Perceived equity and intimacy in marriage

Larson, Jeffry H

The extent to which perceived inequity is related to perceived marital intimacy was examined. Sixty-six couples married five years or less were randomly selected from marriage license records in a western rural community. Equity/inequity was assessed using the Walster global measure of equity. Levels of overall intimacy, conflict resolution, affection, cohesion, sexuality, identity, compatibility, autonomy, and expressiveness were measured using the Waring Intimacy Questionnaire (WIQ). Inequity was associated with lower levels of overall intimacy, compatibility, identity, and expressiveness among the wives. Among the husbands, inequity was not associated with any types of intimacy. When comparing husbands in inequitable relationships to wives in inequitable relationships, the wives reported lower scores for only one kind of intimacy identity. Explanations and implications for marriage therapy are discussed.

Equity theorists have successfully predicted men’s and women’s feelings and behavior in a variety of casual relationships (Sabatelli & Shehan, 1993). These include relationships in the workplace, exploiter/victim relationships, philanthropist/recipient relationships, and others (Hatfield & Traupmann, 1981; Sprecher, 1986; Walster, Walster, & Berscheid, 1978). More recently, equity theory has also been successfully applied to intimate relationships, including marriage (Davidson, 1984; Prins, Buunk, & Van Yperen, 1993; Sabatelli & Cecil-Pigo, 1985; Sprecher, 1986; Sprecher, 1992; and Utne, Hatfield, Traupmann, & Greenberger, 1984). This study extended the research on equity and marriage by examining the effects of perceived equity/inequity on the specific domain of marital intimacy.


Equity theory, a social psychological theory concerned with perceived fairness in interpersonal relationships, is relatively simple. Formulated by Walster et al. (1978), this theory comprises four interlocking propositions:

1. Individuals will try to maximize their relationship outcomes (where outcomes equal rewards minus punishments).

2. A. Groups can maximize collective rewards by evolving accepted systems for equitably apportioning rewards and punishments among members. Thus, groups will evolve such systems of equity and will attempt to induce members to accept and adhere to these systems.

B. Groups will generally reward members who treat others equitably and will generally punish members who treat others inequitably.

3. When individuals find themselves participating in inequitable relationships they will become distressed. The more inequitable the relationship, the more distress they will feel.

4. Individuals who discover they are in an inequitable relationship will attempt to eliminate their distress by restoring equity. The greater the inequity that exists, the more distress they will feel, and the harder they will try to restore equity.

In terms of intimate relationships, the basic principle of equity theory is that individuals act to maximize their rewards and minimize their costs (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). According to the theory, a person is most satisfied when the relationship is perceived as equitable, that is, when the ratio between the benefits/outcomes received from a relationship and the contributions/inputs made to the relationship is perceived as equal (Brehm, 1992; Hatfield, Traupmann, & Walster, 1979). First, each partner calculates his or her perceived deserved relationship outcomes. Second, the deserved outcomes are subtracted from the received outcomes and this balance is considered in the context of the individual’s inputs made to the relationship. If this balance equals zero, the relationship is termed equitable.

Equity refers to perceived balance. For example, one partner may contribute much more to the relationship than the other. If, however, that partner is also receiving much more than the other, the relationship can still be perceived as equitable. Again, it is the relationship partners’ perceptions of the balance of benefits and contributions that determine equitable relationships.

Inputs and outputs involve the exchange of such things as love, sex, services, money, time, and status between marital partners. This exchange is not always perceived as balanced (Sprecher, 1986; Walster et al., 1978) and can become perceived as inequitable, leading to distress (see equity theory’s proposition 3). The distress resulting from participating in an inequitable relationship may take one of two forms. Those who believe they are getting far less out of their relationship than their partner are considered to be underbenefited. These are people who perceive their relative gains (one’s outcomes from the relationship minus one’s contributions to the relationship) to be less than their partner’s. Underbenefited individuals are likely to experience hurt, anger, resentment, sadness, frustration, and depression (Davidson, 1984; Schafer & Keith, 1980; Sprecher, 1986). Those who believe they are getting far more out of their relationship than their partner are considered to be overbenef ted. Overbenefited individuals are those who perceive their relative gains to be greater than their partner’s, which can lead to feelings of guilt, anger, and depression (Sprecher, 1986). Therefore, an equitable relationship is said to exist when relative gains (or ratios of outputs over inputs) are perceived to be similar for self and partner.

Equity theorists have found that husbands and wives who perceived inequity in their relationship reported less marital satisfaction and commitment than spouses who rated their marriage as equitable (e.g., Davidson, 1984; Horst & Doherty, 1995; Houlihan, Jackson, & Rogers, 1990; Knudson-Martin & Mahoney, 1996; Peterson, 1990; Sabatelli & Cecil-Pigo, 1985). It appears that equity is related to a number of marital processes. Schafer and Keith (1980) found that couples in inequitable marriages reported more feelings of depression than those in equitable marriages. Compared to couples in less equitable relationships, partners in more equitable relationships have reported more sexual satisfaction (Hatfield, Greenberger, Traupmann, & Lambert, 1982). Among women, inequity has been associated with extramarital inclinations and behaviors (e.g., Prins, Buunk, & Van Yperen, 1993).

A principal assertion of the present study is that what Prins et al. (1993) did not investigate may be as important or more important than the insight their work provided. That is, what Prins et al. did not address was the possible effect of inequity on intimacy, which may be more closely associated with extramarital inclinations and behaviors than inequity itself. Other related findings have demonstrated a positive relationship between equity in marriage and marriage partners’ self-concepts (Schafer, Keith, & Lorenz, 1984). Equity is also positively related to relationship commitment, as measured by low levels of monitoring of alternatives and high levels of cohesion, solidarity, and stability (Rachlin, 1987; Sabatelli & Cecil-Pigo, 1985). Keith, Schafer, and Wacker (1992) reported that among older couples, inequity influenced dissatisfaction with provider and companion roles.

Further support for the implication of inequitable relationships on intimacy is offered by Doherty and Colangelo (1984). They assert that intimacy will not develop in a marriage without the resolution of more basic issues such as fairness. “Intimacy is like the top of a pyramid. For most people, the foundation is trust that the partner is committed and trust that the partner will be fair when there is a conflict of interest” (p. 24). Therefore, intimacy can be experienced only when there is trust that the other person will treat one fairly or equitably.

Although the importance of equity for different aspects of intimate relationships has been widely studied, the relationship between equity and intimacy itself has been largely ignored. Indeed, it is surprising that the potential equity/intimacy connection has not received more attention, given the key role of intimacy in marital satisfaction of today’s “companionate marriage” (Mace, 1982; Waring, 1984; Wynne & Wynne, 1986). It was our thesis that intimacy is the common thread that holds previous research findings together; that is, a lack of intimacy in inequitable marriages is the key factor causing lower relationship satisfaction, more depression, more likelihood of extramarital affairs, less commitment, and so forth. Thus, a useful research question was, how is perceived inequity associated with specific dimensions of marital intimacy, such as communication, conflict resolution, and sexual relations, for husbands and wives?

Waring (1984) has described intimacy as comprised of the following eight components:

Conflict Resolution-the ease with which differences of opinion are resolved

Affection-the degree to which feelings of emotional closeness are expressed by the couple

Cohesion-the high valuing of marriage and the feeling of a strong sense of commitment to the marriage

Sexuality*-the degree to which sexual needs are communicated and fulfilled by the marriage

Identity-the spouses’ level of self-confidence and self-esteem

Compatibilit-the degree to which the couple is able to work and play together comfortably

7. Expressiveness-the degree to which thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and feelings are shared within the marriage

Autonomy-the spouses’ independence from their families of origin and their own offspring

In the present study we defined intimacy as an intuitive sense of togetherness within both partners of a committed relationship (such as marriage) resulting from the sharing of values, beliefs, and experiences. Because it has been widely researched and utilized (Chamberlaine et al., 1989; Moss & Schwebel, 1993; Register & Henley, 1992; Waring, Patton, Neron, & Linker, 1986; Wood, Barnes, & Waring, 1988), and because of its compatibility with the above definition, Waring’s (1984) concept of intimacy was used in the present study.

Conflict resolution skills are a prerequisite for a couple to functioning optimally with high levels of intimacy (Waring, Tillman, Frelick, Russell, & Weisz, 1980). Affection promotes intimacy as feelings of emotional closeness are expressed between spouses (L’Abate & Frey, 1981; Rubin, 1983). Cohesion or commitment is a necessary precursor of other types of intimacy because it fosters trust and security in the relationship (Doherty & Colangelo, 1984). Sexual fulfillment is an obvious component of intimacy and may reflect the most intense togetherness a couple can experience (Hatfield et al., 1982). A wellformed, positive self-identity is a prerequisite for the formation of a couple identity (L’Abate, 1983; Waring et al., 1980). Compatibility creates intimacy by increasing the time couples spend together in mutually fulfilling activities (Waring, 1984). Self-disclosure is positively related to intimacy (Davidson, Balswick, & Halverson, 1983; Waring, 1988), and when self-disclosure is facilitated in the marital relationship, intimacy will increase (L’Abate, 1977; Waring, 1988; Waring & Chelune, 1983). Couple autonomy is related to independence from the strong emotional ties to significant others, such as the family of origin or a former spouse (Waring et al., 1980; Waring, McElrath, Lefcoe, & Weisz, 1981), which allows a couple the emotional space it needs to develop intimacy.

Previous research indicates that those in inequitable relationships experience feelings of anger and depression. In addition, underbenefited individuals also experience hurt feelings, whereas those who are overbenefited are more prone to feelings of guilt (Schafer & Keith, 1980; Sprecher, 1986). These negative feelings should have a negative effect on the quantity and quality of marital intimacy. For example, individuals who feel angry and depressed are not likely to want to be close to their partner, either physically or emotionally. Couples in an atmosphere of inequity and the accompanying negative feelings also should find that conflict resolution suffers. Resolving relationship issues and disagreements should be much more challenging compared to resolving them in couples in equitable relationships, because the basic feeling of fairness or a perception that one’s spouse will treat one fairly is missing. Thus, spouses will likely be more suspicious of their partners when they are attempting to resolve issues, and this suspicion will inhibit honest communication and compromise (Miller, Miller, Nunnally, & Wackman, 1991). These negative feelings and challenges may also be expected to lead to less affection and sexual intimacy between partners. This loss of affection will have a negative effect on their feelings of marital compatibility and cohesion. The nature of self-disclosures will likely be more negative. As Schafer et al. (1984) found, the feelings generated by inequity lower an individual’s self-confidence and self-esteem. Finally, inequity and the negative feelings that result from it may hinder one’s sense of couple autonomy. For example, one way a spouse may deal with inequity, anger, and depression is to compensate for the resulting stress in the marriage by developing a closer relationship with his or her children or extended family to help cope with the negative feelings (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 1985; Larson, 1978). These substitute relationships may reduce feelings of couple autonomy.

The way perceived equity affects perceived intimacy was expected to differ for husbands and wives. This can be explained by considering the broader context of the balance of power in marriage (Hare-Mustin, 1994; Walsh, 1989). Although contemporary wives have made progress over their predecessors in gaining more power and reciprocity with their husbands in the job domain, they continue to experience discrimination and lag behind in salary and advancement in most situations compared to their husbands (Walsh, 1989). At the same time, reciprocal changes by husbands in the home, doing what has been traditionally defined as women’s work, have yet to be realized, largely because that domain has been ultimately devalued (Walsh, 1989, p. 275). These conditions result in a persistent skew or power imbalance in marriage in favor of husbands that can lead to marital dissatisfaction, depression, and fatigue for wives. Hare-Mustin (1994) has described other ways that husbands continue to maintain a higher status in marriage than women. For example, husbands are expected to take care of their wives by economic provision; wives care for their husbands by providing personal services and putting their husbands ahead of themselves. Thus, a wife is expected to be an enabler, to make a partner happy at the expense of herself (Hare-Martin, 1994, p. 31). These conditions create a marriage between unequals. We expected this traditional marital power imbalancewhich disfavors women and interacts with gender differences in the way husbands and wives relate intimately-to result in women more frequently perceiving inequity in marriage than men, and more damage to a woman’s perceived intimacy in marriage than would be expected for men.

Research indicates that compared to husbands, wives tend to be more concerned with the quality of interpersonal relationships and more desirous of companionship and other types of intimacy in marriage (Bernard, 1972; Gilligan, 1982; Glenn, 1975; Gottman, 1994; Olsen et al., 1983; Rhyne, 1981). Largely as a result of their subordinate position, wives also tend to monitor levels of equity more closely than husbands do (Bell, Daly, & Gonzalez, 1987; Gottman & Krokoff, 1989). White et al. (1986) found that men are less able to take their mate’s perspective than women are. Thompson and Walker (1989) found that women are more sensitive and responsive to what is going on in their marriages than their husbands are. Harper and Elliot (1988) found that although intimacy affected both wives’ and husbands’ marital satisfaction, the relationship between the two was stronger for women than it was for men. Hence, wives’ experience of marital intimacy was expected to be more seriously affected by perceived inequity than husbands’ experience of marital intimacy.

In summary, the present study examined the effects of perceived equity/inequity on perceived marital intimacy. Because of power differences and gender differences in how men and women generally view intimacy, we postulated that perceived equity would affect perceived intimacy differently for men than for women. More specifically, the following hypotheses were tested:

Compared to spouses in equitable relationships, spouses in inequitable relationships will report less total marital intimacy.

2. Compared to spouses in equitable relationships, spouses in inequitable relationships will report less conflict resolution intimacy, affection, cohesion, sexual intimacy, selfconfidence, compatibility, expressiveness, and autonomy.

3. Compared to husbands in inequitable relationships, wives in inequitable relationships will report less total marital intimacy.

4. Compared to husbands in inequitable relationships, wives in inequitable relationships will report less conflict resolution intimacy, affection, cohesion, sexual intimacy, selfconfidence, compatibility, expressiveness, and autonomy.



Subjects consisted of 66 couples (n = 132) who had been married five years or less. One hundred couple names were randomly selected from the marriage license records in a rural, northwestern United States county with a population of 80,000. These 100 couples were originally sent the questionnaire (all questionnaires were deliverable). Those not returning their questionnaire after two weeks were contacted by mail and sent another questionnaire. The final return rate on the questionnaires was 66 percent (n = 66).

The mean age of the participants was 30.2 years for the husbands and 28.6 years for the wives. The mean number of children was 1 child per couple. Religious orientation was varied. The sample was 15% Catholic and 67.7% Protestant. The remaining 17.3% either reported no religious affiliation or were affiliated with one of the smaller religious groups (e.g., Jewish or Mormon). The major ethnic groups represented were AngloAmericans (86%), Latin Americans (12%), and African Americans (2%).

The education level of the sample was diverse: 32% had college degrees; 44% had received some college education; 23% had stopped their formal education after earning a high school diploma; and 1% had less than a high school education. The mean yearly income per couple was $23,790 (range = $18,230-$48,500).


Equity. Perceived equity/inequity in the marital relationship was assessed using a widely used and accepted formula for calculating perceived relationship equity (Cate, Lloyd, Henton, & Larson, 1982) developed by Walster et al. (1977). First, in order to determine each partner’s inputs and outcomes in the relationship, each person was separately asked the following four questions:

1. All things considered, how would you describe your contributions to your relationship?

2. All things considered, how would you describe your partner’s contributions to your relationship?

3. All things considered, how would you describe your outcomes from your relationship?

4. All things considered, how would you describe your partner’s outcomes from your relationship?

Each of these questions was followed by an eight-point Likert scale to which the partners responded by circling their answer. The scale ranged from “extremely negative” (-4) to “extremely positive” (+4).

To determine whether the relationship was perceived as equitable or inequitable, we used Walster’s (1975) corrected formula. In simple terms, the formula consisted of two steps: First we calculated an individual’s perceived deserved outcomes based on their own inputs, coupled with their partner’s inputs and outcomes. The formula for computing person A’s deserved outcome was as follows:

Hence, as perceived by Mary, her relationship with John is labeled “equitable” (score of zero). When individuals perceived their received outcomes as less than their deserved outcomes (yielding a negative equity score), the relationship was classified as inequitable, underbenefited. The relationship was considered to be inequitable, overbenefited when the opposite occurred, that is, when individuals perceived their received outcomes as greater than their deserved outcomes (when the equity score was positive). (For a more detailed explanation of the algebra used in this formula, see Walster et al., 1978).

Each spouse rated the equity in his or her marriage separately, and a score was calculated for each spouse. This resulted in four possible combinations of equity categories for each couple: Equitable/Equitable, Equitable/Inequitable, Inequitable/Equitable, and Inequitable/Inequitable. Several studies have demonstrated the predictive validity of this formula when measuring perceived equity in marriage (e.g., Davidson, 1984; Houlihan, Jackson, & Rogers, 1990; Peterson, 1990; Schafer & Keith 1980). Walster et al.’s (1977) extensive research showed high test-retest reliability for repeated, short-term (i.e., 2 weeks) administrations of the four questions.

Intimacy. The Waring Intimacy Questionnaire (WIQ) was used to measure perceived marital intimacy. The 90-item WIQ (Waring, 1984) is a self-report measure of marital intimacy that has high internal consistency reliability (alpha = .88), test-retest reliability (r = .89), construct validity (factor analysis), and convergent and discriminant validity. Respondents read each item and answered “true” or “false” as it applied to their marriage. Examples of items are “I enjoy sharing my feelings with my spouse”, “Our sexual relationship decreases my frustrations”, and “My spouse and I have worked out the male-female household roles to both our satisfaction”. The WIQ provided an overall intimacy score and scores for eight different kinds of intimacy: conflict resolution (ability to resolve differences of opinion); affection (expression of emotional closeness); cohesion (valuing marriage and being committed to the marriage); sexuality (the communication and fulfillment of sexual needs); identity (partners’ level of self-confidence and self-esteem); compatibility (the couple’s ability to work and play together comfortably); autonomy (independence from families of origin and own children); and expressiveness (the sharing of thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and feelings in the marriage). There are 10 items on each of these intimacy subscales. There are also 10 items on a subscale that measures social desirability, or the extent to which respondents answer the questions desirably regardless of the content (Waring, 1984). To compute the total intimacy score, we subtracted the social desirability score from the total of the 80 intimacy items to yield a revised total intimacy score.

In the present study, the eight subscales of the WIQ were only modestly correlated (mean subscale intercorrelation was r = .26), which supports Waring’s claim that there are eight separate components of intimacy. Internal consistency reliability for the total scale and subscales ranged from .70 to .92 (alpha). These eight subscales and the total intimacy scale measured the nine dependent variables in this study.

Demographic Variables. In addition to the equity and intimacy scales, a short questionnaire was included that measured the following demographic variables: age, gender, number of years married, number of children, religious orientation, education level, and annual family income.


This study focused on two different types of perceived marital relationships-equitable and inequitable. However, we recognized that perceiving one’s relationship as underbenefited may result in more negative effects on marital intimacy than a perception of being overbenefited. So we first analyzed the differences in intimacy scores for these groups separately, by gender. We found no significant differences between the underbenefited and overbenefited groups on any intimacy subscales scores. So those spouses who reported they were overbenefited and those spouses who reported they were underbenefited were grouped into an “inequitable” category. This seemed justified based on these results and previous research that has shown that the specific kind of inequity, that is, underbenefited or overbenefited, is not predictive of relationship satisfaction. Rather, the more general categories of equitable or inequitable are predictive (Walster et al., 1977).

Mean scores and standard deviations for all dependent variables separated by gender and equity categories can be found in Tables 1 and 2. Analyses were conducted for husbands and wives separately in order to meet the requirement of independence of samples necessary in analysis of variance procedures (Kerlinger, 1986). The next analysis was a correlation procedure for the dependent variables. A correlation matrix for these dependent variables (the total intimacy score and the intimacy subscales of conflict resolution, affection, cohesion, sexual intimacy, identity, compatibility, autonomy, and expressiveness) is presented in Table 3. The independent variables (equity category and gender) are nominal variables, and therefore were not included in the matrix.

As Table 3 illustrates, some of the intimacy variables were found to be moderately correlated. However, the average correlation between the intimacy subscales and the total intimacy score was low, (r = .26). In order to control the experiment-wise error rate when analyzing multiple, correlated dependent variables, we first performed a multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) for husbands and wives separately (Haase & Ellis, 1987). Results showed there were significant differences between the equity groups on the intimacy measures for wives (F = 3.56 p

The first hypothesis was that “Compared to spouses in equitable relationships, spouses in inequitable relationships will report less total marital intimacy.” Results of the analyses only partially supported this hypothesis. Table 1 shows the means and standard deviations for the intimacy scores of equitable versus inequitable husbands and the analyses of variance results. Table 2 contains the same information using the wives’ scores. Table 1 illustrates that perceived equity did not have a significant effect on the total intimacy score for the husbands. For the wives, however, perceived equity did have a significant effect on total intimacy scores (see Table 2). More specifically, wives in inequitable relationships compared to those in equitable relationships reported significantly less total intimacy.

It was also hypothesized that, “compared to spouses in equitable relationships, spouses in inequitable relationships will report less conflict resolution intimacy, affection, cohesion, sexual intimacy, self-confidence, compatibility, expressiveness, and autonomy.” For the husbands, none of the differences in types of intimacy (see Table 1) can be considered significantly different because of the insignificant MANOVA result. As hypothesized, the wives who perceived their relationship as inequitable reported significantly less compatibility, less identity (self-confidence), and less expressiveness than those in equitable relationships (see Table 2). There were no significant differences between the equitable and inequitable wives’ groups on the other intimacy subscales.

The last two hypotheses referred to how perceived inequity may affect intimacy differently for men than for women. It was hypothesized that wives in inequitable relationships would report less total intimacy and lower scores on the eight subscales of intimacy than husbands in inequitable relationships. Although these two groups are unlikely to be entirely independent of each other, and hence, the use of MANOVA may be questionable, the use of this statistical analysis does not produce results that are necessarily meaningless (Schumm et al., 1985). In fact, “usually the levels of significance found for oneway ANOVAs (independent groups assumed) will be slightly less significant than if repeated measures designs had been used. Since the results are conservative estimates of the effect of family member status, the danger lies in overlooking actual member differences rather than in finding erroneous differences” (Schumm et al., 1985, p. 113). Thus, using MANOVA in the last analyses produced a conservative bias in our results. The MANOVA (F = 2.45, p

In summary, the hypotheses of this study were partially supported for wives only. Wives in inequitable relationships reported less compatibility, identity, expressiveness, and overall intimacy. When we compared husbands and wives in inequitable relationships, we found that the wives reported only lower identity scores than the husbands.


Although the hypotheses of this study were only partially supported, the results support some of the previous research on equity in marriage. It is clear that the wives’ perceptions of intimacy were more affected by perceived inequity than the husbands’ in this study. This finding supports other research on gender and intimacy, which has shown that compared to husbands, wives are generally more concerned with the quality of interpersonal relationships (Gilligan, 1982; Gottman, 1994; Olsen et al., 1983). Wives tend to monitor their relationships more closely than their husbands do (Bell, Daly, & Gonzalez, 1987; Gottman, 1994) and are more sensitive and responsive to what is going on in their marriages both in terms of the intimate climate and the level of equity (Thompson & Walker, 1989). Women also expect and seek more intimacy in marriage than men (Blechman, 1990; Thompson & Walker, 1989). Women are more likely than men to experience themselves through attachments and their ability to make and maintain relationships (Gilligan, 1982; Horst & Doherty, 1995; Knudson-Martin, 1995). Thus, women’s experience of intimacy in an inequitable marriage may be more likely to be negatively affected than men’s. In comparison, men may prioritize other things in marriage, such as their wife’s support for their work role (Knudson-Martin, 1995; Thompson & Walker, 1989).

Wives in inequitable relationships reported a lower identity level than wives in equitable relationships. Their identity was also lower than that of husbands in inequitable relationships. Those with low identity scores were likely to feel insecure in social situations, incompetent at many things, and not happy with many aspects of their personality, and to lack self-esteem when compared to others. In contrast, an equitable marriage may provide wives with more confidence and a stronger sense of who they are. Schafer, Keith, and Lorenz (1984) found a positive relationship between inequity in marriage and low selfconcepts in both spouses. In contrast, inequitable husbands’ identity was not as affected by inequity as inequitable wives’ identity. This may be due to the fact that husbands’ identity is more often related to career pursuits and successes than relationship dynamics (Thompson & Walker, 1989). Other explanations may be related to power differences in marriage (Goodrich, 1991; Hare-Mustin, 1994; Walsh, 1989). Since women generally experience less power than men in marriage, this may encourage them to be more sensitive than men to issues of fairness and justice and to monitor the relationship more because they have more to lose. In addition, they may feel less able to initiate change in an inequitable relationship (Amato & Rogers, 1997). This may result in a loss of intimacy for a longer period of time (Hatfield et al., 1985). In addition, the expectation that women should make more adjustments in marriage than men (Knudson-Martin, 1997; Walsh, 1989) and men’s perception of more power in marriage may give men more confidence that inequities in marriage can be rather quickly resolved by them, so their experience of intimacy is not as profoundly negatively affected compared to that of women (Gottman, 1994; Hare-Mustin, 1994; Knudson-Martin, 1995; Napier, 1988).

Wives in inequitable relationships also reported significantly lower levels of compatibility. This reflects less ability to comfortably work and play together and to share goals with their husbands. They also were less likely to have worked out male-female household roles, share the chores, or offer/receive assistance with unpleasant tasks. Wives’ feelings of anger or guilt as a result of inequity likely inhibit the development of these kinds of compatibility in marriage..

Another feeling associated with inequity is resentment. Having resentful feelings toward their husbands may partially explain why inequitable wives were less likely to express their positive thoughts, feelings, and attitudes to them. Inequity, and the resultant feelings (anger, resentment, depressive mood, guilt), most likely deter inequitable wives from listening to or caring about their husbands’ thoughts, feelings, and attitudes as well.

This study not only supports much of the equity literature but also extends it. Doherty has asserted that intimacy will not develop in marriage without fairness or equity (Doherty & Colangelo, 1984; Horst & Doherty, 1995). The results of this study indicate that inequity may only hinder a wife’s intimacy, and only certain types of intimacy (i.e., compatibility, identity, expressiveness), but is not associated with the absence of all kinds of intimacy for wives. For example, inequity did not significantly affect conflict resolution in this study. This may indicate that equity status has no bearing on couples’ conflict resolution skills, that is, on whether a couple resolves conflict by yelling, arguing, and fighting or by respecting differences and negotiating. Neither affection (frequent verbal and physical demonstrations of love, care, and consideration) nor sexual intimacy (an openness about sexual desires; enjoyment and excitement about sex with spouse; and feelings of closeness through sex) were significantly hindered by inequity. Nor did inequity significantly affect cohesion, defined in this study as valuing marriage above any other relationship and being committed to making the marriage work. It appears that such high valuing of marriage may actually help wives withstand perceived inequity, or it may be that they simply like to give to what they value. In other words, if they value the relationship they might expect to give more than they receive. Finally, autonomy, defined as the success with which the couple gains independence from their families of origin and their offspring, was not negatively affected by inequity.

These nonsignificant results are somewhat perplexing. They are contrary to Doherty’s (Horst & Doherty, 1995) analysis of equity and intimacy dynamics in marriage. He posits that affection, sexual intimacy, and cohesion will suffer in a woman’s marriage if the more basic issues of power, control, inequity, and justice are not first resolved. A possible explanation for these findings is that the women in this sample were experiencing a subtler and more pervasive inequity in their marriage. For many couples, the husband’s emotional experience, his feelings, tend to receive the most attention (Napier, 1988). This creates an “interpersonal inequity”, an imbalance in the importance of feelings in marriage (Napier, 1988). Often a husband is the “taker”, or the narcissistic partner, whereas his wife serves as the emotional “giver”, or the self-denying partner. Socialized and reinforced into this role, many wives may sacrifice, repress, deny, or ignore the resultant loss of intimacy in their marriage.

That there were no differences between inequitable and equitable husbands on any type of intimacy was puzzling. The authors expected that women’s experience of intimacy would be more affected by inequity than men’s, but it was surprising to find that men were not affected at all. Apparently equity is not a salient variable in affecting husband’s experience of intimacy. The fact that the sample in general was not dissatisfied in their marriages also may have some bearing. Conflict resolution, affection, cohesion, and sexual intimacy were present at fairly high levels in both the equitable and inequitable groups in this study. It could be that types of intimacy actually help men cope with inequity in relationships. It may be that inequity bothers men only when they are in distressed relationships. We need to learn more about processes that lead to inequity’s distressing men. Obviously the perceived existence of inequity alone is not sufficient to affect intimacy. If, however, the relationship is highly conflicted and the interaction is primarily negative, it may be that counting what one gives and gets becomes more important to men.

Past research has been limited mostly to showing that inequity leads to unsatisfying relationships. The findings of this study lead us to question whether this is always the case. Additionally, researchers have linked attitudes about intimacy and level of intimacy to overall marital satisfaction. This study bridges these concepts. It has gone a step further by showing how inequity may affect specific aspects of intimacy for wives, thus influencing their overall marital satisfaction.

Limitations and Future Research

One limitation of this study is that equity theory is a somewhat self-centered theory and may be inappropriate for those couples who value selflessness. The theory deals with fairness in interpersonal relationships. Some spouses may not be as concerned about the fairness in their marriage as the theory supposes. There are undoubtedly some spouses who simply give to a marriage for the sake of giving, without constant thoughts of monitoring a fairness level or even subconsciously keeping a tally on what is given and what is received. In addition, overall reward level in marriage may be more important to some couples than fairness or equity (Cate et al., 1982).

A second limitation relates to perceptions versus behavior. We measured perceived equity and intimacy in marriage rather than equitable and intimate behavior. Future research should focus on measuring these two constructs in behavioral terms. Walster’s four general questions used in calculating equity (Walster et al., 1977), which were used in the present study, are also a limitation. These questions may not allow the respondents to accurately assess more long-term equity in their relationships. They are not sensitive to the day-to-day fluctuations of perceived equity. Perhaps most important, they do not allow the respondent to rate a variety of marital dimensions in which equity/inequity occurs, for example, jobs, homework, child care, and money management. In which of these dimensions is perceived inequity most likely to matter to husbands? To wives?

Finally, the significant differences that were found were actually quite small (i.e., the differences between mean scores on all the intimacy variables for equitable spouses versus inequitable spouses was small-1 or 2 points). This suggests that inequity may not have a strong negative effect on intimacy. In fact, marital processes (e.g., communication) may be more important to marital intimacy than equity perceptions per se. If a couple can successfully negotiate, equity may not be as important if inequities are quickly resolved. However, inequity may predict intimacy better in distressed marriages than in nondistressed marriages. For example, Jacobson and Margolin (1979) have found that distressed couples are more likely than happy couples to focus on negative behaviors of their partners and to “tally up” what their partner “owes them”.

Future research is needed to understand the link between equity/inequity and marital intimacy. Interesting questions to pursue include the following: How congruent are husbands’ and wives’ perceptions of equity? Among congruent couples, does equity tilt toward underbenefited or overbenefited? Whose equity score is more predictive of the husband’s intimacy scores? His own, or his wife’s? Whose equity score is more predictive of the wife’s intimacy scores? Studying equity score combinations for couples (e.g., husband equitable/wife inequitable, or husband inequitable/wife equitable) may provide more systemic insight into the power of spousal perceived equity on intimacy levels in the relationship.

Finally, the definition of intimacy used in the present study (i.e., emotional warmth, expressiveness, vulnerability, and sensitivity) emphasized qualities more often associated with women than men (Bergman, 1995; Gilligan, 1982; Knudson-Martin, 1995). Future researchers need to broaden their definition of intimacy to include other kinds of sustenance and sharing that tend to be more masculine in nature, for example, intimacy expressed by economic support, practical help, or just being in one’s presence (Thompson & Walker, 1989).


Despite the limitations, these findings have several important implications for marriage and family therapists. First, it is important to emphasize again that intimacy will not develop to a satisfying level in a marriage until the more basic issues of perceived equity or fairness are first resolved (Doherty & Colangelo, 1984; Horst & Doherty, 1995). The findings of the present study suggest several specific guidelines for marital therapists. First, compared to husbands, wives are more likely to feel distressed about inequity and its effect on intimacy and therefore complain about it more in marital therapy. It also appears that inequity affects wives’ intimacy in a wider variety of ways than husbands’. More specifically, wives reported lower levels of compatibility when they perceived their relationships as inequitable. Compatibility refers to the couple’s ability to work and play together satisfactorily, which are critical elements of success in therapy. However, focusing on getting a wife to work and play better with her husband before dealing with inequity issues will likely result in failure. Recognizing inequity as a possible barrier for wives may, therefore, facilitate progress in therapy. Therapists should also be aware that low levels of selfesteem and expressiveness in wives were associated with inequity. This association may be directly related to the feelings of depression, resentment, and hurt that commonly accompany inequity (Schafer & Keith, 1980; Sprecher, 1986). Therefore interventions aimed at restoring equity in the marital relationship may assist wives in overcoming the depression, resentment, and hurt, which will likely increase their levels of expressiveness and self-esteem.

It is important to understand, however, that restoring equity may not be as simple as it may appear, especially for wives. Equity issues can be interpreted as power issues. These issues of power in a marriage may be blatantly obvious or quite subtle, but they generally work in favor of the husband (Goldner, 1985; Osmond & Thorne, 1993). A more subordinate wife who perceives her relationship as inequitable may have much more of a challenge in restoring equity than a more dominant husband would have. Therefore, when attempting to restore equity in therapy, issues of power must not be ignored (HareMartin, 1994; Horst & Doherty, 1995; Knudson-Martin, 1995; Walsh, 1989).

In assessing equity or fairness in the couple’s relationship the therapist can ask several questions:

Who is getting the best deal in this marriage?

What have you had to give up or give in on for this relationship? (Karpel, 1994, p. 101)

How do each of you see yourselves as trying to be fair? Do you see your partner the same way? Why?

Where are there disagreements about fairness?

How are disrespectful or even abusive comments or behaviors a reflection of damage to expectations of fairness in the relationship?

How do unfairness and mistrust relate to your problems with intimacy?

Because women have been socialized to attend to the relationship more intensely than men, their perceptions of equity and intimacy in marriage are more likely than men’s to be consistent with an outsider’s (i.e., therapist’s) observations. After assessing equity, it is important for marital therapists to utilize marital therapy approaches that are best suited for the presenting problem-in this case, inequity or fairness problems (Crane, 1996). We concur with Karpel (1994) that fairness issues can best be dealt with in couples therapy using a contextual therapy approach (Boszormenyi-Nagy & Krasner, 1986; Boszormenyi-Nagy & Spark, 1973) that focuses on the ethical dimension of relationships and reciprocity. This approach stresses that maintaining equity or fairness is one of the most important challenges for couples. When inequity occurs in a relationship, the underbenefited partner will try to “balance the ledger” (Boszormenyi-Nagy & Spark, 1973). Dysfunctional ways couples use to balance the marital ledger or restore equity include overpowering the other, either verbally through belittling or shaming, through physical intimidation, or by playing on the other’s weaknesses. Partners who perceive that they are already contributing far more than their share to the relationship may try to balance the ledger by self-disclosing less (emotional withdrawal), reassuring their partners less that they love and admire them, and be more reluctant to make sacrifices for their partner’s benefit (Walster et al., 1978). A more functional way to restore equity involves collaborating in a reciprocal manner to create a more trustworthy relationship (Karpel, 1994). Conflicts may be resolved by discussion and compromise or by demonstrating a willingness to give in now and then in the expectation that one’s partner will do the same.

Contextual therapists assume there is a constant oscillating balance of entitlement (e.g., deserved outcomes) and obligation (e.g., inputs) between spouses. A claim is a spouse’s entitlement to a benefit from the other. Making a claim requires assertiveness by a partner. For example, if a wife takes the kids to school every morning for a week so the husband can catch up on his rest, she may claim, “I went the extra mile for you last week; now I feel it’s my turn this week to get more sleep.” Her husband may acknowledge her claim by admitting the validity or fairness of her claim (Karpel, 1994). This requires him to listen empathically and perceive that there is some degree of residual trust built up in earlier in the relationship. Therapists should remember that a wife may struggle more than a husband in expressing her needs to her partner (Napier, 1988).

Equity or fairness involves “an ongoing effort by both partners to consider the legitimacy of each other’s claims and a willingness to try to find solutions in which neither party feels permanently short-changed” (Karpel, 1994, p. 36). This requires not only assertiveness skills and listening skills but also an attitude that both spouses’ needs are of equal importance and problem-solving skills (Knudson-Martin, 1997; Miller, et al, 1991). Thus, the therapist should first assess partners’ attitudes about equality and collaboration or compromise and then teach the couple problem-solving skills. Therapists who neglect checking attitudes first risk teaching spouses how to manipulate each other rather than collaborate with each other (Miller et al., 1991).

Therapists also should help couples repair their relationship when inequity inevitably occurs in marriage. “Repair involves rules that govern behavior when other rules are broken” (Karpel, 1994, p. 36). For example, when one partner has been unfair to the other, are there relationship norms that encourage and repair this violation of relationship rules? Examples of such rules are Never go to bed angry or Talk about issues, don’t stuff them. Such repair strategies can be taught to couples and may serve to prevent escalating cycles of accusation, defensiveness, and withdrawal. They may also result in forgiveness (Boszormenyi-Nagy & Krasner, 1986; Karpel, 1994).

For some couples, problems with equity may result from an individual’s unreliability. If this is the case, the therapist should assess the reasons for unreliability, which may include a daily schedule that is overwhelming to an individual, a lack of time management skills, or an inability to prioritize daily tasks. These problems should then be remediated in therapy.

In summary, equity, respect, reliability, and repair make it possible for individuals to trust their partners (Karpel, 1994). Trust is necessary for intimacy to develop. In a sense, intimacy is like the top of a pyramid. For most people, the foundation of the pyramid is trust that their partner is committed and will be fair or equitable when there is a conflict of interest (Doherty & Colangelo, 1984).


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Jeffry H. Larson Brigham Young University

Clark H. Hammond Oregon State University James M. Harper

Brigham Young Univers

Revision of a paper presented at the National Council on Family Relations Annual Meeting, November 1996, Kansas City, MO. Requests for reprints should be sent to Jeffry H. Larson, Director, Marriage & Family Therapy Program, 274 ZT.RB, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602.

Copyright American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Oct 1998

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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