Social Exchange Theory and Partnerships

In today’s post, I’d like to talk about dance partnerships through the lens of social exchange theory.  Social exchange theory (Homans, 1958) and related concepts such as investment theory (Rusbult & Buunk, 1993) were developed to explain social relationships in general, in a sort of relationship-math way.  They can help us answer certain questions: What elements make relationships more satisfying?  Why do people stay in bad relationships?  What predicts how long relationships last?  When do people ditch their relationship partners to go look for other ones?  It’s probably easiest to understand this approach when you apply it to romantic relationships, but I’d say finding a solid dance partnership can be even harder to find than someone to date!  And this theory is just as applicable to dance relationships.

In any case, here’s how it all works.  First equation:  satisfaction = benefits – costs.  Pretty simple.  Level of satisfaction is benefits minus costs – if there are more benefits than costs, then you are more satisfied.  Too many costs and not enough benefits means less satisfaction or even dissatisfaction.  Examples of benefits from a dance partner: he’s very talented, she is a hard worker, they have a good match in ability, they enjoy doing 10-dance together.  Costs: he is always late, they both have to travel over an hour to practice together, she has a limited budget so that he can’t take as many lessons as he’d like to,  she also wants to dance smooth but he doesn’t.  In short, the more good things about the relationship, the happier you are with it.  A lot of benefits can cancel out some negative aspects, but obviously the more benefits and the fewer costs, the happier the relationship partners are, overall.

Here’s a caveat though – some people expect more out of a relationship than others.  Two people might be equally satisfied overall, but one person might stay in that situation and another might not.  This is because of individuals’ different comparison levels (Thibault & Kelly, 1959).  What are your standards?  Do you expect to be really happy or just fine with your partnership situation?  Do you expect a really good partnership or a perfect one?

Another important aspect that you have to consider is perceived alternatives.  Are there lots of other potential partners out there or are the pickings really scarce?  The more possibilities out there, the less commitment you have towards your current partner because you have more opportunities to “play the field” and find someone better.   This idea might explain why there is often so much partner switching in a large college ballroom team.  Whereas on a small team or in a small studio, there’s not many options, so people are more likely to stick with their current partners.  This aspect also explains why people might stay in crappy, toxic partnerships that make them unhappy – they don’t really see any good alternatives out there, and this partnership is the best they can get.  Specific to ballroom, often men have more possible partners than women do, so they can afford to be more selective and choosy.

So, let’s take our satisfaction from earlier – satisfaction will then interact with comparison level and alternatives to factor into commitment level.   Higher satisfaction, lower comparison level, and few alternatives?  Super high commitment.  Low satisfaction, high comparison level, and lots of alternatives?  Small chance of that partnership lasting…good luck!

One more important thing to consider is investments into the partnership.  If you’ve been in the partnership for a long time, have spent a lot of money for coaching/routines/costumes, have moved a far distance for a serious partnership, and so on, then it’s a lot harder to end the relationship, even if you’re not super happy in it.  It’s similar to the idea of sunk costs – it’s hard to walk away from something into which you’ve put a lot of time, money, and energy.  If it’s a newer relationship and you haven’t put much into it, it’s much easier to dissolve it and part ways.

The ultimate overall formulas:

Benefits – costs – comparison level = satisfaction level.

Satisfaction level – alternatives + investments = commitment level.

In the end, these theories are more descriptive than anything when it comes to relationships.  If you’re in a dance partnership that is not going so great, maybe it’s time to reconsider all these aspects and if you need to reshuffle your relationship math a bit and seriously think about whether it’s worth the trouble.  If you’re really happy in your partnership, then great!  Don’t overthink it! 🙂

Good and Bad Practices

Well, with regard to my last post and talking about not having enough time to update, I suppose I spoke too soon. Time to use my insomnia for productive things such as blogging instead of doing actual work like I’m supposed to…  Anyway, I wanted to share some thoughts I had about practicing.

If you’re dancing regularly and have a partner, I’m going to assume that you practice fairly regularly.  Perhaps more often if you’re a competitive couple, though social dance couples and partners practice together all the time as well.  You can also regard social dancing a type of practice, too.  I’m sure you’ve all experienced awesome practices and disastrous ones.  So why is there this variability? Why can’t we have awesome practices every single time?   (That would be amazing, right?)  I don’t know if I can answer that, but maybe at least I can discuss what goes on in a good versus a bad practice.   Two of my partners would have these idealized perfect practices in their heads and be pretty disappointed that we couldn’t dance like that each and every time.  My response would be, well, things can’t always be perfect (though of course this is what we strive for).  Nerdy side note: I proposed that practice/dancing can go towards the asymptote of perfection.  It can steadily approach it but never quite get there…

The best practices tend to include these qualities:

  • Things seem to be working.  The dance just flows well, sometimes without putting a ton of effort into it.  You feel very “on” and it’s a magical feeling.
  • You get along with your partner.  If there’s any critique, it’s respectful and well-received.  Lots of statements such as “I feel” such and such and “I think” such and such seem to help with this (well, unless it’s something like “I think you suck!”), rather than things like “You aren’t” doing something good or “Why do you keep” doing something wrong.
  • Concepts you learned in your lessons (private or group) make sense and you can apply them to your dancing.
  • Being in a good mood!
  • Feeling productive – that you got a lot of work done, efficiently.
  • It’s fun! Pretty simple.

The worst practices, on the other hand, are the exact opposite:

  • Things are sucking.  No matter how hard you try, you can’t get X figure or Y concept to work, and you can’t figure out why at all.  It’s super frustrating.
  • You are not getting along well with your partner.  I’ve been through this, with a cycle of criticism-overemotional reaction-frustration-anger, etc.   The very very bad practices end with drama, someone storming off in a huff, or people refusing to talk to each other.  Or even worse, screaming matches, crying, etc.  This is clearly an exaggeration, but not unheard of.  I’ve been both a participant and an observer for these kinds of practices.  Yikes.  (No screaming for me though, but perhaps everything else…)
  • Using lots of “you” language in criticism certainly doesn’t help with the above. “You aren’t dancing well,” “why aren’t you moving?”, “you keep doing this wrong.”  Bad bad bad. AVOID.
  • You try your best to apply new concepts from lessons but for whatever reason it just doesn’t make sense or you can’t make it work.
  • Coming in with a bad mood or ending with a bad mood.
  • Maybe not being productive – especially when you feel like you’re trying your best.  But things just aren’t feeling any better, or they feel even worse.
  • It’s not fun.  It feels like work.  Or worse, torture.

These are clearly polarized examples of good and bad practices.  There’s of course everything in between, but that’s not nearly as interesting to write about, right?  I think something to keep in mind is that you can’t always have that perfect practice.  Sometimes you’re in a good mood coming in, sometimes you’re in a bad mood.  Dancing could cheer you up or worsen your mood, depending on how it goes.  Sometimes you’re “on,” and sometimes you just can’t get it.  And that’s okay!  The point of practicing is that over time, we’ll be more “on” and consistently good all the time, but that takes a LOT of practice to get there.  And by the time you feel that you’re good at something, you’ll learn about something else you need to work on to get better.  Asymptote, like I said.

Personally, I think it’s best to accept the ebb and flow of practice and be conscious of what you can do to maximize the positive aspects.  It’s perhaps easiest to apply this to interpersonal interactions with your partner – being respectful, being nice, being considerate, but still offering positive critiques when appropriate.  Also, being partners, there should always be that element of equality – both of you have something to bring to the table, even if perhaps one partner has more skill than the other, or is better at this particular thing than the other.  It’s a partnership, not a dictatorship.  (Pro-am has a different dynamic entirely, so this applies more to am-am partnerships.)

Disclaimer: none of this is based on psychology research, just my own experience and intuition.  I can think about it in a psych way though, just give me some time 😉