One explanation of relationship maintenance is equity theory. (Walster et al., 1978)
This theory suggests that relationships are maintained by a kind of economic balance to ensure equality between the two partners. This is achieved by matching the giving and recieving between the two partners. If there is an imbalance between them, then this is resolved by either adjusting the levels of giving and reciving, or comparing the relationships to somebody elses to evaluate whether it is worth staying in the relationship or not. The assumption of this theory is that people strive to achieve fairness in a relationship, and feel distressed if they percieve unfairness (Messick and Cook, 1983). The greater the inequity, the greater the relationship dissatisfaction.
Ragsdale and Brandau-Brown (2007) disagreed with this theory because it is an incomplete view of how married people behave with each other. Equity is not the only factor involved with maintaining a relationship, so equity theory is an insufficient explanation of marital maintenance.
A supporting study was conducted by Hatfield et al., (1979), who found that the happiest newly-weds were those that percieved an equitable relationship, those that were over or underbenefited had lower satisfaction. However, Hatfield (1979) also said that equity was more important for females than males.
This theory is nomothetic; this reduces the validity of the study as not all relationships work the same way. Some people thrive off making their partner happy, rather than from recieving off them.
This theory also suffers from culture bias- relationships in Western cultures have a different outlook on what relationships should be like in comparison to non-Western cultures, so any attempt to generalise findings that support this theory from the West to the non-West would result in imposed etic.
It also suffers from beta bias- there is no comparison between males and females, so it assumes that males and females have an identical attitude to relationships when they may actually look for different things in terms of relationship maintenance.
A theory of relationship dissolution has been put forward by Duck (1999). He suggested that relationship breakdown is due to 3 things; lack of skills, lack of stimulation, and maintenance difficulties. Lack of skills refers to social skills- if the partner is unable to hold adequate conversation or rspond correctly to social situations, the other partner is likely to lose interest. Lack of stimulation refers to boredom in the relationship, or the feeling that their relationship ‘isn’t going anywhere’. People like to think that their relationship is developing, so when there is a lack of development, or the relationship feels like it’s going stale, there is often temptation to either break up, or have an affair to resolve the boredom. Maintenance refers to an inability to maintain a working relationship because the couple aren’t together enough; i.e. student couples going to different universities.
A supporting study was conducted by Boekhout et al,. (1999) who asked undergraduates to rate various sexual and emotional reasons for men and women to be unfaithful in a relationship. Participants judged that sexual reasons for infidelity (such as boredom, lack of variety and sexual excitement) were more likely to be sued by men, and emotional reasons for infidelity (such as not feeling loved, not getting attention) were more likely to be used by women. This however, may not be a very valid study, as undergraduates have not been in a huge amount of relationships, and may not even have experienced a relationship, let alone an affair, and so would have distorted and stereotyped views over why people have affairs.
This theory is also nomothetic. This is bad because relationships do stay together despite distance between the couple, suggesting that this theory cannot apply to everyone.
This theory is also reductionist compared to the holistic view on relationship breakdown. It ignores the fact that past experiences with relationships could have a significant impact on the dissolution stage of relationships, or indeed the prevention of the dissolution of a relationship.
It does, however, have good practical applications. If this theory is correct in assuming reasons for relationship breakdown, then it should be fairly easy to confron the issues with relationship counselling to try and get round the problem.