – a withdrawal gets made and it wasn’t anyones fault. Maybe you had a stressful day and snap at your partner, another withdrawal, but inevitable. The kids have kept you up all night, you are too tired for sex… You don’t mean to withdraw your social capital from the account, but sometimes life gets in the way and you need to. (Another reason to keep the account topped up!). In fact, psychologists from the Gottman Institute, researching relationships, recommend that for every negative interaction, there should be 5 positive ones to counteract. The more credit you have with one another, the better you will fair when transgressions occur.
Now comes the messy bit!… We do not always agree on what a positive or negative unit is. Take a smothering mother. She thinks she is doing a good thing, depositing loads of positive units, yet the child feels resentful, and her ‘units’ are in fact negative, depleting her account. In romantic relationships, for example, a partner might not be responding to his or her distressed partner, thinking that giving space is the best course of action (a positive unit), yet the distressed partner sees this as an act of neglect and a withdrawal from the account is made instead of a deposit. Another example is, an eager partner wanting to show interest and enthusiasm in their loved one, thinking they are making positive deposits, when are in fact annoying their partner, who sees the actions as intrusive and demanding, and therefore unwittingly depleting the account. The terms and conditions have not been discussed! Indeed, we don’t even think to discuss them. Partly because a lot of this is unconscious and partly because we arrogantly think that our partners think the same way we do.
Another complication is the weighting of the units. Infidelity will close an account, simply taking all the credit there is in one fell swoop, whereas forgetting to pick up the dry-cleaning might barely withdraw an ounce of credit. To add to the complication, we might attribute different weighting to the same unit. Forgetting a birthday is no big deal for one person and so is not considered worthy of credit withdrawal, whereas for someone else, it’s a major transgression and ‘costs’ a big chunk of social capital. Again, we seldom negotiate these things and end up arguing and hurting one another needlessly.
The most messy and complex example is when the terms and conditions change and become inconsistent. Some people cannot make up their mind when what it is postive or negative value. It becomes impossible to relate them, because you never know whether ‘your unit’ will be regarded as negative or postive. One moment it’s bad to text a lot another time it’s not.
Accounts that are important to us, most notably our significant other, are monitored more closely. If I feel my husbands account with me is low, I will make bids to get him to fill it up. Similar to a notification that your battery power is running low. We are sensitive to our ‘prime accounts’, because their deposits are important to us. If we run low on social capital, we feel empty and lonely. Imagine a bank without any customers. It can’t run if no-one deposits anything. These bids can feel like nagging, whining or ‘being needy’ – so if you are wondering why the change in behaviour, it’s probably because you need to make some deposits with your partner!
As I implied, it is not very sexy to view your relationships as a series of transactions, deposits and withdrawals, but if you think about the analogy of finance, there is a lot of sense and it does help understand why some people misunderstand each other. More importantly, it helps us understand what we can do to make things better in our relationships.
Madeleine Mason, Dating Psychologist & Director of PassionSmiths
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