Relative Influence in Purchase Decision Making: Married, Cohabitating, and Homosexual Couples

Michelle C. Reiss, Mississippi State University
Cynthia Webster, Mississippi State University
ABSTRACT - The purpose of this paper is to develop the conceptual foundation for investigating the extent to which established relative influence conceptsCresource theory, least-interested partner hypothesis, ideology theory, and involvementCexplain relative influence of partners in married, cohabitating, lesbian and gay dyads in purchase decisions. Based on the established theories and a review of the consumer behavior, sociological, and psychological literatures, we introduce several propositions regarding relative influence in decision making for both the traditional and less traditional couples. Emphasis is placed on laying the foundation for future research in the relative influence area.
[ to cite ]:
Michelle C. Reiss and Cynthia Webster (1997) ,"Relative Influence in Purchase Decision Making: Married, Cohabitating, and Homosexual Couples", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 42-47.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 42-47


Michelle C. Reiss, Mississippi State University

Cynthia Webster, Mississippi State University


The purpose of this paper is to develop the conceptual foundation for investigating the extent to which established relative influence conceptsCresource theory, least-interested partner hypothesis, ideology theory, and involvementCexplain relative influence of partners in married, cohabitating, lesbian and gay dyads in purchase decisions. Based on the established theories and a review of the consumer behavior, sociological, and psychological literatures, we introduce several propositions regarding relative influence in decision making for both the traditional and less traditional couples. Emphasis is placed on laying the foundation for future research in the relative influence area.

For several decades spousal roles in purchase decision making have received considerable research attention. On the other hand, very little research attention has been given to the decision-making behavior of nonmarried [The term "nonmarried" is used here to refer to heterosexual and homosexual couples who reside together and who have not legally married.] couples. This paucity of research attention is surprising because nonfamily households are growing at a much faster rate than family households.

The purpose of this research is to provide the conceptual foundation for investigating relative influece in purchase decision making between partners in traditional and nontraditional couples. Specifically, the four primary concepts which have provided the theoretical foundation for explaining relative influenceCresource theory, least-interested partner hypothesis, ideology theory, and involvementCwill be applied to relative influence patterns between married, cohabiting, lesbian, and gay couples.

The remainder of this paper is organized according to the theoretical underpinnings. A theory is presented first and propositions are then made for the traditional and nontraditional couples. It is important to remember that not all propositions are based on equal evidenceCthe external validity of certain studies was lessened due to the use of smaller sample sizes in limited geographical areas. The propositions are formulated to guide and stimulate future research endeavors.

Resource Theory

Resource theory holds that the party who possesses the greatest socioeconomic resources is the one who will have more power (Rodman 1967). Resources include socioeconomic factors such as education, occupational status, income and other resources such as community participation and organizational membership (Lee 1987). According to Rodman (1972), the U.S. is considered a transitional egalitarian society, meaning that norms are becoming more egalitarian but are not yet sufficiently certain to guarantee that all marriages will be egalitarian. This normative ambiguity allows resource factors to operate freely. When power is negotiable, resources become relevant in the manner described by resource theory, and they correlate positively with power in marriage (Lee 1987).

Married couples. Research relying on resource theory as an explanation of relative influence has generally focused on married couples and has generally concluded that resources maintained by each spouse provide a degree of leverage in the exchange relationship (Lee 1987). Significant relationships have been found between relative influence in marriage and education (e.g., Rosen and Granbois 1983), job status (e.g., Rosen and Granbois 1983), and income (e.g., Green and Cunningham 1975). Men have traditionally possessed more power because they held more of these resources. However, the relative influence of married females in the U.S. has increased in recent years because more wives are working outside the home and questioning the traditional sex roles. Married couples with a more modern sex-role orientation are more willing to shop jointly for major items that would have been the responsibility of one spouse in more traditionally-oriented families (Lavin 1993).

Cohabiting couples. The institution of marriage supposedly gives the husband more influence over his wife than the male over his partner in cohabitation (Stafford, Backman, and Dibona 1977). The difference in influence is primarily due to the stronger social sanctions associated with the institution of marriage (Nock 1995). More specifically, the more one is committed to a relationship, the greater the likelihood of tolerating an inequitable situation (Blau 1964).

Compared to married partners, partners in cohabitating dyads appear to be more similar with respect to age, income, education and job prestige, and attitudes regarding egalitarianism (Kurdek and Schmitt 1987). Further, cohabitating women, as opposed to married women, are more likely to be employed outside of the home and to consequently have their own income (Blair 1994). Thus, we expect that resource theory will be a better predictor of relative influence among married couples than among cohabiting couples.

Proposition 1: Purchase decision making among cohabitating couples is less likely to be influenced by resource-related characteristics than among married couples.

Lesbian couples. While some studies have implied that resource theory explains relative influence among lesbian coples (Caldwell and Peplau 1984), other studies found no association between resources and power in lesbian dyads (Bell and Weinberg 1978; Blumstein and Schwartz 1983; Reilly and Lynch 1990). Further, lesbian partners tend to be similar to one another with respect to both demographic and socioeconomic characteristics (Kurdek and Schmitt 1987) and tend to agree on the equitable nature of their relationships. Therefore, we propose that resource theory will be less applicable to relative influence among lesbian couples than among married couples.

Proposition 2: Compared to married couples, purchase decision making among lesbian couples is less likely to be influenced by resource-related characteristics.

Gay couples. Decision-making equality is a prerequisite of successful gay relationships (Dines 1990). Perhaps this is due to the fact thatCcompared to married heterosexualsCgay partners tend to be more similar to each other in the possession of traditional bases of power (Harry 1982). Since both parties in a gay relationship are typically employed and have a relatively high educational attainment, the importance of resources as a basis for power declines.

Proposition 3: Compared to married couples, relative influence in decision making among gay male couples is less likely to be affected by resource-related characteristics.

As mentioned previously, lesbian partners tend to share similar socioeconomic characteristics. Comparably, both partners in gay couples tend to be equitable along resource factor lines and in the possession of traditional bases of power (Harry 1982). Therefore,

Proposition 4: No differences in the relation between resources and relative influence will exist between gay male couples and lesbian couples.

However, age was found to be a significant predictor of power in decision making within gay relationships, especially among gay cohabitors (Harry 1983). The older partner frequently provided direction and stability to the younger partner, thus creating a complementary dyad (McWhirter and Mattison 1984). Gays who prefer a dominant role are more likely to prefer younger partners than partners lower in socioeconomic status. Similarly, gays who prefer a subordinate role are likely to be more attracted to older men than to peers.

Proposition 5: Age will be a stronger predictor of relative influence among gays than socioeconomic variables.

Proposition 6: The older partner in a gay dyad will possess greater relative influence in purchase decision making than his younger counterpart.

Ideology Theory

Ideology theory or role theory concentrates on social norms and culturally determined attitudes to predict the role each spouse will perform within the marriage (Qualls 1987). Ideology or gender roles are sets of behavior that society considers appropriate for members of each sex (Marecek, Finn, and Cardell 1982). Traditionally, society considered it appropriate for females to be socialized to perform the nurturing, social-emotional, homemaker role and males to be socialized to perform the competitive, breadwinner role (Thompson and Walker 1989). Past research has found a significant relationship between sex-role orientation and relative influence in decision making (e.g., Green and Cunningham 1975; Qualls 1987; Webster 1994).

Married couples. Research published in the 1970s revealed that sex-role differences in purchase decision making exist among married couples. For instance, decisions regarding some products (i.e., appliances, groceries) tend to be in the domain of the wife who adheres to traditional sex roles, whereas other dcisions (i.e, insurance, automobiles) tend to be in the domain of the patriarchal husband. Similarly, the husband had more influence over more important and functional product attributes, whereas the wife had more influence over relatively minor, aesthetic product attributes (e.g., Green and Cunningham 1975; Woodside and Motes 1979). In general, the adherence to more traditional sex roles positively relates to husband dominance where more modern sex roles are associated with greater equality in decision making (Green and Cunningham 1975; Webster 1994).

One study on family gender roles found that while roles (i.e., women working outside the home) and attitudes (i.e., positive feelings toward women’s involvement in work) are becoming more egalitarian, behavioral change (i.e., joint decision making) has occurred at a much slower pace (Caycedo, Wang and Bahr 1991; Bahr 1991). With respect to attitudes, per se, women and relatively young individuals were found to have more egalitarian attitudes than men and older individuals. Another study, focusing on Chinese and American males, found a positive correlation between the perceived number of joint decisions and egalitarianism for the final-decision stage (Ford et al. 1995). Males exhibiting a higher level of egalitarianism tend to be more sensitive toward the inclusion of both husband and wife in the final decision phase and are associated with less patriarchal societies.

Cohabitating couples. The relation between conventional sex roles and marriage has been established within the literature (Kotkin 1985; Stafford et. al. 1977), whereas, the results have been mixed concerning the relation between less conventional sex roles and cohabitation. Some researchers have suggested that both married and cohabitating couples report fairly traditional sex role behavior (Risman et al. 1981; Stafford et al. 1977; Yllo 1978), while others have found that cohabitants display less traditional sex-roles in both their attitudes and behavior (Kotkin 1985; Tanfer 1987; Cunningham and Antill 1994; Huffman et. al. 1994).

Based on the most recent research, the disposition to cohabitate is related to more liberal attitudes toward sexual behavior, less traditional views of marriage, and to less traditional views of sex roles (Huffman et. al. 1994). Intuitively, it follows that if cohabitors have less traditional views of sex roles, they will also portray more egalitarian purchase decision making within their relations. Therefore, we propose that individuals in cohabitating couples who adhere to less traditional sex roles will exhibit more equitable purchase decision making:

Proposition 7: Ideology theory will be a better predictor of relative influence for married couples than for cohabitating couples.

Homosexual couples. Most contemporary homosexual relationships do not conform strictly to traditional "masculine" and "feminine" roles; instead, role flexibility and turn-taking are more common patterns (Dines 1990). Gender role playing is diminished in lesbian and gay couples because of the tendency to endorse feminist values, the efforts to eradicate traditional gender roles and the striving of both lesbians and gays to create new forms of relationships different from those of heterosexual couples (Marecek et al. 1982). Research has revealed that heterosexual couples tend to be more sex-role differentiated than lesbian couples, who, in turn, are more sex-role differentiated than gay males (Cardell et al. 1981). Lesbians tend to have higher masculinity scores than heterosexual women due to higher self-ratings on independence. Gay men tend to have lower masculinity scores than heterosexual men due to low competitiveness ratings (Finlay and Scheltema 1991). These findings indicate that masculinity and femininity measures are useless and unreliable when studying the traits of homosexuals. Hence, a focus on personality characteristics may be more beneficial in determining purchase decision influence.

Lesbian Couples. Research ha shown that less than 20 percent of lesbians actually engage in role playing based on traditional gender roles (Dines, 1990). Therefore, the traditional heterosexual marriage is not the predominant model for lesbian couples (e.g. Blumstein and Schwartz 1983; Caldwell and Peplau 1984; Lynch and Reilly 1985). Lesbian couples have not created their relationships around many of the traditional variables that have accorded one partner greater power over the other, thus indicating that the egalitarian ideal is prevalent in lesbian relationships (Reilly and Lynch 1990). Thus,

Proposition 8: Compared to married couples, purchase decision making among lesbian couples is less likely to be influenced by traditional sex role based differences.

Gay Couples. Early writers on gays suggested that these men modeled their relationships on traditional heterosexual gender roles (Bieber et al. 1962; Socarides 1968; McDonald and Moore 1978; Jones and DeCecco 1982; Storms 1980). However, other works have found little support for this notion (Haist and Hewitt 1974; Harry 1982; Saghir and Robins 1973). Indeed, some gay men have been found to have the ability to be flexible in their sex-typed roles and are able to switch between typically masculine and feminine behaviors (Westmoreland 1975). Thus,

Proposition 9: Compared to married couples, relative influence in decision making among gay couples is less likely to be influenced by traditional sex-role differences.

Since traditional role bases, such as the social construction of masculinity versus femininity, is not considered reliable for describing same-sex couples, how should roles be measured in these relations? Several authors have found that the relations of lesbians and gays involve less gender role playing and that the traditional sex role inventories (i.e., Bem Sex Role Inventory) do not predict sex role differentiated behavior (Cardell et. al. 1981; Finlay and Scheltema 1991).

In an early conceptualization, three hypothetical models were presented describing how roles might be allocated in same-sex couples (Marecek et. al. 1982). The first model posited that realistic factors lead one partner to accept certain responsibilities. Additional behaviors associated with the original behavior will then be assumed by this partner. The second model presumes that the masculine role is valued and rewarded more than the feminine role; therefore, the claim to the masculine role will be made by the partner who is the most powerful in the dyad. The final model is based on gender identities or how "male" or "female" one feels. The authors propose that in homosexual couples, even small differences in gender identities might lead to assuming different gender roles and consequently to a different levels of influence in purchase decision making. The authors point out that this view is speculative and perhaps controversial.

Although the literature reveals several conceptualizations of how roles are played out in same-sex couples, very few, if any, have been empirically tested. Therefore, it can be informally concluded that the question remains unanswered as to how roles are allocated in same-sex couples, as well as how they affect relative influence in purchase decision making.

Least-Interested Partner Hypothesis

The least-interested partner hypothesis states that power can be understood in terms of who is less committed or less involved in the relationship (Waller 1938; Peplau 1984). The least-interested partner will feel that he/she has less to lose, resulting in less willingness to please the other partner. This decrease in dependence results in an increase in power for the less-in-love partner (Sprecher 1985). On the other hand, the more "interested partner" is more anxious to maintain the relationship even if he/she offers more resources andreceives fewer in return (Safilios-Rothschild 1976).

Married couples. Applications of the principle of least-interest have revealed that the more wives loved their husbands, the less coercive they were; the more husbands were committed to their wives and the marriage, the less control they possessed; and the greater the husband’s income relative to his wife’s, the more power he possessed in decision making (Safilios-Rothschild 1976; Godwin and Scanzoni 1990).

Cohabitating couples. In general, research in the U.S. has found that cohabitating couples report significantly less commitment than married couples (Macklin 1983; Nock 1995). Further, the male in cohabitating couples is particularly less committed (Lyness et. al. 1972). Based on the least-interested partner hypothesis, the individual who has less interest will hold more power in that relationship. If cohabitating males actually are less committed to their partners, they may have more of a power base than that of married males over their partners (Johnson 1972).

Proposition 10: There will be no significant difference between cohabitating and married couples regarding the extent to which the least-interested partner hypothesis explains relative influence.

Proposition 11: The male in cohabitating couples will be more likely to be the least-interested partner than the female in cohabitating couples and, therefore, dominate in purchase decision making.

Since the least-interested partner hypothesis appears to be not affected by sex-role orientation, it can be applied also to homosexual couples. The partner least concerned about preserving the relationship can deter opposition to his or her choices by being more willing than the other partner to leave the relationship. Since these same factors operate in marriage, it is proposed that the least-interested partner hypothesis will affect relative influence of married and homosexual couples in the same manner.

Proposition 12: There will be no significant difference between married and homosexual couples regarding the extent to which the least-interested partner hypothesis explains relative influence.

With respect to lesbian relationships, two distinct value orientations have been presented in the literature-dyadic attachment and personal autonomy (Peplau et al. 1978). First, dyadic attachment emphasizes emotionally close love relationships and is characterized by wanting to spend more time with the partner and worrying less that personal independence will create difficulties for the relation (Peplau et al. 1978). Second, personal autonomy emphasizes independence and self-actualization that may lead to questioning the traditional patterns of love relationships. Autonomy is characterized by wanting to spend less time with the partner, being less willing to maintain the relation at the expense of work or education, and worrying about having an overly dependent partner (Peplau et al. 1978). Hence, it seems likely that these value orientations will affect which individual is the least-interested partner in a lesbian relationship. Lesbians who endorse the value orientation of personal autonomy are likely to have less interest in the relationship and maintain more power in purchase decision making. Thus,

Proposition 13: In a lesbian couple, the partner who endorses personal autonomy orientations to a greater degree than dyadic attachment orientations will maintain greater relative influence in purchase decision making.

Involvement Theory

Involvement theory posits that the individual in a relationship that is more highly involved with a product will have more decision-making power regarding that product (Qualls 1987). Within the marital dyad, one study found tat involvementCthe relative importance of the task goal to an individualCis the most important predictor of decision making influence (Corfmann and Lehmann 1987). Dated studies found that men have more power in purchase decisions regarding products in which men have traditionally been interested (i.e., insurance and automobiles) (Bonfield 1978; Davis and Rigaux 1974; Green et al. 1983; Sharp and Mott 1956; Wolgast 1958; Woodside and Motes 1979). Similarly, women have been found to have more power regarding products in which women were traditionally interested (i.e., groceries and appliances) (Bonfield 1978; Davis and Rigaux 1976; Green et al. 1983; Sharp and Mott 1956; Wolgast 1958; Woodside and Motes 1979).

To date, empirical research has not been published on relative influence of nonmarried couples that uses the involvement concept as a theoretical base. With respect to cohabitants, it seems reasonable to expect that no significant difference in the way involvement affects relative influence in purchase decision making will exist when compared to married couples. With respect to homosexual couples, research has shown that lesbian couples tend to characterize their relationships as relatively egalitarian in decision making for household task assignments, leisure activity choices, residence location, finances, and selection of friends (Bell and Weinberg 1978; Brooks 1981; Blumstein and Schwartz 1983; Schneider 1986; Brooks 1981; Caldwell and Peplau 1984; Tanner 1978). Further, equality in decision making was found to occur across several product categories (e.g., cars, insurance, money for food, vacations, restaurants, leisure, and house or apartment) (Lynch and Reilly (1985/86). Therefore,

Proposition 14: No differences will exist among married, cohabitating, or homosexual couples concerning involvement theory. The partner most interested and involved in the purchase of a particular product will have more relative influence concerning that product.

Interaction Between Involvement and the Least Interested Partner Hypothesis

A possible link or interaction effect may exist between involvement theory and the least-interested partner hypothesis. The partner in a relationship (whether it be a married or nonmarried couple) who is less in love will maintain the greatest power in purchase decision making due to his or her emotional independence from the other partner. Intuitively, one instance in which this power may be lessened is when the "more in love" partner is more involved with a specific purchase. In this case, the importance of the task goal (purchase of the product) will override feelings of strictly wanting to please the dominant partner and will result in an increase in power. Based on this line of thinking, we speculate that:

Proposition 15: Involvement will override the least-interested partner hypothesis in decision making. Specifically, the "more interested," more highly involved partner will have more influence in decision making than the "less interested" (i.e., the partner less in love), less involved partner.


The premise of the current research is to broaden our understanding of relative influence in purchase decision making by propositioning the extent to which established concepts explain relative influence of partners in four different types of couples: the traditional married couple and three more contemporary types of couplesCcohabitating heterosexual, lesbian, and gay. Our inclusion of less traditional couples is deemed important because of the drastic increase in the number of households comprised of nonmarried individuals.

Four main theories were used as the theoretical orientation for the proposed researchCresource theory, ideology theory, the least-interested partner hypothesis, and the involvement concept. The proposed research provides a preliminary step toward determining the extent to which established theory applies to more contemporary households.

Research on power and purchase decision making of married couples was used as the reference point to which nonmarried households were compared. No differences between the married, cohabitating, lesbian, and gay couples were proposed to exist with respect to the least-interested partner hypothesis and the involvement concept.

On the other hand, the parameters of the relationships between the two other theories, resource and ideology, and relative influence in purchase decision making are expected to differ across couple type. Based on previous research, cohabitating couples are expected to be influenced less by resource-related characteristics and sex-role orientation behaviors due to their demographic and socioeconomic similarities and their display of more non-traditional sex-role related behaviors when compared to married couples.

Homosexual couples are proposed to be less influenced by resource-related factors and sex-role orientation behaviors. With respect to lesbian couples, the distribution of power appears to be not dependent upon age, income, education, or asset differences (Reilly and Lynch 1990). Resource factors have also not been found to be significant determinants of power in gay relationships; however, age appears to be an influential factor. Furthermore, the traditional role variables that have accorded one partner greater power over the other in marital dyads seem to be not applicable to both lesbian and gay couples. Therefore, this research proposes that predicting relative influence among homosexual couples strictly by the roles associated with sexual orientation may be misleading. Future research should examine how personality traits and value orientations create differences in influence in purchase decisions within the homosexual couple. For instance, male homosexuals have been found to be less masculine, more tender-minded, less dominate, more unconventional, and less submissive to authority than heterosexual males (c.f. Delozier and Rodrique 1996). Conversely, lesbians have been found to be more dominant, independent and tough-minded than heterosexual females. These traits and values may lead to differences in the allocation of power in purchase decision making.

The preceding conceptualization also provides further direction for future research. For example, a variable possibly affecting each of the discussed theoriesCcommitmentCwill be investigated by the authors. For cohabitors, both men and women have been found to display significantly less commitment than other couples (Macklin 1983). This could lead to an imbalance of power (Huffman et. al. 1994). It has been found that the major motivation of men and women in cohabitating relations is substantially differentCmen are likely to perceive cohabitation as a convenience, where women are likely to perceive cohabitation as a path to marriage (Huffman et al. 1994). These differences in perception could lead to an imbalance in power favoring the male. For homosexuals, the lowest levels of commitment have been reported by gay males (Duffy and Rusbult 1985/86).

Second, the role of time allocation patterns in household consumption is another area of interest that will be extended to nontraditional families. In married households, the most important factors influencing a household’s choice of purchase decision maker are hours of market labor supplied by the male and female (Blaylock and Smallwood 1987). This research could easily be extended to determine if any differences exist between married and nonmarried households.

Third, the application of human capital theory (Becker 1975) to both traditional and non-traditional families may add to our understanding of relative influence. The primary basis of human capital theory relies on the concept of return on invesment. When individuals invest such resources as time, money and energy toward education, training, etc., they are likely to expect some return on their investment. This return on investment could be expected in the form of monetary returns or even social recognition. In regard to relationship dyads, they may also expect to have a certain degree of influence in purchase decision making relative to their investment. This influence may be heightened if inequality exists between the partners’ "resources". Thus, research effort should be expended on determining the extent to which human capital theory explains relative influence across different types of couples.

Finally, lifestyle characteristics of non-traditional families, such as social class, earnings, occupation, and family structure could contribute to different consumption processes. We intend to ascertain if demographic and socioeconomic differences between married and homosexual couples contribute to distinct allocations of power in purchase decision making. Further, research might focus on determining the psychographic differences and similarities between married and nonmarried couples and whether psychographic factors moderate the extent to which a particular theory (i.e., resource) predicts relative influence.


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