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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.

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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.Attachment theory describes the nature of a child’s initial experiences of bonding (or lack thereof) with his or her parents. It posits that we come into the world needing to emotionally attach to our caregivers, and if we are given the chance to do that in a healthy way, we can have successful attachments later in life.

If, however, we were smothered or neglected, we can repeat what we learned, searching for what was missing with those we meet later.

Equity Theory

Similar to social exchange theory, equity theory looks at what you are putting into the relationship and what you are getting out of it. But it goes a step further; it is specifically concerned with mutuality. This theory asks the question: are both people putting the same amount of effort into the relationship? Do both people have the same level of interest and motivation? If the investment is not mutual and one person is trying much harder than the other, the relationship cannot last.

If you see that your partner is not trying as hard as you are, you will be tempted to leave the relationship for one that is more balanced.

Lesson Summary

Interpersonal relationships are a part of nearly everyone’s life. Most of us have many of them throughout our lives, with family members, friends, significant others and colleagues.

Some of these relationships are brief, while others are enduring. Sociologists have come up with several theories about how we create and maintain these relationships.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.

Social exchange theory states that individuals continually assess whether a relationship is giving them more than, or at least as much as, they are putting into it. Specifically, it compares cost to reward in a relationship, much like an economic model.Dialectal theory says that relationships are in a constant state of flux, making their success determined by how those changes are handled.

People who can ride out these changes have a better chance of staying together.Attachment theory describes the nature of a child’s initial experiences of bonding (or lack thereof) with his or her parents. This theory posits that these early relationships usually influence later relationships.Equity theory looks at what you are putting into the relationship and what you are getting out of it.

It’s concerned with mutuality – whether both people are giving and receiving equally.

Learning Outcomes

Once you are done, you should be able to:

  • Explain what an interpersonal relationship is and give examples
  • Name and discuss the different theories dealing with interpersonal relationships
  • List the three stages of the uncertainty reductions theory
  • Recall how each of the theories explains how to strengthen or end an interpersonal relationship

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