Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy

Living Edition
| Editors: Jay Lebow, Anthony Chambers, Douglas C. Breunlin

Behavior Exchange Theory

  • Kathleen A. EldridgeEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-15877-8_103-1

Name of Theory

Behavior exchange theory



Behavior exchange theory is a set of ideas designed to explain the formation, maintenance, and dissolution of close relationships. The basic principles of behavior exchange theory are that (a) close relationships are characterized by interdependent interpersonal transactions (behavioral exchanges) between people, (b) these exchanges provide rewards and costs for each person, and (c) people weigh the ratio of rewards and costs against alternative relationships to determine whether to continue or dissolve the relationship. Based on these ideas, it follows that satisfying and stable relationships will contain behavioral exchanges marked by favorable reward-cost ratios for each member of the relationship. Although behavior exchange theory has been of interest across multiple disciplines, this entry will emphasize the aspects most pertinent to couple and family therapy.

Prominent Associated Figures

John Thibaut and Harold Kelley (1959) are often cited as the social psychologists who proposed behavior exchange theory. Other early works on behavior exchange are those by social psychologist Kenneth Gergen (1969) and by sociologists George Homans (1961) and Peter Michael Blau (1964).

After the theory was proposed, it was studied in the context of couples and families throughout the 1970s and 1980s by numerous psychologists associated with cognitive-behavioral approaches. Early examples of these studies include Weiss et al. (1973), Birchler et al. (1975), and Gottman et al. (1976). Their goal was to identify frequencies, correlates, and consequences of rewarding and aversive behavioral exchanges among couple and family dyads experiencing varying levels of distress.

Psychologists also developed treatment methods based partly on the ideas of behavior exchange theory, such as operant-interpersonal treatment presented by Richard Stuart (1969), reciprocity counseling for couples introduced by Nathan Azrin and colleagues (1973), and the Gottman Method developed by John Gottman and colleagues (Gottman 1999). Examples of treatment approaches that contain some behavior exchange methods and have been established empirically over decades include the Prevention and Relationship Education Program developed by Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, Susan Blumberg, Galena Rhodes, and colleagues (Markman et al. 2010); Behavioral Parent Training developed by Gerald Patterson and colleagues (Forgatch and Patterson 2010); Behavioral Couple Therapy developed by Neil Jacobson, Gayla Margolin, and colleagues (Jacobson and Margolin 1979); Cognitive Behavioral Couple Therapy developed by Norman Epstein, Donald Baucom, and colleagues (Epstein and Baucom 2002); and Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy developed by Neil Jacobson, Andrew Christensen, and colleagues (Jacobson and Christensen 1998).


Behavior exchange theory has featured prominently in behavioral conceptualizations of couple and family relationships and treatment methods. Integrating ideas set forth by sociologists, psychologists, and economists, it describes relationships as social exchanges of rewards and costs. In any close relationship, each partner experiences rewards from being together and costs of being in the relationship. Rewards and costs can be tangible or intangible and exist for both the receiver and the producer of the behavior. Examples of rewards include companionship, emotional and instrumental support, pleasant emotions, income, social approval, and physical intimacy. Conversely, costs might include, among others, compromises, disagreements, unpleasant emotions, financial costs, time and energy costs, or social disapproval.

Presuming that people are motivated to maximize rewards and minimize costs, behavior exchange theory suggests that relationship decisions around mate selection and relationship maintenance or dissolution are based, in part, on the level of rewards experienced and costs incurred in the relationship. An individual considers the rewards and costs of the current relationship in comparison to the rewards and costs of alternative relationships and to no relationship. If the current relationship offers a better reward-cost profile than the alternatives, the relationship is more likely to continue. Conversely, if alternative relationships or no relationship offers a better profile, the relationship is more likely to end.

Some versions of behavior exchange theory emphasize parallels with economic or market forces. As individuals seek to immerse themselves in relationships that offer more advantages than disadvantages, they also consider supply and demand. If supply of a reward is generally low in the population (extreme wealth or attractiveness; excellent listening and deep, meaningful conversation) but provided by one’s partner, that reward may be valued more than one that is provided but in high supply elsewhere as well (physical affection). Likewise, costs that are incurred in the current relationship but also likely incurred in other relationships (time and energy; minor disagreements) may be experienced less negatively than costs incurred in the present relationship but unlikely in other relationships (violent behavior). Another economy metaphor offered in the context of behavior exchange theory is the “bank account” model of marriage (Gottman et al. 1976). In this metaphor, positive exchanges are described as investments or “deposits” that maintain a favorable emotional balance and ensure stability and satisfaction of the relationship, while negative exchanges are considered “withdrawals” from that account that disrupt a favorable balance. As the balance declines and tensions rise, couples are more apt to scrutinize the rates of deposit and withdrawal and become increasingly reactive to withdrawals. This increased reactivity creates a higher level of negative reciprocity in behavioral exchanges, in which partners increasingly respond to negative behaviors with subsequent and escalating negativity (Jacobson and Margolin 1979).

Early studies of behavior exchange theory examined behavioral exchanges in dyads using questionnaire methods, such as the Spouse Observation Checklist (Wills et al. 1974), or observational methods, using objective coders who observed the recorded conversations of couples and made judgments about what would be considered positive or negative. Later, researchers understood that partners’ subjective perceptions of the level of reward or aversion they experience in response to specific behaviors would represent a more accurate reflection than just behaviors alone or evaluations of behaviors from an outsider’s frame of reference. They discovered a difference between the intended impact of a behavior and the actual impact, particularly for distressed partners who received behaviors more negatively than nondistressed partners. In addition to associations with distress, it is important to note that what each partner regards as a reward or cost is also culturally informed. Hence, those from collectivist cultures may place higher value on the rewards of interdependent behavioral exchanges, whereas those from more individualist cultures may place a higher value on tangible rewards garnered in exchanges. Similarly, those with collectivist orientations may find the time and energy costs of relationships less burdensome than those from an individualist orientation.

Exchange Ratios and Satisfaction

Of interest to therapists and clinical researchers is the ratio of rewards to costs in the behavior exchange of relationships. This ratio can be favorable, with high rewards and low costs, or it can be unfavorable, with high costs and low rewards. Psychologists have attempted to understand how this reward-cost ratio relates to satisfaction in the relationship, how an unfavorable ratio develops, and how treatment can improve the ratio.

In support of behavior exchange theory, studies have found that a higher ratio of rewards to costs is associated with more relationship satisfaction. In behavioral terms, this is assumed to be due to the high rate of reinforcement experienced in relationships that have a favorable rewards-to-costs ratio, as compared to the low rate of reinforcement experienced when an unfavorable rewards-to-costs ratio exists. John Gottman and colleagues have attempted to determine the specific numeric ratio of benefits to costs necessary during conflict discussions for a relationship to be stable and satisfied. Their work suggests that a 5:1 ratio of positivity to negativity is necessary, even during disagreements. An example of this would be five positive behaviors such as compliments, expressions of empathy, careful listening, appropriate humor, or affection for every one negative behavior such as criticism, withdrawal, or defensiveness. On the other hand, unhappy couples headed for divorce display a ratio closer to 0.8:1, while they are discussing problems in the relationship. Their ratios demonstrate slightly less positivity than negativity (Gottman 2011).

Development of Unfavorable Exchange Ratios

Early on, dating relationships are often characterized by rewarding behavioral exchanges as partners display their most pleasing behaviors. Rarely are these uniformly positive exchanges sustained throughout the relationship. In behavioral theory, two processes are thought to contribute to the development of unfavorable behavior exchange ratios over time. One process is reinforcement erosion. In every relationship, partners habituate to the rewarding behaviors each one displays toward the other. Over time, behaviors that were once highly reinforcing gradually become less so as each person becomes accustomed to them. Even though the exchanges are positive, they carry less reinforcement value over time as their impact wears off. If couples aren’t intentional about refreshing these behaviors by adding new ones, or bringing back ones that have fallen away, their relationship begins to have less reinforcement. Another process that contributes to unfavorable behavioral exchanges is skill deficit or decline. Many skills are helpful in the effective functioning of relationships, such as communication, parenting, budgeting, and decision-making. If these skills are not learned, practiced, or used, relationships are likely to have higher rates of negative exchanges and fewer positive ones.

Interdependence and Reciprocity

Studies of behavior exchange theory have also considered the extent to which behavioral exchanges are reciprocal or interdependent. If reciprocity exists, behaviors are contingent on prior and subsequent behaviors of the partner. For example, one partner is more likely to behave in rewarding ways if the other partner has recently done so. Each person’s behavior is in response to and provokes the partner’s behavior, in a cyclical pattern, so that exchanges that are positive tend to bring about more positive exchanges immediately and over time (positive reciprocity), whereas negative exchanges foster more negativity (negative reciprocity). Research tends to indicate that distressed and nondistressed couples alike tend to engage in positive reciprocity, whereas distressed relationships are uniquely characterized by negative reciprocity, particularly escalating negativity. These patterns hold true for both day-to-day exchanges as well as lengthier time frames (Jacobson and Margolin 1979). When reciprocity exists, suggesting that partners are more reactive to one another, this can be beneficial or disadvantageous. Being more responsive to negative exchanges creates a spiral of negative reciprocity between partners, while responsiveness to positive exchanges can lead to a powerful response of positive reciprocity when treatment methods increase positive behaviors.

Behavioral Reinforcement in Exchanges

In behavior exchange theory, principles of positive and negative reinforcement are an important component in explaining the maintenance and intensification of exchanges. Positive behavioral exchanges are experienced as rewarding and are therefore more likely to continue. Negative behavioral exchanges on the surface would appear to be distressing and non-rewarding and therefore less likely to continue. However, a closer look at the specifics of these exchanges reveals the central role of negative reinforcement in their continuation. For example, when one partner criticizes the other, the responding partner sometimes changes in a favorable way to stop the criticism. Doing so provides intermittent negative reinforcement for both partners. In other words, the criticizing partner gets the criticized partner behavior to stop (negative reinforcement), or gets new positive behavior in its place (positive reinforcement), and is therefore more likely to criticize again in the future. The criticized partner, in making the changes desired by the partner, ends the criticism, at least temporarily (negative reinforcement), and therefore is likely to respond with similar changes upon future criticism. The downside to this behavioral exchange pattern is that problems are not often discussed or resolved in a meaningful or sustainable way. Instead, temporary changes are made to stop the unpleasant behaviors, but ineffective patterns of aversive control or coercion are reinforced and repeated over time. Similarly, if heated exchanges involving both partners yelling and arguing are followed shortly thereafter by declines in intense emotional arousal, these behaviors are negatively reinforced and likely to continue in future exchanges. These types of reinforcement patterns in behavioral exchanges are described further by coercion theory (Patterson and Reid 1970) and escape conditioning theory (Gottman and Levenson 1986).

Relevance to Couple and Family Therapy

The clinical implications of behavior exchange theory are clear in assessment, psychoeducation, and treatment planning. In relying on these ideas, therapists start with careful assessment of the rewards and costs in the relationship, gathering specific details about positive and negative behaviors displayed and their precipitants and consequences. Therapists also ask partners about their perceptions of those behaviors, to ensure their subjective experience is considered, instead of making assumptions about how behaviors are experienced based on one’s own frame of reference. Therapists can use the Spouse Observation Checklist in specific ways that provide both objective and subjective measurement of behavioral exchanges and their impact on partners (Wills et al. 1974; Jacobson and Margolin 1979).

Therapists may provide psychoeducation about behavior exchange ratios and processes like reinforcement erosion and skill deficits that bring about unfavorable ratios. For example, the fact that some negative exchanges do exist in the 5:1 ratio of stable and happy marriages indicates that not all negativity is detrimental to relationships, as long as it is not extensive and exists in combination with ample positive exchanges. An overall positive experience in the relationship, termed positive sentiment override, provides a buffer for those negative exchanges. This information may be helpful for partners who believe that all conflict is harmful and seek to avoid it at all costs. It is also helpful for partners to understand the role of reinforcement erosion in reducing the potential for positive behaviors to impact the relationship. For example, in describing the positive behaviors displayed, partners may feel unappreciated for those they have been engaging in, finding them to be fruitless in improving the relationship. Particularly if those positive behaviors have been displayed routinely, they may no longer hold much reinforcement potential. Couples appreciate understanding why their positive behavior attempts are not being met with the anticipated positive outcome, which then reduces their discouragement and hopelessness. Lastly, explaining the utility of skill building for improving the behavior exchange ratio provides a clear rationale for including skills in the treatment plan.

Behavior exchange theory also guides goal-setting and treatment planning. The theory and research suggest that improving the ratio of rewards to costs will improve the quality and stability of the relationship. This provides a clear path for improving relationships by helping couples improve this ratio. Note that improving the ratio involves addressing both elements of the equation, reducing the negatives and increasing the positives. Mathematically speaking, if the goal is a 5:1 ratio or higher, it will clearly be necessary to help distressed couples who are closer to a 0.8:1 ratio to increase their rewarding behavior, especially during attempts to resolve conflict.

Behavior exchange methods, such as developing lists of positive behaviors each partner will demonstrate, are intended to escalate rewarding exchanges. In these methods, the goal is to determine behaviors that maximize rewards for the recipient and minimize costs to the giver. Therapists ensure that partners plan to engage in positive behaviors that are new or renewed, instead of routine, so that they will carry ample reinforcement value. Therapists also ensure the behaviors are within the partners’ current abilities, so they can be implemented with ease instead of requiring practice or preparation. Often, couples who have been immersed in problems appreciate the initial focus on building back positivity in the relationship, and this initial focus builds their hope, confidence, and willingness to collaborate as they engage in the more difficult skill-building work of therapy.

Treatment methods that strengthen skills in communication and conflict resolution are also designed to improve the behavior exchange ratio. In addition to helping couples constructively work on problems throughout therapy, another benefit is that these skills can continue to be used long after therapy has ended, particularly when difficult problems arise, to maintain a favorable behavior exchange ratio. Generally, research does show that skill acquisition and ratio improvements occur over the course of couple treatments that encourage skill building. In addition, these improvements in positive behavior and reductions in negative behavior are associated with expected improvements in relationship satisfaction.

Clinical Example of Application of Theory in Couples and Families

Jamil and Maya Rehman have been struggling in their relationship for quite some time. They are a dual-career couple with three children ranging in age from 8 to 15. While their initial dating years were characterized by high levels of affection and rare disagreements, their marriage is now marked with occasional heated exchanges followed by days of tense silence and minimal exchanges needed to carry out the functions in their family. Jamil feels ignored by Maya on a daily basis, and Maya sees the relationship more like roommates who co-parent than a marriage based on Jamil’s lack of physical affection and involvement with her. Both have silently considered divorce but have decided to attempt marital therapy before giving up, for the sake of their children. In addition, Maya and the eldest daughter, Amira, report frequently occurring and rapidly escalating behavioral exchanges in which Maya blames and criticizes, while Amira gets defensive and countercriticizes. Maya initiated treatment for the martial relationship and also expressed concern about the quickly deteriorating relationship with her daughter.

In early meetings with Jamil and Maya, the therapist attempted to gather specific details about the early behavioral exchanges in their relationship, bringing back pleasant memories and providing some initial hope and encouragement. The therapist also assessed the details of their current behavioral exchanges, asking for specific behaviors and listening carefully for their perceptions of those behaviors. Since Jamil and Maya’s descriptions were mainly negative, the therapist intentionally asked about current positive exchanges. While observing the Rehmans and listening to their descriptions and perceptions, the therapist considered whether processes like reinforcement erosion and skill deficits contributed to the decline in positive exchanges and increase in negative ones. The therapist also considered whether the ratio of positive to negative during disagreements was closer to the 0.8 to 1 expected of distressed or divorcing couples or to the 5:1 ratio of stable and satisfied marriages. The therapist discussed the possibility of inviting Amira to sessions, asking the Rehmans if they would like to do this. Together, the therapist and the Rehmans decided to make initial progress in the marriage and then begin to incorporate other members of the family system. They ended up holding three sessions over the course of treatment in which Amira attended with her parents. The behavioral exchanges between Maya and Amira were assessed in the same ways as the parental dyad, asking about both positive and negative exchanges and gathering specific details.

Psychoeducation about ratios in satisfied and dissatisfied relationships, the processes of reinforcement erosion, positive and negative reinforcement, skill deficits that contribute to unfavorable ratios, and the methods for improving the ratio was shared with Jamil and Maya and then later with Amira as well. For example, the therapist informed them that the aim would not be to eliminate conflict, since even happy couples and family dyads experience negativity, but to help them respond to it in more constructive ways while also increasing their positive exchanges so that the overall balance was skewed toward rewarding exchanges. In addition, the therapist explained the reinforcement process that gets them stuck in their negative behavioral exchanges. For example, the therapist helped Maya understand that her criticism and blame toward Amira, while unpleasant for both, continues in part because it sometimes gets rewarded by changes in Amira’s behavior. Psychoeducation also helped the Rehmans understand that reinforcement erosion, a natural process, contributes to decline in satisfaction even when positive behavioral exchanges have been maintained for many years.

The goal of treatment was straightforward in theory, although not always simple to accomplish, and entailed increasing rewards and decreasing costs through shifts in behavioral exchanges. The first treatment method was closely tied to behavior exchange theory and was in fact called behavior exchange. The Rehmans were encouraged to write a list of kind, considerate, affectionate interpersonal behaviors they were willing to do toward their partner. The therapist helped them include items that were worded positively (“I will make eye contact and ask how he is doing each day” instead of “I won’t ignore him”), specific (“I will hug her” instead of “I will show affection”), daily interpersonal behaviors (“I will make her coffee when I make mine” instead of “I will buy a new coffee-maker”), behaviors already in their repertoire (not requiring newly learned skills), and behaviors unrelated to highly sensitive unresolved issues (such as longstanding absence of sexual activity). It was quite helpful to have them make their lists focused on what they were willing to do for their partner, instead of the reverse direction of what they want from their partner. As the Rehmans entered therapy, they were highly focused on what they wanted their partner to do for them and had become less aware of the behaviors they could demonstrate toward their partner to improve the relationship. Early in therapy, partners are often more willing to produce rewarding behaviors that are self-initiated instead of partner imposed.

The therapist also considered variations in how to implement these behavioral changes. The Rehmans could be encouraged to initiate the specified behaviors in an unscheduled way by doing them as it occurred to them, or in a prescheduled way by designating specific “love days” or “caring days” when they intensify their number of pleasing behaviors (Stuart 1980). They could also be encouraged to do the behaviors in a non-contingent fashion, regardless of how the partner behaves, or use contingency contracting or quid pro quo agreements in which each behavior is tied to another behavior in the partner, therefore creating reciprocal or interdependent behavioral exchanges between Jamil and Maya (Azrin et al. 1973; Stuart 1969). In collaboration with the Rehmans and based on their input, the therapist encouraged a combination of these methods, allowing them some flexibility in choosing when and how to engage in the behaviors while also specifying some preplanned contingencies, such as encouraging Jamil to initiate physical affection through hugs each evening, which would then prompt Maya to ask about his day. Initially, the therapist chose to forego specified days, based on the unpredictability of their daily lives with dual careers and three children. Instead the therapist started with approaches that maximized the probability of the Rehmans experiencing early success in treatment while minimizing the potential for disappointment. The therapist also encouraged the Rehmans to notice the behaviors initiated, the impact they have, and the level of pleasure experienced both as receiver and giver.

The therapist then began the subsequent session with a review of the behavioral exchanges demonstrated by Jamil and Maya, their experiences doing the behaviors, and the receiving partners’ experiences of them. Over time, as collaboration and satisfaction improved, the Rehmans were encouraged to provide input to their partners’ lists, thereby including the behavioral exchanges that were likely to carry the strongest reinforcement value. Jamil and Maya were also encouraged to brainstorm activities they could partake in together that were mutually rewarding, each making a separate list then comparing to see where there was overlap. Jamil’s list included enjoying the outdoors, and Maya’s list included going on a family picnic, so together they decided to spend Saturday afternoon at the local park, picnicking and enjoying time together and with their children. The therapist also helped them work out the details of food preparation, age-appropriate activities and responsibilities for each of the children, communicating the plan with the children (particularly Amira who they anticipated would express displeasure at the idea), backup plans in case of inclement weather, and methods for maintaining pleasant exchanges during the activity. The therapist also had them design the details of a rewarding time together for just the two of them without the children, involving a short hike and picnic of their favorite foods.

As the Rehmans experienced initial success in escalating rewarding exchanges, they were then taught skills for maintaining them with less involvement of the therapist. They were encouraged to make requests in effective ways that are assertive and non-demanding. For example, they were encouraged to start requests with phrases such as “I would appreciate it if you…” or “Would you please…” or “I would like you to…” followed by specific behaviors, not vague prompts. Jamil was able to change “You should show some interest in my life instead of ignoring me” to “I would like you to ask me about my day and listen with eye contact for 5–10 minutes each evening.” In addition, the therapist encouraged the Rehmans to reinforce rewarding behaviors by expressing interest and appreciation toward their partner in the moment and at later times, such as the end of the day or next morning. This came naturally to the Rehmans, but other couples may need instruction, modeling, and practice in how to provide positive feedback.

Although these methods were not designed to reduce negative exchanges, they also had that impact in addition to increasing positive behaviors quite effectively, consistent with research. These methods were then followed by skill building in communication and conflict resolution to reduce the family’s negative exchanges and provide them with methods to address their unresolved problems now and in the future. These methods are described in other entries, such as communication training in couple and family therapy, problem-solving skills training in couple and family therapy, and behavioral couple therapy.



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© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Pepperdine University – Graduate School of Education and PsychologyLos AngelesUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Brian Baucom
    • 1
  1. 1.University of UtahSalt Lake CityUSA