Equity Theory of Relationships

Equity Theory of Relationships

The equity theory of relationships is based on a theory developed by workplace and behavioral psychologist John Stacey Adams. It explores the perceptions of humans regarding their inputs in the relationship and the outcomes they get.
The dictionary meaning of the word equity is the quality of being fair and impartial. This is what we as human beings strive to achieve in our relationships, either knowingly or subconsciously. The notion of restoring balance to the relationship is what drives most of us, as everyone strives for harmony. Equity theory proposes that partners in a relationship who feel that they are putting in more efforts to keep it going will experience emotional distress and anger. The theory also proposes that partners who feel that they are getting more than their share of rewards in a relationship will also experience emotional distress in the form of guilt. In both the cases, the affected partner will try to restore balance by making certain behavioral changes that they perceive to be the right thing to do.

The theory is based on the belief that people value fair treatment and individuals have their own perceptions of fairness. In an intimate relationship, if a person in putting in time and effort, then that person will expect a certain output for this effort. When that doesn't happen, the person will experience distress. It can lead to anger and controlling behavior in relationships. This can be better explained with an example:

Sarah and Ian have been in a relationship for a year. She is still studying, while he works in an accounts office for a living. Sarah takes the effort to go and meet Ian in his office during his lunch breaks and sometimes after his office gets over. All is well until Ian asks her not to come to his office, as he extends his breaks and work is piling up. Sarah now feels emotional distress and anger because she feels that she is putting in so much efforts to make the relation work and is not getting her expected outcome, which is getting to spend time with Ian.

This theory also explains how partners in an intimate relationship react after they feel that they are getting rewards beyond their efforts. Those partners who feel that they are being over rewarded will also experience emotional distress in the form of guilt. These partners will also have a perception of fairness and will make certain changes to restore balance to the relationship. Let us take the previous example to understand this:

Ian, who is working in the accounting firm, is over burdened with work, which leads him to neglect Sarah's needs for intimacy. It becomes especially difficult for him when he sees that she is making all the efforts. This causes him emotional distress and feeling of guilt, as he feels that he is letting her down or not meeting her expectations. He will then try to compensate by getting Sarah gifts or by exorbitant gestures of affection, like buying her a pet rabbit.

This theory proposes that partners who feel neglected or rewarded will make efforts to regain equilibrium in the relationship. Equity is calculated by evaluating the contribution made by each partner and the benefits received within the said relation. The theory also states that partners do not have to make equal contribution or receive equal benefits, as long as the ratio between the contributions and benefits is similar. For example, if one partner is contributing financially to the relationship and the other is contributing time, the inputs will be considered equal. The benefits in this situation will also be considered equal, where one partner gets love and the other financial security. This theory is one of the best ways to understand how to make a relationship work.

The equity theory proposes that individual perceptions of inputs and the perceived outcomes is what keeps relationships going. The inputs as well as the outcomes and their fair distribution is what forms the basis of a good relationship. If it is absent, then partners will make behavioral changes to restore harmony. The theory applies to different types of relationships, like between a parent and child, between lovers, between office colleagues, employee and organization, etc. Here is a table that outlines some of the inputs and the expected outcomes that people expect in any kind of a relationship.

InputOutput
AdaptabilityRecognition
EffortPraise
LoyaltyCommitment
Hard WorkAppreciation
FlexibilityCare
ToleranceUnderstanding
LoveSecurity
SupporGratitude

Equity theory of relationships has pointed out some behavioral patterns of individuals to resolve relationship issues. Individuals will try to restore balance if they feel they are being unfairly treated and they will seek to maximize their outcomes. The perception of inputs and outcomes is individualistic and therefore difficult to quantify. This theory basically points out that the strongest urge is to restore balance and maintain fairness in a relationship.