Social Exchange Theory Applied to Copreneurs

The social exchange theory describes the essential features of exchanges of married copreneurs, and predicts relationship satisfaction, progress or decay. You can’t. There are no guarantees in life. But you CAN hedge your bets and set up a good framework that supports your entire work/family life.I did in-depth research on the dynamics of copreneurs for my book, Entrepreneurial Couples: Making It Work at Work and at Home. I learned there are a number of human behavior theories, one of them being a dialectical theory known as social exchange theory, which sheds light on what makes some couples succeed where others don’t.

Social psychologists, Kelley and Thibaut defined the basic propositions of social exchange theory in this way:

(I) costs being equal, individuals choose alternatives from which they expect the greatest rewards;
(2) rewards being equal, individuals choose alternatives from which they anticipate the fewest costs;
(3) immediate outcomes being equal, individuals choose alternatives that promise better long-term outcomes;
(4) long-term outcomes being equal, individuals choose alternatives providing better immediate outcomes.

These basic propositions of social exchange theory can be used to describe the  essential features of exchanges in married couples. They can also be used to predict relationship satisfaction, relationship progress, and relationship decay.

For all married couples, the exchange context includes trading with one’s partner for love, sex, status, and life support. However, entrepreneurial couples—especially copreneurs because they work together—makes this trade with their spouses for self-esteem, mastery, and achievement. Whereas other couples have a wider variety of resources from which to negotiate exchanges (i.e., colleagues, employers, fellow workers, as well as their spouse), copreneurs must negotiate their love and work needs only from one another. Therefore, the potential for stress is heightened.

In other words, a trap that many entrepreneurial couples fall into is getting locked into deriving all of their rewards from work and spending money (i.e., immediate rewards). Since they work together and live together, they spend all of their time together. They only have themselves to compare to, so there’s no way of knowing when they’re heading into a major problem. As long as the rewards (i.e., work and money) outweighed the costs, the couple won’t notice the other rewards or benefits of marriage and family life may be slipping away.

It takes something catastrophic like a liquor bottle being thrown in the heat of an argument to alert them that the immediate costs to their quality of life no longer outweighed the long-term gain of business wealth.

On the other hand, when a couple has a well-developed system for maintaining a healthy balance in their lives, they won’t get blindsided. What are three must have rules of conduct in this system?

  • Keep business discussions at the office and family/relationship discussions at home.
  • Be sure you are equal business partners, giving each other full credit and respect for your separate contributions.
  • Insist on developing individual private lives.

With outside contacts, you’ll have other people in your lives with whom you can trade for feelings of self-esteem, mastery, and achievement. And this can make all the difference in the world.

You don’t have to be one of those couples that waits for something to go very wrong before waking up to problems and doing something about them. If you’re already experiencing problems in your work/life balance and need help getting back on track, and you live near Portland, OR/Vancouver, WA please contact my office and schedule an appointment.

If you live elsewhere, we can also discuss best communication practices for business and/or family relationships via a secure video Q & A session. This would come under the heading of Entrepreneurial Couples Remote Education.

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