Many of us are familiar with the political horse trading that’s part and parcel of the modern romantic relationship. We do Thankgiving with your parents, and Christmas with mine. I take the dog to the groomers, you mow the lawn this week. This kind of trading is an example of an exchange norm in a relationship. In academic papers, an exchange norm is typically contrasted with a communal norm.

The exchange norm, while sometimes very convenient, may not be optimal. Indeed, much of the book 80/80 Marriage by Nate and Kaley Klemp deals with how to move away from the idea of fairness (a key requirement for a successful exchange) to a relationship defined by radical generosity and a spirit of shared success. One argument they make that it’s often impossible to draw an equivalence relationship between the things being traded – how many kitchen countertop wipe-downs are equal to one trip to the dog groomer? The subjectivity inherent in the valuations rendered by each side makes this kind of exercise fraught.

Interdependence researchers have posited that the specific situations that a given couple faces in the course of their relationship can influence relationship-specific behavioral tendencies, and these often become codified as injunctive norms.1 For an instance, if one partner like Thai food and the other likes Italian food, the couple might develop a strong turn-taking norm, which may not be as pronounced had they had similar culinary preferences. However, one can imagine that a communally-oriented couple may deal with this situation differently – perhaps by challenging themselves to create Thai/Italian fusion cuisine at home.

The type of responsiveness prevalent in a relationship can also influence its prevailing culture. If your partner does something for you and you tend to immediately repay the favor, this is responsive if you want an exchange relationship, but it is unresponsive if you want a communal relationship.2 Being mindful of such tit-for-tat behavior – even if the tit and tat are positive – would be wise if you desire a communal norm.

The norms also influence a couple’s integration dynamic. When performing joint tasks, people who desire a communal rather than an exchange norm behave in ways that obscure rather than accentuate their independent contributions. The net performance on the task hence becomes a function of the shared contribution of both partners, rather than as a combination of the individual contributions.

Sometimes a trade is indeed the best way to work through a situation. However, it may be the hammer that makes everything look like a nail. If overused, it can have negative downstream impacts on the unique culture of your relationship. Next time you’re tempted to solve something with an exchange, instead challenge yourself (and your partner) to think creatively of a more communal resolution. Even if you can’t come up with something better, just the exercise of joint brainstorming and problem-solving will yield dividends for your partnership.

  1. Thibault J, Kelley HH. The Social Psychology of Groups. New York: Wiley, 1959. ↩︎

  2. Clark MS, Mills JR. A Theory of communal (and exchange) relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37:12-24, 1979. ↩︎