In intimate close relationships, the partners can become highly attuned to each other’s needs, such that the desires and goals of the other become as important as, or more important than, one’s own needs. When people are attentive to the needs of others—for instance, parents’ attentiveness to the needs of their children or the attentiveness of partners in a romantic relationship—and when they help the other person meet his or her needs without explicitly keeping track of what they are giving or expecting to get in return, we say that the partners have a communal relationship. Communal relationships are close relationships in which partners suspend their need for equity and exchange, giving support to the partner in order to meet his or her needs, and without consideration of the costs to themselves. Communal relationships are contrasted with exchange relationships, relationships in which each of the partners keeps track of his or her contributions to the partnership.
Research suggests that communal relationships can be beneficial, with findings showing that happier couples are less likely to “keep score” of their respective contributions (Buunk, Van Yperen, Taylor, & Collins, 1991). And when people are reminded of the external benefits that their partners provide them, they may experience decreased feelings of love for them (Seligman, Fazio, & Zanna, 1980).
Although partners in long-term relationships are frequently willing and ready to help each other meet their needs, and although they will in some cases forgo the need for exchange and reciprocity, this does not mean that they always or continually give to the relationship without expecting anything in return. Partners often do keep track of their contributions and received benefits. If one or both of the partners feel that they are unfairly contributing more than their fair share, and if this inequity continues over a period of time, the relationship will suffer. Partners who feel that they are contributing more will naturally become upset because they will feel that they are being taken advantage of. But the partners who feel that they are receiving more than they deserve might feel guilty about their lack of contribution to the partnership.
Members of long-term relationships focus to a large extent on maintaining equity, and marriages are happiest when both members perceive that they contribute relatively equally (Van Yperen & Buunk, 1990). Interestingly, it is not just our perception of the equity of the ratio of rewards and costs we have in our relationships that is important. It also matters how we see this ratio in comparison to those that we perceive people of the same sex as us receiving in the relationships around us. Buunk and Van Yperen (1991), for example, found that people who saw themselves as getting a better deal than those around them were particularly satisfied with their relationships. From the perspective of social comparison theory, which we discussed in chapter 3 in relation to the self, this makes perfect sense. When we contrast our own situation with that of similar others and we perceive ourselves as better off, then this means we are making a downward social comparison, which will tend to make us feel better about ourselves and our lot in life. There are also some individual differences in the extent to which perceptions of equity are important. Buunk and Van Yperen, for example, found that the relationship between perceptions of equity and relationship satisfaction only held for people who were high in exchange orientation. In contrast, those low in exchange orientation did not show an association between equity and satisfaction, and, perhaps even more tellingly, were more satisfied with their relationships than those high in exchange orientation.
People generally stay in relationships longer when they feel that they are being rewarded by them (Margolin & Wampold, 1981). In short, in relationships that last, the partners are aware of the needs of the other person and attempt to meet them equitably. But partners in the best relationships are also able to look beyond the rewards themselves and to think of the relationship in a communal way.