Jack comes home from work and he’s beat. His commute is long and his job as a corporate accountant can be trying. He comes home and his wife Jane has just taken the lasagna out of the oven. Perfect. Their two kids come rushing in when they smell the food and the family shares a nice meal together.
After dinner, Jane picks up her phone, goes into the other room, and calls her sister to chat.
As happens often in this situation, the kids immediately become scarce and can be heard playing video games upstairs in a matter of seconds.
That leaves Jack all alone in a kitchen that needs a solid half-hour of work.
Relative to this story, picture the following two scenarios:
- A. Jack peers around and spots Jane happily talking on the phone in the other room. She is beaming; she really enjoys talking to her sister and is clearly having a great conversation. Jack loves Jane, after 18 years of marriage, and it genuinely fills him with a warm feeling whenever he has the opportunity to help her out. Jack doesn’t give the kitchen issue a second thought. He takes off his jacket and tie, rolls up his sleeves, and gets to cleaning. As he cleans, he takes stock in his mind of how great his family is and literally finds himself whistling the whole while as he scrubs pots and pans like nobody’s business. All the while, he is fully confident that she would do exactly the same for him if things were reversed right now.
- B. Jack yells to the kids to come down and help, only to hear two upstairs doors close. Some help they are! He looks at the kitchen which is, in his mind, nothing short of a war zone. He starts thinking about the fact that Jane works only part-time and that not only does he bring in the lion’s share of the income, but between his long commute and intensive job, and the fact that he’s slated to take out the trash later this same evening ... and the fact that he shoveled the driveway this morning ... Jack has put in more than enough for the family today. He finds himself getting angry. He goes over to Jane, who is happily chatting with her sister, and he makes that face. Jane knows this face well. It not only means, “I am angry with you,” but it also carries with it this connotation: “You are shirking your responsibilities around here and I am fed up. Do you have any idea how much I do for our family?” Soon after, they find themselves in an argument that pretty much ends with each of them feeling hurt. They go to bed with unresolved anger toward one another. Not good...
Communal versus Exchange Approaches to Intimate Relationships
In a classic line of research on intimate relationships, Clark and Mills (1979) demarcate the difference between an “exchange” approach to intimate relationships and a “communal” approach.
An exchange approach is largely rooted in a mentality of equity, quite similar to the psychology surrounding reciprocal altruism (see Trivers, 1971). In a relationship based on reciprocity, there is counting involved and keeping track is part of the deal. Quid pro quo, as it were.
- I cooked, so you should clean up.
- I mowed the lawn, so you should vacuum.
- I helped Cindy with her homework, so you should help Bobby with his.
In Scenario B above, Jack is definitely caught up in an exchange approach—and it doesn’t seem to be working that well. Classic research on this issue shows that an exchange approach to relationships really works best if both members of the couple share that same approach. In Scenario B, it seems that Jane is not really digging Jack’s exchange-based thinking.
A “communal” approach to a relationship is different. In a communal approach, the welfare of one’s partner is the focal point. In a purely communal relationship, there is no counting or keeping tabs on who is “under-benefited” or “over-benefited.”
People who take a communal approach to relationships help their partners not based on calculations of who has done what, but, rather, out of genuine empathy and concern for their partners.
Of course, as with nearly any psychological variable, these approaches to relationships likely vary as a function of degree. It’s not like people come in one of two varieties, exchange-oriented or communal-oriented. But that said, this model for understanding approaches to intimate relationships can actually be quite useful for understanding communication problems and other issues that so often rear their heads in the domain of love.
Matches in Approaches Work Best
Classic research on exchange versus communal relationships (e.g., Clark & Mills, 1979) has found that matches in these approaches work best. If both members of a couple hold a strong exchange approach to intimate relationships, then they are on the same page and things are set up for success. Similarly, if both members of a couple naturally take a communal approach to relationships, life is good.
On the flip side, a mismatch in these basic approaches to relationships can be a breeding ground for problems.
Let’s go back to Jack and Jane. Imagine Jane as a highly communal-oriented person in her approach to relationships. (In fact, some research suggests that this approach is more prominent in women than in men; see Monin et al., 2008.) She may well genuinely have little understanding of why Scenario-B Jack is so angry. She’s not focused on who has done what. She’s not counting. She just wanted to have a nice meal with her family and then talk with her sister. Scenario-B Jack has forced her into an uncomfortable argument founded in a way of thinking that doesn’t even approach how she conceptualizes relationships.
On the other hand, Scenario-B Jack doesn’t get Jane’s communal approach at all. Remember, he’s an accountant and he works on balancing books all day long: You’re either in the red or you’re in the black. How in the world can Jane not see how hard he’s been working? How could she not have seen that she should have cleaned up the dishes that evening in light of all he had done that day? Is she not doing the math?
Love Is Special
At the end of the day, love comes in many varieties (see Sternberg & Sternberg, 2019). And when it comes to couples with members who report more love and more relationship satisfaction, it turns out that a communal orientation tends to win out (see Buunk & Van Yperen, 1991). Relationships in which one member has a strong exchange approach tend, in fact, to feel unloving and these relationships often suffer from low satisfaction by both members.
While there are a host of psychological variables that shape relationship success (and failure), a simple and powerful variable is whether the partners take an exchange or a communal approach to intimacy and love. When members of a couple share the same approach, things are usually poised to go well. This is especially true when both members of the couple take a genuinely communal approach to relationships, truly putting the welfare of their partner above themselves. Maybe that’s what love is.
Facebook image: George Rudy/Shutterstock
Buunk, B. P., & Van Yperen, N. W. (1991). Referential Comparisons, Relational Comparisons, and Exchange Orientation: Their Relation to Marital Satisfaction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17(6), 709–717.
Clark, M. S., & Mills, J. (1979). Interpersonal attraction in exchange and communal relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(1), 12–24.
Monin, J. K., Clark, M. S., & Lemay, E. P. (2008). Communal responsiveness in relationships with female versus male family members. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 59(3-4), 176–188.
Sternberg, R. J., & Sternberg, K. (Eds.) (2019). The new psychology of love (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35–57.