Types of Relationships: Communal & Exchange

*This is not actually me.It was a Valentine’s Day oh so many years ago. I had a crush on a girl at my middle school, and I spent my meager allowance on a Valentine’s Day gift for her. I was excited, I gave it to her, she said thank you. I was over the moon. Later in the day–after school–she stopped by my house and gave me a small box of chocolates in return. Now this might sound strange, but I was crushed. Clearly she only got me something because I got her something! Did she not just appreciate my sign of affection?! It was all too clear that my gift did no more than present her with a new burden–to repay me.[1]  Yes, I’m being dramatic, but I’m also stepping back into my 12-year-old brain, so forgive me. Also, of course I ate the chocolates.

Perhaps you’ve had similar (if less love-stricken) experiences when you only wanted to give a gift for the sake of giving a gift and the other person responded like he or she had to pay you back right away. But you might have had the opposite experience: one where you keep helping someone out and they never seem to repay you. What’s the difference there?

Exchange vs. Communal Relationships

A popular model in social psychology identified two general types of relationships, and the key difference is in how we give and receive “benefits.”

According to this model, “benefits” can be all sorts of things, but it’s anything that can be exchanged between partners in a relationship. So if my friend brings me a sounveir when he’s comes home from vacation, that’s a benefit that I’ve received. If I offer to pay for my co-worker’s coffee, that’s a benefit that I’ve given.

In their classic 1979 paper, Margaret Clark and Judson Mills claimed that many relationships can be defined by how they treat the giving and taking of benefits. They proposed two types of relationships: exchange relationships and communal relationships.

Two Types of Relationships - Exchange & Communal

In an exchange relationship, there is the expectation of balance in giving and taking. Each person assumes that when one person gives a benefit, he or she should then expect to receive a comparable benefit from the other person. It’s a clear case of “If I scratch your back, you’ll scratch mine.” If I pay for coffee today, you should pay for coffee tomorrow. This kind of relationship involves keeping track of each person’s contributions and making sure everything is even. These are types of relationships that business partners, acquaintances, and strangers have with each other.

Communal relationships, on the other hand, are less concerned with perfect balance between partners. Instead, people in these relationships give benefits non-contingently. That is, they don’t necessarily expect to be paid back. They give simply because they’re looking out for the other person’s needs. Sure, you might hope that your partner in a communal relationship will also look out for your needs, but you’re not keeping a spreadsheet of each person’s contributions. These are the types of relationships that families, friends, spouses, and romantic partners tend to have.

Speedy Repayment Backfires in Communal Relationships

calculatorIt might sound strange that people in communal relationships really aren’t that concerned about being paid back for what they give the other person. In fact, this idea flies in the face of a theory that was popular when the “exchange vs. communal” theory came out: equity theory.

According to equity theory, people are motivated to maintain balance in their relationships. When one person provided something for their partner, it would create a debt that must be paid back for the relationship to thrive.

However, if communal relationships really are concerned primarily with looking out for each other’s needs, then an equity theory purist would have a hard time explaining that. What do you do when two theories make different predictions? You run a study![2]  Or more accurately, someone runs a study. Maybe you. Ya know, if you’re interested in that kind of thing.

Several studies have shown that when people are looking for an exchange relationship with someone, they’re upset if that person doesn’t return a favor. For example, if I realize that I’ve paid for drinks twice in a row and you never even offered, I’m upset about it.[3]  Seriously, how could you?

Interestingly, though, in communal relationships, when one person quickly repays a favor, the other person is less happy about it. In communal relationships, it’s actually unpleasant when the other person tries to make things perfectly equal because it misses the point of a communal relationship. In fact, the more people tend to treat their relationships as exchange relationships, the less satisfied they are in marriages because they end up treating what’s supposed to be a communal relationship like an exchange relationship, which undermines the behaviors that make a marriage successful (being responsive to each other’s needs).

Some People are More Communal Overall

Although it’s true that some types of relationships (e.g., coworkers) are more likely to be exchange relationships and others (e.g., married couples) are more likely to be communal ones, some people are also just more likely to be communal, regardless of the specific relationship. These are people who usually take people’s feelings into account and go out of their way to help other people.

People with such a “communal orientation” are more likely to help people, to express emotion in a relationship, to treat others fairly, and to give other people credit for success.

Just Two Types of Relationships…

There they are–the only two types of relationships! Okay, things are rarely as simple as that. Although the difference between “exchange” and “communal” relationships provides a great understanding of the nuances in relationships, it can’t tell the whole story. As Clark and Mills have pointed out, not all relationships “must be communal or exchange in nature.” For instance, they suggest that exploitative relationships don’t clearly fit either “exchange” or “communal” definitions. There are also relationships that are a kind of “hybrid” or exchange and communal goals.

Nevertheless, these two types of relationships provide insight into what makes a relationship successful and why it might not be a great idea to treat your coworker exactly as you would treat your parent…and vice versa.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  Yes, I’m being dramatic, but I’m also stepping back into my 12-year-old brain, so forgive me. Also, of course I ate the chocolates.
2.  Or more accurately, someone runs a study. Maybe you. Ya know, if you’re interested in that kind of thing.
3.  Seriously, how could you?

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