Lights, Camera, Attraction: The Complex Nature of Relationships

Written by Sedef Salim


For centuries, we have known that there is an alchemical process in our existence. Every single living thing on this planet co-exists as a pair. Everything has an opposite which was flawlessly designed to complement its other half. The perfect set of circumstances where two seemingly ordinary yet powerful components are brought together, resulting in mastering the art of survival and enabling their kind to multiply.


If we explore these occurrences in human beings, the behavioural symptoms between two people goes a little like this: It can begin with sensing each other’s smell or noticing physical features which cause sexual arousal. This can then lead to a series of consistent platonic activities, both parties testing their compatibility in terms of character traits and life goals. The mixture of shared fun activities and being near each other causes the release of a healthy dose of Oxytocin, Vasopressin, Dopamine and Serotonin, enabling the two to connect with each other. If all goes well, this can lead to attachment, commitment, long term relationships and most likely reproduction. In human terms, we call this the dating world! This process is categorised with names such as; attraction, lust, love, romance, attachment, commitment, relationship; and the word that’s supposed to embody all these things: marriage.


So why is it that the magic begins to fade and we find ourselves at a bit of a loss after we have followed all of these social conventions? Why do we sometimes find ourselves resenting the same person that was once irresistible to us? When we are finally settled, the neurotransmitters associated with the reward system finally return to normal and we find ourselves drifting back down to earth after our trip to cloud nine. It seems like in today’s society, more and more people are having problems in their relationships and seeking advice on how to salvage them. We will be exploring how some couples can encounter a bump in the road, how to better understand where these conflicts come from and what can be done to help them.


As mentioned earlier, when two people meet for the first time, they go through a bargaining process. This kind of stops romance dead in its tracks. But when we read between the lines of what exactly a date consists of, it’s a meeting that takes place between two people as they interview each other with the subtext: Do you meet my requirements? Are you a suitable candidate? And together with a candle lit dinner, both individuals negotiate their terms…


Social Exchange Theory & Four-stage model of long term relationships.

The theory, proposed by Thibaut and Kelley in 1959, suggests that we choose to commit to a relationship because we feel that this person is worth investing in because its rewards will be great and the punishment will be minimal. Like banking, one decides to invest in a person and relationship because they believe the return will be high. This is what can be identified when two people begin a relationship and then gradually fall into a normal routine with one another.


Stage 1. Sampling.

The cost and rewards of associating with others are explored.

For example, before committing to one person, two people first assess the other potential relationships that surround them in their social environment, exploring the costs and rewards in a variety of relationships before deciding on one.


Stage 2. Bargaining.

As mentioned earlier, a process of negotiation in which rewards and costs are explored. A couple begin dating one another and a dialogue takes place concerning what each person wants from a relationship.


Stage 3. Commitment.

The exchange of rewards and acceptance of costs developed and agreed upon. There is a greater focus on the relationship itself. The couple engage in a committed relationship with each other.


Stage 4. Institutionalisation

The norms and expectations of the relationship are firmly established. The couple both settle into a rhythm in their relationship such as work, chores, activities, etc.

Furthermore, the Equity Theory can give us insight into how we assess and commit to relationships.


 Equity Theory:

This theory, proposed by Walster et al in 1978, is a social psychological theory regarding the justice in interpersonal relationships.


If both partners establish a fair system in their relationship, both sustaining their roles and continuing to meet the other person’s requirements, then the rewards will be satisfactory and both parties are likely to stay in the relationship. However, if the couple stumbles upon challenging times and they somehow lose that balance of give and take, then they will begin to experience an inequitable relationship, when this happens the couple will try to restore a state of equity.


 There are four principles of equity theory:

  • People try to maximize their rewards and minimize negative experiences within any relationship.
  • The distribution of rewards is negotiated to ensure fairness.  This may be achieved through trade-offs or compensations.
  • Unfair relationships produce dissatisfaction. The dissatisfaction is felt most acutely by the ‘losing partner’ and the greater the degree of perceived unfairness, the greater the sense of dissatisfaction
  • As long as the ‘losing partner’ feels there is a chance of restoring equity and is motivated to save the relationship, he or she will endeavour to re-establish the equity


After exploring some of the fundamental constructs of what it takes to build and maintain a relationship, let’s look at what causes a couple to experience challenging times together:


An Imbalance in the Social Exchange Theory:

The couple’s problem is that they do not see eye to eye with each other on a certain aspect of their lives or relationship and this causes them to be at conflict with one another.


Inequitable Relationship:

One partner may feel like they are doing more for the relationship than the other is and may hold some feelings of resentment towards their partner.


Problems in Institutionalisation Phase:

The couple may have settled into a rhythmic pattern. Their relationship may revolve around house chores, work and children which may put a strain on the relationship, leading to feelings of boredom, resentment, and loss of identity or even that their relationship has lost its spark. These factors can cause turbulence in a relationship.


False ‘Bargaining Phase’

We must also consider the fact that some partners may go through a false ‘bargaining phase’, meaning that the couple’s decision to commit to one another may have been affected by their strong feelings for one another or other personal factors, thereby overlooking the fact that their relationship may encounter turbulence in the future. For example, one partner may not be able to have children or may not want children. The other partner, wanting to sustain the relationship, may have agreed to these circumstances. However later recognising that investing in their partner no longer feels rewarding, as their suppressed needs of wanting to have children resurface. Another example could be that one partner may have identified negative characteristics in their partner in the bargaining phase but chose to overlook these problems due to the relationship being able to fulfill other needs within the individual.


Here are some of the cognitive strategies one might use when trying to maintain their relationships:

·       Enhancing a Partner’s virtues and downplaying the faults

·       Lowering one’s expectations to fit more closely with what their partner offers

·       Adjusting their perceptions so that their partner bears resemblance to their ideal.


We have utilised some of the fundamental constructs in forming and maintaining relationships. Even though these theories give insight into some of the underlying issues which may arise within relationships, they do not take individual differences into account or the many different and complex reasons for imbalances in relationships. However, we’ve learnt that relationships are much like building a business and take a lot of work. Just like a staff meeting that takes place, to re-evaluate how everyone is getting on and what changes are needed to maintain a successful work environment, these maintenance checks, risk assessments, work performance reports, concerns and ideas, also need to be acknowledged when it comes to sustaining our relationships.


A couple’s maintenance checks can become overdue and they can forget to keep track of an ever-changing situation. Why is it that we consider these things when it comes to work but not our relationships? After all, like a business, people also evolve and for a relationship to flourish, a couple must also maintain a structure that both parties can find easy to commit to as times change, because unlike a business, if it all came tumbling down, we aren’t insured.


This difficulty can occur at any point in our relationships and we are never quite ready when it happens to us. We find ourselves unprepared in trying to understand a person who is not the one we met in the beginning, and trying to renegotiate our own needs, and the person that we’ve now become, makes this process even more challenging. When it comes to interpersonal conflicts, the main theme in a couple’s argument usually entails something along the lines of: “When did you stop playing by the rules?” Both parties notice this imbalance, they are no longer getting the rewards that they used to gain and so this results in disagreements. No matter how many years two people have shared together, life can always throw us into the perils of change causing us to alter ourselves to adapt.


The beneficial way to transition through these challenges together is communication and a re-evaluation of the ‘Bargaining phase’: discussing each other’s new position in the relationship and how external causalities have impacted on each other as individuals and as a couple. This can hopefully enable a couple to evolve together within their relationships rather than apart. Through this renegotiation of terms and establishing equilibrium, the couple can move into a new ‘commitment phase’ and restore a state of equity.


Two people trying to coexist is not always easy. Sometimes people can be so caught up in their own minds, with their own insecurities, belief systems and goals that this can cause them to have trouble in understanding one another. Relationships must constantly be nurtured to enable them to continue to grow, this means having to adapt ourselves to life’s ever-changing challenges. Communication, honesty, trust and forgiveness are key for a couple to preserve their relationship. There must be a breakdown in these communication barriers and finding a way to understand one another without letting one’s own biases and assumptions interfere with the process. Our other halves will not always reflect to us what we wish to see, the person we chose will come with their many flaws as will we. And as Sam Keen once said, “we come to love not by finding a perfect person, but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly”. Having these uncomfortable conversations are worthwhile.


Of course, there are some relationships that are destined to only play a small part in our lives, but it doesn’t make them any less important. No matter what relationship we are all currently in, whether we feel it is right or wrong for us, all the different paths we cross with people and the relationships we form are a lesson for us. Lost relationships were never a failure or a waste of time. They teach us a little something about ourselves, about who we want to be, what kind of life we want to lead and what kind of soul we want walking beside us. Some people can make us feel like we’ve found the right person we want to share our lives with, while the people who were wrong for us enable us to finally recognise the right ones. Others merely interfere with our usual way of thinking and steer us into looking in another direction in finding the answers that we seek; and sometimes pain can be the source of this influence. Sometimes the lesson simply is to establish a secure and happy relationship with ourselves before we decide who is worthy of becoming a part of our lives.


The mysteries of these events which keep you awake at night, will someday unravel themselves to you. Whatever the case may be, just know that you are amazing, you are capable, and you are enough just as you are and there is no better relationship than the one that you have with yourself.