Social Exchange Theory and Human Relationships

Subject: Family, Life & Experiences
Pages: 6
Words: 1563
Reading time:
6 min
Study level: College


Human relationships and friendships are usually governed by trust. When this trust dies, the relationship is usually harmed. This fact echoes the ideas associated with the social exchange theory. This essay applies the social exchange theory to a personal experience that took place two years ago. The ethical dilemmas associated with experience are also presented in the paper.


People possess various attributes that make them successful social beings. This fact explains why people form friendships and relationships. Such human relationships are characterized by interpersonal communication and ability to satisfy each other’s needs (Lee, 2014). Healthy relationships are developed by people who are willing to support one another. Several theories of human communication and interaction have been postulated to describe the unique aspects associated with this practice. The social exchange theory describes why human beings pursue specific goals, attract friends with various character traits, and join different groups.

The most outstanding fact is that human interaction is impossible without communication. This essay uses the social exchange theory to explore one of my memorable experiences. The experience occurred when one of my best friends borrowed money and failed to pay the debt. The selected experience mirrors the major issues encountered by many people in their daily interpersonal relationships.

Applying Communication Theory to My Personal Experience

Introducing the Theory

In the book “Human Communication Theory and Research: Concepts, Contexts, and Challenges”, the authors argue that human beings form relationships that are characterized by unique expectations. This means that people will expect certain favors and returns from their friends or lovers. The authors go further to argue that people tend to negotiate and comply with obligations of relationship building. This means that every two individuals forming a relationship will have unique expectations from each other.

This argument forms the foundation of the social exchange theory. According to the theory, people will always “negotiate the rules and requirements for each relationship” (Heath & Bryant, 2000, p. 237). Human beings always prefer to form positive relationships since they have higher chances of benefiting from them. At the same time, such individuals will communicate positively in order to ensure their relationships are healthy.

In order to support the theory, the book uses the analogy of monetary value and exchange. For instance, human beings expect to receive fair monetary rewards for their activities or efforts. This means that reciprocation is necessary. The same principle is also notable for relationships. For example, individuals forming a new relationship outline their goals and identify the most desirable strategies in order to achieve them. Relational rewards might be sufficient for individuals in such a relationship. Individuals in a relationship “reward each other with unique resources such as love, regard, requests to be involved, and compliments” (Heath & Bryant, 2000, p. 238). The authors go further to support the fact that a smile can be a meaningful reward.

The theory goes further to outline the importance of positive communication especially when two or more people are in a relationship. Each of the individuals will have unique expectations, ideas, and needs that should be fulfilled by the other. The social exchange theory is therefore supported by interpersonal communication. This kind of communication is symbolic whereby two individuals in “a given relationship provide each other with resources or negotiate the exchange of resources” (Heath & Bryant, 2000, p. 241). Rewards play a significant role in this theory. A sense of reaction and action will occur whereby people negotiate the best approaches through which they can either develop or destroy their relationships.

Memorable Experience

We all have bad and good experiences. Such experiences usually compel us to reexamine our relationships with different friends and lovers. This is the case because every relationship is characterized by unique rewards, promises, and expectations. Two years ago I ended my friendship with one of my schoolmates. The individual used to be a nice friend. We used to share ideas, exchange views, engage in discussions, and come up with new concepts. We treasured and treated one another with respect. We could borrow each other money to address our needs. This practice made it easier for us to realize our personal and academic goals.

I can say comfortably that we were fond of each other. However, one event happened that transformed the future of our relationship. My friend indicated to me that one of his relatives had an emergency and he needed some help. Since I treasured my friend very much, I believed that it was my obligation to empathize with him in every situation. He wanted around one thousand dollars. Since I had saved some money, I gave him the required amount in order to address the problem. My friend promised me that he would refund the money in a month’s time. During that time, my desire was to help my friend since I was obliged to do so.

However, it was disappointing to learn from one of my classmates that my friend had lied to me. In fact, my friend informed me that the individual used the money for his personal needs. At first I did not react because I was not sure who to believe. After one month, I reminded my friend about the debt. However, my friend was unhappy with the whole idea and even minimized his contact with me. The second month passed and my friend stopped talking to me completely. This memorable experience has always encouraged me to reconsider my relationships from an ethical perspective.

Theoretical Discussion

The social exchange theory can be used to describe the above memorable experience and present various ethical dilemmas associated with human relationships. This experience shows conclusively that the central issue in every relationship or human interaction is the exchange process. People will focus on the process of exchange to outline the major practices that can improve (or affect) their relationships. Human relationships should be founded on the best rewards. Individuals who comply with the outlined responsibilities and rewards will eventually support their relationships. This means that my friend was expected to act ethically by not lying to me. Failure to comply with this responsibility harmed the relationship.

The other important issue stems from the concept of rewards. Individuals in a given relationship expect their partners to offer rewards to one another. Every participant should be ready to receive and pay back. For instance, we both expected honesty, trust, and compassion from each other. We were obliged to share our pains and problems without deception. I always demonstrated the best behaviors by supporting my friend whenever he was in need.

Similarly, my friend used to support me whenever I was in need. However, my friend chose to ignore the agreement and eventually lied to me. He therefore demonstrated an inappropriate behavior that killed the friendship.

Communication resources should be used effectively by individuals in a relationship or friendship. Disclosure of information should be embraced because the process supports the growth of the relationship. The ability to fulfill obligations makes it easier for people to set attainable goals for their respective relationships. Friends who do not lie to one another will establish better relationships and eventually realize their goals. The individuals will always be willing to support one another in the future.

My friend betrayed the above promise by lying to me about his relative’s misfortune. He went ahead to dishonor his promise by not settling the debt. The communication between us was affected by the malpractice. According to the social exchange theory, more people will be happy when their friends act positively and ethically. Negative jabs will be avoided and eventually make it easier for the individuals to achieve their goals. People in a relationship should work hard to avoid uncertainty. Those who fail to reciprocate eventually destroy their relationships or friendships.

Potential Ethical Dilemmas: Implications

This ethical dilemma should compel more people to trust their friends and focus on every expectation. This theory shows that individuals who dishonor such expectations will be looking for ways to harm their relationships. However, the outstanding dilemma is that a person might not understand the future intention of his or her friend. The situation becomes worse when the targeted individuals are in a sexual relationship or marriage. The social exchange theory affirms that individuals who fail to deliver similar rewards to their friends will definitely affect the relationship. A person who realizes that the friendship is no longer satisfactory will definitely end it.

This knowledge guides me whenever interacting with my friends. I have been using the theory to ensure my friends focus on our common goals. The other crucial issue is maintaining the best atmosphere for communication. Positive communication plays a critical role towards ensuring that all the players are satisfied with each other. This experience should guide more people to commit themselves to their friendships, focus on the formulated rewards, and support one another.


The social exchange theory is a powerful model that describes the nature of human interpersonal communication. All relationships are founded on positive communication and trust. Rewards, according to the theory, are key aspects of a healthy relationship. People should form relationships that satisfy their expectations and abandon those that fail to fulfill their promises. People who fail to embrace the ideas presented by the social exchange theory will harm their relationships. In conclusion, the theory encourages people to end relationships that have no benefits.


Heath, L., & Bryant, J. (2000). Human communication theory and research: Concepts, contexts, and challenges. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Lee, J. (2014). Chapter 1: Theory and research: Part1-Lee [PowerPoint slides]. Web.

Littlejohn, W., & Foss, A. (2008). Theories of human communication (9th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson & Wadsworth.