Equity Theory and the Power Structure in a Marital Relationship

Cynthia Webster, Mississippi State University
Samantha Rice, Mississippi State University
ABSTRACT - Marital roles in purchase decision making is explored further by examining power structure shifts from couples' working years to retirement. Specifically, the authors use equity theory to help explain marital role changes as couples make the major life change of retirement. The findings indicate that significant marital power shifts in purchase decision making take place from working to retirement years among the more traditional and unequal-salaried couples, but not among equal-salaried couples. Further, the importance of the product category appears to moderate the relationship between the working/retirement lifestages and marital power in decision making.
[ to cite ]:
Cynthia Webster and Samantha Rice (1996) ,"Equity Theory and the Power Structure in a Marital Relationship", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 491-497.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 491-497


Cynthia Webster, Mississippi State University

Samantha Rice, Mississippi State University


Marital roles in purchase decision making is explored further by examining power structure shifts from couples' working years to retirement. Specifically, the authors use equity theory to help explain marital role changes as couples make the major life change of retirement. The findings indicate that significant marital power shifts in purchase decision making take place from working to retirement years among the more traditional and unequal-salaried couples, but not among equal-salaried couples. Further, the importance of the product category appears to moderate the relationship between the working/retirement lifestages and marital power in decision making.


The relationship between marital roles and decision making has been of considerable interest to researchers from various disciplines for several decades. The importance of the power structure in a marital relationship has been well documented in the psychological (e.g., Marin et al. 1989; O'Guinn, Imperia, and MacAdams 1987), sociological (e.g., Blood and Wolfe 1960; Kenkel 1961), and economic literature (Ferber 1973). Perhaps most importantly, our understanding of marital roles in decision making has been enhanced greatly by the research done in the marketing field, where we continue to explore the value that marital roles in decision making add to our knowledge of household consumption behavior.

Past related research has focused primarily on changes in marital roles across ethnic identification groups (Webster 1994), demographic and socioeconomic groups (Davis 1976; Green and Cunningham 1975; Munsinger, Weber, and Hansen 1975; Wolgast 1958; Woodside 1975), product attribute decisions (Davis 1970; Hempel 1974; Munsinger, Weber, and Hansen 1975; Woodside and Motes 1979), across different decision phases (Blood and Wolfe 1960; Bonfield 1978; Davis and Rigaux 1974; Hempel 1974; Kenkel 1961; Sharp and Mott 1956), and across the family life cycle (Cox 1975). However, none has concentrated on marital role shifts before and after retirement. In this research, we predict a significant change in relative influence in marital roles once a couple enters retirement and offer equity theory as an explanation of that change. The application of equity theory should depend on the particular economic situation that characterizes a marital relationship (i.e., employment status and money earned by one spouse relative to the other). Thus, the purpose of this study is to determine if the marital roles in decision making change significantly after retirement for three types of couples: the traditional couple (i.e., one where the husband is the "breadwinner" and the wife the "homemaker"), the unequal-salaried couple, and the equal-salaried couple.


While marital roles in purchase decision making have received considerable research attention, it is important to note that the majority of the published research is now quite dated. Past research efforts have primarily investigated the influence of individual factors in the decision making process in a marital relationship. For example, the socioeconomic factors studied include income (Davis 1976), job status (Woodside 1975), and education (Munsinger et al. 1975). Findings strongly suggest that as socioeconomic status increases, the power structure within the marital relationship tends to become more syncratic. In a study of Hispanics, Webster (1994) found that a decrease in ethnic identification led to more syncratic decision making. Other factors that have received research attention to determine how they affect marital roles in the purchase decision making include age (Green and Cunningham 1975), family life cycle, and length of marriage (Wolgast 1958). In general, as age and length of marriage increase and as the family life cycle progresses, the marital roles shift from syncratic to autonomic in nature. Yet another factor deemed important in the decision making process within a marital relationship is sex-role orientation (SRO). The SRO research has also shown that a more modern SRO, and hence more egalitarian decision making, is more likely to be present among those with a higher incomes and job status and among those who wait longer to have children (Hazuda, Stern, and Haffner 1988).

Research has shown that with respect to product attributes, men have traditionally been task-oriented leaders, while women have had more influence on emotional and social behavior. Thus, in a marital relationship, purchase decisions dominated by the husband have revolved around relatively "important and functional product attributes" (e.g., price) while the wife has been concerned more with relatively "minor and aesthetic product attributes" (e.g., color) Davis 1970; Hempel 1974; Munsinger et al. 1975; Woodside and Motes 1979).

Yet another area discussed in the literature concerning marital roles in decision making is the relative influence in or input into different decision phases. Traditionally, the husband has dominated in the purchase decisions, especially in what has been considered the more important decision phases. For example, research findings published more than three decades ago show that husbands tended to make the final decision to buy, whereas wives contributed more to the minor phases, such as suggesting the purchase (Blood and Wolfe 1960; Kenkel 1961; Sharp and Mott 1956).

Current Theoretical Orientations

The substantial body of research on marital roles has been mainly guided by three theoretical orientations: resource theory, ideology theory, and involvement. Resource theory argues that "the balance of power will be on the side of that partner who contributes the greatest resources to the marriage" (Blood and Wolfe 1660). Traditionally, husbands have held the majority of the power within the marriage because they have contributed more monetary resources (Davis 1976; Green and Cunningham 1975; Munsinger et al. 1975).

Ideology theory focuses on social norms and culturally determined attitudes (traditionalism/modernity) to predict the role each spouse will play within the marriage (Qualls 1987). In general, the culture into which one is socialized or the one with which one identifies will influence sex-role orientation. Several studies have found a significant relationship between sex-role orientation and relative influence in decision making (Green and Cunningham 1975; Lee 1989; Qualls 1987).

The third concept used to explain marital role power in decision making is involvement. The more highly involved the spouse is in the purchase decision and the more the spouse expresses interest in the product, the more influence that spouse will have in the final purchase decision (Qualls 1987). Traditionally, products have been stereotyped according to which spouse controls the purchase decision. For example, the traditional husband has typically been more involved in product categories such as insurance (Bonfield 1978; Davis and Rigaux 1974; Green et al. 1983), automobiles (Davis 1970; Green et al. 1983; Sharp and Mott 1956; Wolgast 1958), and televisions (Woodside and Motes 1979). Conversely, in past years, the wife has been involved more in products associated with the homemaker role, such as appliances (Green et al. 1983; Wolgast 1958), groceries (Bonfield 1978; Davis and Rigaux 1974; Green et al. 1983; Sharp and Mott 1956), and washing machines (Woodside and Motes 1979). (We remind the reader that the literature is quite dated.) In the current research, we borrow equity theory from the social psychology field to determine if it can aid in our understanding of changes in marital roles in purchase decision making as couples proceed through the life cycle.

Equity Theory

This study offers equity theory as another possible explanation of marital power in the decision making process. Equity theory is based on the assumption that individuals are motivated by their desire to be equitably treated in their relationships. The theory holds that one will compare his or her perceived ratio of inputs to outputs to that of a comparative other; inequity will exist if a person perceives his ratio to be lower than another's ratio. Adams' (1965) equity model consists of four essential postulates:

1) Perceived inequity creates tension in an individual.

2) The amount of tension is proportional to the magnitude of the inequity.

3) This created tension motivates the individual to reduce it.

4) The strength of the motivation to reduce the inequity is proportional to the perceived inequity.

Equity theory is a motivation theory that has primarily been used to describe how individuals in organizations react to inequitable compensation compared to other co-workers. Adam's equity model alludes to the fact that an employee who believes to be underrewarded for his or her responsibilities and efforts will strive to create a more equitable balance regarding both monetary and nonmonetary rewards. The application of equity theory can be extended to include other unfair situations, such as an individual who has been allocated a much lighter or heavier work load than a comparative other. Although a quick glance at dysfunctional relationships reveals that steps are not always taken to alter unfair situations, the inequitable relationship is likely to create tension that may be eventually reduced by making the necessary changes in the power base.

The family unit can be viewed as a type of organization in which each of its members expects to be treated fairly. For a couple who has entered the retirement stage of life, resource theory loses much of its applicability since no additional income is supplied by either spouse. However, equity theory states that one or both spouse(s) might feel inequitably treated because he or she is contributing more (or less) to the decision making process. Such a situation is likely to create tension, motivating at least one person to reduce the tension, thereby possibly leading to a more equitable environment.

While somewhat similar, there is a major difference between equity theory and resource theory. Resource theory allows only for the objective comparison of financial assets; on the other hand, equity theory includes comparing individuals on financial assets as well as on other significant factors, such as perceived effort exerted in paid work, housework, child care, financial implementation tasks, etc. Thus, equity theory is subjective in nature as it is based on the perceptions of the individuals involved in the relationship.

This research extends previous spousal decision-making research by primarily focusing on the retirement stage of the life cycle and by testing the applicability of equity theory as an explanation of the shifts in decision-making power as couples move from their working to retirement years. With respect to a couple's financial situation, three types of marital relationships will be considered here: the traditional family, the unequal-salaried family, and the equal-salaried family. The traditional family consists of a husband who is the breadwinner of the family and a wife who performs the role of homemaker. As discussed previously, prior research indicates that this household tends to be husband-dominant before retirement. Once retired, the husband no longer has work responsibilities, but the wife still has her household management responsibilities; thus, she did not retire. However, the husband may feel justified in maintaining the power to which he is accustomed. According to equity theory, the allocation of decision-making power would be out of balance. Hence, the wife is likely to perceive inequity in this relationship and might desire to reduce the tension by moving towards equality in decision making. Therefore, the power in the relationship should shift. For example, the decisions previous research shows as being traditionally controlled by the husband, such as the purchase of automobiles, electrical devices, major furniture items, as well as the decisions concerning the finances and entertainment activities, will be shared more equally between the couple after retirement. Likewise, the decisions concerning the purchase of products associated with the homemaker role will become more eqalitarian.

H1: The traditional family will become less husband-dominant in purchase decision making after retirement.

The second type of family to consider is the unequal-salaried couple. According to equity theory, the lesser-paid spouse will feel unfairly treated if the current decision-making responsibilities remain status quo. Equity theory suggests that an attempt will be made to reduce the perceived injustice by restoring the balance of power in the decision-making process. For example, in the unequal-salaried couple, decisions that once were dominated by the husband, such as finances, family vacations, automobiles, electronic devices, and furniture purchases, will be shared more equally between the couple. The wife would also share more of the routine purchasing decisions with her husband. Thus,

H2: In an unequal-salaried household after retirement, the lesser-paid spouse is likely to view the previous decision-making structure as unfair and attempt to reduce the resulting tension. Therefore, the decision making power will become more equally divided between the two parties.

The third marital situation to consider is the family in which spouses have equivalent salaries. As mentioned previously, resource theory suggests that the spouses will equally share the power before retirement; hence, the division of power in decision making is likely to be perceived as fair by both individuals. Thus, equity theory suggests that no significant changes will occur in decision-making power after retirement.

H3: The couple with equivalent salaries will continue to equally share decision-making power after retirement. Hence, there will be no significant shifts in decision-making power after retirement.



To test the hypotheses set forth in this study, three separate subsamples of married individuals (traditional, unequal-salaried, and equal-salaried) were selected from a major southern metropolitan area. The metropolitan area was sectioned first into nine areas and three of these areas were randomly selected. An analysis of the demographic composition of each area indicated that the three areas should yield a representative sample. Next, four starting points within each area were randomly selected. A systematic sampling technique was then used to select the direction, side of street, starting house, and subsequent households. During a two-month time period, trained field researchers delivered the self-administered questionnaires to couples in their zones. Interviewers were alternated among the three areas to further reduce potential interviewer error.

The interviewers screened the couples, explained the purpose the study, and then secured agreement of the eligible married couple to complete the questionnaire jointly. The couples discussed each product and decided together on a response category. While questioning one spouse has its advantages, many researchers feel that the perceptions of both husband and wife need to be considered in order to explain purchasing behavior (e.g., Rosen and Granbois 1983). To ensure joint participation, the researcher stayed with the couple during questionnaire completion.

The interviewers were instructed to approach couples until they each had a predetermined number of couples who met all of the screening requirements. The screening requirements were: (1) each spouse had to be retired, (2) the couple had to have been married before retirement, (3) the couple must have purchased products in the categories on which this study focused both before and after retirement, and (4) both parties of each couple had to feel that he or she could estimate correctly the relative influence over the years. Since cases in which the wife earned more money than her husband could alter the findings, the unequal-salaried couples had to be comprised of cases where the husband had been the dominant breadwinner. Furthermore, these couples were screened to ensure that the husband had earned at least 25% more than his wife when both were employed. A pilot study indicated that there must be at least a 25% difference in salary for the couple to perceive that they had been an unequal-salaried couple. On the other hand, the pilot study revealed that an equal-salaried couple was one in which the husband made no more than 10% of what his wife had earned. Thus, this additional screening requirement was imposed on the equal-salaried couples.

From 150 eligible couples, 121 agreed to participate, yielding an 80.7% response rate. The 19.3% refusal rate is considered not to be a problem since the examination of the characteristics of the couples who refused showed that they did not significantly differ in terms of demographics from those who agreed to participate. The sample is composed of 41 traditional couples, 46 unequal-salaried couples, and 34 equal-salaried couples. The characteristics of the three subsamples were compared to those of the U.S. population by conducting chi-square tests. All categories were well represented (p>.18) except for socioeconomic status (p=.04). The "traditional" subsample is slightly lower in socioeconomic status than its respective U.S. subpopulation.


Couples were queried about their relative influence in deciding what to buy and how much to spend with respect to nine product categories. Relying on past research (e.g., Rosen and Granbois 1983; Webster 1994), the product categories were categorized according to purchasing involvement. For each product category, couples were asked to estimate their relative influence during the first part of their working years (or their life together), during the latter half of their working years, and after retirement. Since the product categories of "financial decisions" and "household appliances" might be considered relatively heterogeneous, examples of each were given (e.g., decisions regarding how much money to save and decisions regarding an appliance such as a dishwasher).

The relative influence questions were rated on a validated (Davis 1970) five-point scale. The response categories were 1, "Husband decided"; 2, "Husband more than wife"; 3, "Equal"; 4, "Wife more than husband"; and 5, "Wife decided." Since these five categories refer only to the roles of husband and wife, the response to any given question represents a respondent's perception of the relative influence in the decision. While this well-established scale easily lends itself to comparing means of subgroups (e.g., the higher the mean, the greater the wife dominance), its use prohibits the determination of what "equal influence" actually means (i.e., syncratic or autonomic decision structures).


ANOVAs and MANOVAs were used to test the hypotheses. One-tailed t-tests were computed to determine if the change in power structure between the working years and retirement was significantly greater than that between the first and latter parts of the working years.


The data in Tables 1-3 summarize the changes in marital roles in decision making for the various product categories after couples have moved into the retirement stage of the lifecycle. The first three columns of each table present the group means for couples in the first half of their working years, the latter half of the working years, and after retirement. The last column reveal the F values for a single factor design testing for the effects of working/retirement stage on marital roles in product decision making.

Since both H1 and H2 predicted that marital power would become more egalitarian after retirement, the results of their testing will be presented simultaneously. The overall multivariate results in Tables 1 and 2 indicate that the working/retirement stage has a significant effect on marital roles. For both the traditional couples and the unequal-salaried couples, the working/retirement stage has a significant effect on marital roles for high- and medium-involvement product categories. With respect to both the traditional and unequal-salaried couples, 6 out of 9 of the univariate findings are significant. (The findings for grocery products, however, are the direct opposite of what was hypothesized.) As predicted, the change in marital power in decision making from working to retirement is significantly greater (t>2.07; p<.05) than that from the first half to the latter half of the couples' working years. Thus, H1 and H2 receive support.

An examination of the marital role cell means for the latter half of the working years in Tables 1 and 2 show that the decisions tend to be husband dominant. As predicted by equity theory, however, the power structure shifts towards more equal decision making orCin some cases (i.e., furniture purchases)Ctowards wife dominance. For both traditional and unequal-salaried couples, there was not a significant shift from husband dominance from the working years to retirement for household appliances, financial implementation decisions, and grocery products. A possible reason for these contradictory findings is that each one of these product categories represents those in which women have been traditionally interested (Green et al. 1983) and hence wives may not perceive that a significant gain in power would reduce any feelings of inequity. This reasoning is carried further to the changes in marital power with respect to the often routine chore of grocery shopping. This product category is characterized clearly by wife dominance while the husband is employed. Probably perceiving unfairness regarding this tiresome duty, she relinquishes some control after retirement occurs.



Equity theory predicted that there would not a significant change in marital power from the working to retirement years among the equal-salaried couples. Data in Table 3 indicate that none of the univariate or multivariate findings reached significance, thus lending support for H3.


Individuals, particularly those in the home environment, would seemingly expect to be treated fairly. If inequity exists, tension and conflict are likely to surface within the relationship and to reduce the conflict, at least one spouse is likely to be motivated to create a more equitable environment. This study focused on this issue by primarily examining how marital roles in purchase decision making change as three types of couples (traditional, unequal-salaried, and equal-salaried) move from working to retirement stages of their life cycle. Equity theory provided a deeper understanding as to why the power structure in both the traditional and the unequal-salaried households shift from husband dominance to greater equality in decision making. Equity theory also explains why the decision-making responsibilities continue to be an equal effort for the equal-salaried couples during the retirement years. While social norms regarding women's role in society have undergone drastic changes in the last three decades, the desire for fairness has always existed.

The present research found that for both the traditional and the unequal-salaried couples, changes in the marital roles for high- and medium-involvement product categories are considerable once retirement commences. This finding, which can be explained by equity theory, indicates that while the wife might have been satisfied with her employed and financially-superior husband dominating in the relatively important decisions, she is likely to perceive unfairness if his purchasing dominance remains intact since his other contributions have been significantly reduced. Another possible explanation for the current finding is that the husband may wish to be relieved from the pressure of making the majority of the important decisions once he is retired. Retirement brings about major life changes that could possibly have an impact on how individuals perceive the fairness of the division of decision-making responsibilities. According the equity theory, the husband who has a greater share of the decision-making responsibilities could possibly perceive this arrangement as inequitable because of the mental effort and time it requires and might wish to relinquish some of the decision-making power to the wife.

This study also found that no significant changes in marital roles occurred across couples of the three financial situations for the low-involvement product categories. Because low-involvement product decisions generally require less problem solving, the spouse who had less power in these decisions before retirement is not likely to perceive that inequity exists if the decision making power remains with him or her after retirement. Similarly, the spouse who had more power regarding products of little personal relevance is not likely to perceive unfairness because of the relatively small amount of decision-making effort required to make such purchases.





Although the current study supports equity theory as an explanation of the shift in power structure that occurs in a marital relationship after retirement, there are still several additional questions that need to be addressed in future research. First, the present study found that decision-making power changes are more considerable between the latter working and the retirement stages of the life cycle than between the early working and latter working stages of the life cycle. This pattern was found across all products and across couples representing each of the three financial situations. The larger shift in decision-making power appears as a result of retirement. Future research might concentrate on investigating additional reasons behind the more significant power change occurring after retirement. Second, this study focused only on two major decisions for each product categoryCwhat to buy and how much to spend. Future studies might include different types of decision phases, such as those regarding the information search process as well as more minor decisions. Third, an investigation might be made of other theories that can perhaps be used to predict how role structure and comparative influence might change after retirement. For example, time availability and the assumption of different product usage roles might help explain changes in marital roles in purchase decision making. Further, it would be interesting to incorporate different personality types with the concept of equity. For example, using Huseman, Hatfield and Miles, (1987) operationalization, how would a benevolent (those who prefer their outcome/input ratios to be less than the outcome/input ratios of the comparison other), an equity sensitive (those who prefer their outcome/input ratios to equal those of comparison others), and an entitled (those who prefer their outcome/input ratios to exceed the comparison other) react to the presence of inequity in a marital relationship after retirement? Finally, the present study excluded the unequal-salaried couple that consists of a wife who contributes more financial resources to the household than the husband. Since this type of household is becoming more prevalent, future research might include it in an investigation of the nature of relationship between working/retirement years and relative influence in decision making. It would be interesting to discover if the parameters of the relationship are similar to what was discovered in the current study.


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