Relational Value in Relationships

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

Relational value refers to how much each person values the relationship. Lying, betrayal, rejection, and even criticizing are all bitter experiences that hurt us through the imbalance of relational value. So, is relational value positive or negative?

Happy couple with gift box at home
How much do you value your partner in a relationship? (Image: Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

Everyone has had experiences where they were “disappointed” in a relationship, regardless of the type of that relationship. A ubiquitous expression associated with such experiences is “that hurt my feelings”. Examples are countless: when one’s romantic partner betrays them, when a good friend does not invite them to their party, when they are taken for granted, when they are lied to, and many other hurtful events. Why does it feel so bad and painful to experience these incidents?

One study with more than 160 participants aimed to answer this question. They asked the participants to describe a situation where their feelings were hurt. Next, the researchers grouped the experiences into six main categories:

  1. Explicit cases of rejection
  2. Situations where a person felt that the others rejected or ignored them, but without explicit rejection
  3. Criticism
  4. Betrayal
  5. Being mocked
  6. Feeling unappreciated or being taken for granted

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

So, feelings can be hurt by any action that falls into one of these categories. Besides, each emotion needs a cognitive appraisal to create it; for example, an assessment of harm leads to fear. But what is the cognitive appraisal that characterizes hurt feelings? The study mentioned above initially assumed that rejection leads to hurt feelings. But not all of the categories involve rejection. The researchers then concluded that feelings are hurt when one’s relational value to another person is lower than they want it to be.

Learn more about solving psychological mysteries.

What Is Relational Value?

People value their relationships differently. No one thinks of their relationship with a colleague as highly as their friendship with a childhood friend or a romantic partner. This is normal and even right in everyone’s life, and people accept it easily. A colleague does not expect you to surprise them for their birthday with an expensive gift. The value that each person perceives of a relationship is called the relational value.

Relational value exists on both sides of a relationship. Every person knows their own relational value and has assumptions of the relational value from the other side, as well. The feelings of person A are hurt when they realize person B values their relationship less than they expected. Hence, the cognitive appraisal that leads to hurt feelings is perceiving a lower relational value in the relationship than expected. For example, when one’s friend looks into their eyes and says, “I don’t want to be your friend anymore,” they are explicitly rejecting this person and showing them the relational value on their side is much lower than expected. What about other behaviors that hurt feelings?

Learn more about what makes people happy.

Relational Value in Hurtful Behaviors

As previously mentioned, the study concluded there are six categories of actions that hurt feelings. All of these categories involve lower relational value than expected. Once again, low relational value is understood and accepted by everyone, as it is impossible and unnecessary to maintain all relationships at the same level. Feelings are hurt when one side of the relationship values it less, and the other side is not aware of it. This happens in all of the six categories.

Image of shocked woman
Feelings are hurt when one side of the relationship values it less, and the other side is not aware of it. (Image: fizkes/Shutterstock)

In explicit rejection – the example mentioned in the previous section – the other person openly confirms that their relational value is lower than yours. In the second category, there is no explicit rejection, but the person implies the lower relational value by their behavior. For example, they do not return your phone call or avoid you at a party.

In the case of criticism, low relational value is perceived since being criticized shows that the other person evaluates something about us negatively. The undesirable characteristics can damage the value of our relationship for the other person. That is why a woman is deeply hurt by her husband’s “you have put on some weight,” even if it is true. Likewise, if a person betrays or mocks you, it clearly means that they do not truly value the relationship; otherwise, they would not do something that torments you. Not being appreciated also shows how the other person does not value your efforts, investment, and your presence in the relationship. But why does it ‘hurt’?

Learn more about why we care so much about what others think of us.

Affective Component of Pain and Its Role

Pain has two components: physical and emotional. The physical aspect is the body’s response to a pain trigger, and the emotional dimension is how the pain distresses the person in pain. When the relational value is lower than one believes, the emotional component region of the brain is activated. For instance, when your spouse tells you they want a divorce (case of explicit rejection), your brain shows the same psychological reaction that it does when your hand is cut. Thus, ‘hurt’ is the most appropriate word to describe the feelings in such a situation.

Why should we get emotionally hurt? To answer this question, first, we consider the tangible physical pain. Why should our hand hurt when it is cut? Pain is the alarm that keeps us from harming ourselves, and thus, from getting ourselves killed. People who cannot feel pain, for example, those born with congenital analgesia, always have to be alert and try hard not to injure or accidentally kill themselves.

A set of three turquoise dice with a heart, a happy face and a sad face made on each, showing the concept of jealousy
Pain is the alarm that keeps us from harming ourselves. (Image: patronestaff/Shutterstock)

Initially, the pain was only physical, but when social harm started killing people, the body evolved. When the primitive human life evolved, and societies were formed, being accepted in a community became a vital component of survival. So, the human body changed the pain system from merely physical to physical and psychological, to stop humans from doing socially harmful things. Thus far, being accepted in a society is a vital survival condition. Human societies have become more complex, and so have the socially harmful behavior. So, the brain assesses the relational value in relationships to find the right place for us to be and survive.

Common Questions about Relational Value

Q: How do relational values affect relationships?

If the relational value is not as believed on both sides, hurtful actions may occur. For example, if your romantic partner takes you for granted, it will hurt your feelings, because you believed that they have a higher relational value and expected a different behavior.

Q: Can a relationship work if you have different values?

If the relational value in a relationship is not balanced, it can harm the relationship. The behaviors show how much each person values that relationship, and if an action shows less relational value than expected, the other person’s feelings will be hurt.

Q: Why is being valued important?

Being accepted in a society is a vital component of human survival. Evolution created a pain alert for relational value in relationships to keep humans from doing socially harmful things. Thus, being valued gained high importance, and if one perceives lower value than expected, this will activate the pain alarm.

Q: What is the relational value?

The relational value in the relationship is the value that each person perceives in a relationship.

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