Are You Special To Your Partner Or Just Simply Useful?

New research sheds light on an uncomfortable truth in intimate relationships.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 8, 2022

A new study published in The British Journal of Social Psychology explores a rarely talked about relationship problem that has to do with using one's partner as a tool to facilitate one's own goal achievement — a mindset that the researchers call an 'instrumentality perspective.' 

According to the authors of the research, this approach is a result of an 'exchange mode' of thinking which involves a cost-versus-benefits analysis of a situation and often leads to poor relationship satisfaction.

Social psychologists Xijing Wang from the City University of Hong Kong and Hao Chen from Nankai University in China were inspired to study this topic because of their interest in cultural differences in dating and marriage. The Chinese blind date market and the existence of bride price and royal intermarriages are examples of strategic matches found in some cultures.

According to Wang, instrumentality is a dimension of objectification and, under an instrumentality perspective, people are degraded as pure tools whose function is to facilitate others' goal achievement. In essence, once we take an instrumental approach, we only care about how useful that person is to us.

Scholars have argued that although people are concerned about closeness and bonding in their social interactions, any form of relationship is still associated with the calculation of rewards and costs.

In fact, from the perspective of evolutionary psychologists, romantic relationships are strategic games in which each party uses his or her mate value — defined as the extent to which one possesses desirable qualities as demanded by the dating market — to exchange with the value of the other party. 

For instance, women can use their physical attractiveness to trade for men's resources. Men can use their status to exchange for women's fertility.

To study how an exchange orientation affects relationships, Wang and Chen induced an exchange orientation in couples in both new and established relationships over a series of studies.

They found a consistent link between an exchange orientation and instrumentality, the primary motive behind which was to maximize self-gain. They also found that taking an instrumentality approach impaired the relationships' quality and satisfaction.

Interestingly, this link remained consistent in both sexes, across different stages of the relationships, as well as across different nations (e.g., the United Kingdom, the United States, and China).

According to Wang, both men and women in intimate relationships can adopt an exchange orientation temporarily and permanently, which in turn can trigger them to perceive and treat their romantic partners differently. 

There are two reasons why this approach can have negative effects on an intimate relationship:

  1. No partner will be 'useful' forever. People's goals can differ substantially during different stages of life, and thus the 'tools' they need can vary. In other words, although B may be of help to A for a particular goal during a certain period of time, it is challenging for B to be continuously useful for A. Thus, if A wants B to always be 'useful,' A will evenutally feel disappointed.
  2. Your partner can feel objectified. Instrumentality can suggest to your partner that they do not have inherent value and bring nothing to the table other than what they can do to help you achieve a certain goal. According to Wang, being treated in this callous and depersonalized manner by one's partner can be unbearable.

If you are currently feeling that your partner is treating you like a means to an end, Wang has the following advice:

"It is essential to know that it is not your fault to be treated in an instrumental manner by your partner. This is because people are driven by goals, and goal achievement can lead to an instrumental approach which could be a default mode in social relationships, including intimate ones," explains Wang. "One solution would be for both partners to reduce an exchange orientation in their intimate relationship, especially if one partner already feels that him/herself is being treated instrumentally by the other."