Dating and Relationships as a Social Exchange

Some people believe you can find and grow love by being selfless. Their relationship advice is to give to others, be what they want, and they will love you back. Others believe the opposite. They feel that a good lover will fit their “criteria”, love them as they are, and be compatible.

From my perspective, both of those views are a little off. This is because, beneath the love, a relationship is essentially a “trade”. Both people are looking for an exchange. Both want their needs met. Therefore, BOTH your own needs and that of your partner factor into the equation.

Let’s look at a bit of the psychology to explain further…

Social Exchange Theory

Social Exchange Theory is a perspective within social psychology that describes human relationships (Kelly & Thibaut, 1978; Thibaut & Kelly, 1959). Essentially, according to the theory, the stability of all relationships are the result of each individual making decisions about the following:

  • The ratio of costs to benefits – the balance of what we put into the relationship vs. what we received from it.
  • The satisfaction level – how the relationship compares to our expectations of what we each think we should have.
  • The dependence level – our chances of having a better relationship with a different person.

So, we form relationships with people who give as much to us as we give to them (ratio), treat us in accordance with our expectations (satisfaction), and are our best alternatives at the time and place (dependence). But, others are making the same calculations about us back. So, their ratios, satisfaction, and dependence influence whether a relationship happens too. The wants and needs of both partners matter.

This scenario isn’t terribly “romantic” I know, but that is the gist of it. Relationships (from friends-with-benefits to marriage) are an exchange process at the core. When a relationship is a good deal for both partners, they stay and trade together. When it isn’t, at least one eventually chooses to goes elsewhere.

6 Tips for Dating and Relationship Success

Based on Social Exchange Theory, here is the general advice I give for successful and satisfying dating and relating.

1) Figure out what you want – It all starts with you. Some people do indeed miss this step. They get so wrapped up in “finding love” or “pleasing others” that they forget to figure out what they want out of the deal. For the record, you do have a choice. You don’t need to just pick whoever will have you. However, you also don’t need to obsess about every little detail. A general idea of what you would like from a partner is best. How would you like them to act? What would you like them to do? How should they treat you? What type of relationship are you looking for? Take a moment (or longer) and figure it out.

2) Decide what you will give in return – There is no such thing as getting something for nothing. Dating and relationships are no exception. So, what are you planning to bring to the exchange? Be honest – don’t undersell or oversell yourself. Think about all of the strengths, benefits, and positive qualities you have to share with a partner. Have a clear idea about what you are going to give back to them.

3) Check your expectations – Take a good look at what you want versus what you’re willing to give. Does it match up? Is it a realistic trade? It is unrealistic to expect to buy a mansion with pocket-change. But, it is also foolish to spend a million dollars on a shack. So, make sure the exchange you’re planning is equitable and fair, for both you and for your prospective partners. Make it a good deal on both ends.

4) Know your dating market (what “they” want) – Here is where you take into consideration what your potential partners might want. But, you don’t have to be so vague and guess about all men, women, etc. You know what you want. So, search for the people who match that and find out what they want. For example, if you want smart women…then talk to a few in your area and find out what they like. If you’re looking for creative men, then check out what they are into. Shop around. Get to know the dating market you’re interested in – and what they are looking to “buy” in return.

5) Assess your options – Once you know your dating market, you can see who might be interested in an exchange. Find the partners that fit with what you want. Qualify and assess them. Then see whether what you’re willing to give matches up with their wants too. Negotiate a little and see what works. Is it a good fit? Can you strike a deal? Is it a win-win? See what your options for “trading partners” look like.

6) Pick an option or reassess your plan – If you find a good deal, go with it. Especially when the relationship is fair, satisfying, and the best alternative for both you and them. However, if you don’t like your options, then it is time to rethink the steps above. Go through them again. Is what you want a little unrealistic? Do you need to give a little more to get who you really want? Are your expectations unrealistic? Do you need to try a different dating group, time, location to find someone to connect with?

Repeat, refine, and rework the process. Eventually, you will find a connection (or several) that works.


We can put the age-old dating debate to rest – BOTH what you want and what they want matters. So, take both into consideration for success in dating and relating. Figure out what you want. Decide what you will give in exchange for it. Make sure the trade is fair. Look for potential partners to trade with. Assess your options. And, eventually, enjoy a mutually-satisfying interaction :)

Please leave me your thoughts. Share, like, tweet, and comment below.

Until next time…happy dating and relating!

Dr. Jeremy Nicholson
The Attraction Doctor


  • Kelley, H. H. and Thibaut, J. (1978) Interpersonal relations: A theory of interdependence, New York: Wiley.
  • Thibaut, J. W. and Kelley, H. H. (1959) The social Psychology of Groups, New York: Wiley.

© 2011-2012 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.

About Dr. Jeremy Nicholson

My name is Dr. Jeremy Nicholson. I am a Doctor of Social and Personality Psychology, with a research and writing focus on influence, persuasion, dating, and relationships. I also hold Master’s degrees in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Social Work. I currently lives in Boston, Mass.
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