Partnering across the Life Course: Sex, Relationships, and Mate Selection

By Sassler, Sharon | Journal of Marriage and Family, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Partnering across the Life Course: Sex, Relationships, and Mate Selection


Sassler, Sharon, Journal of Marriage and Family


Marital delay, relationship dissolution and churning, and high divorce rates have extended the amount of time individuals in search of romantic relationships spend outside of marital unions. The scope of research on intimate partnering now includes studies of "hooking up," Internet dating, visiting relationships, cohabitation, marriage following childbirth, and serial partnering, as well as more traditional research on transitions into marriage. Collectively, we know much more about relationship formation and development, but research often remains balkanized among scholars employing different theoretical approaches, methodologies, or disciplinary perspectives. The study of relationship behavior is also segmented into particular life stages, with little attention given to linkages between stages over the life course. Recommendations for future research are offered.

Key Words: cohabitation, dating, marriage, mate selection, relationship processes.

The nature and process of forming intimate relationships has changed in important ways over the past few decades. Previous "Decade in Review" articles focused on various aspects of relationship formation, ranging from adolescent pregnancy, premarital relationships, and mate selection to sexuality in relationships and families formed outside of marriage. These reviews dichotomized relationship behavior into romantic attachments preceding marriage and partnering that produced children. But dramatic changes in the timing and sequencing of relationship stages have made the study of intimate partnering more complex today than in the past. The scope of research has expanded to include studies of hookups and Internet dating, visiting relationships, cohabitation, marriage following childbirth, and serial partnering as well as more traditional research on transitions into marriage.

A unique challenge of reviewing research on partnering arises from changes in the marital behavior of Americans. Marital delay, relationship dissolution and churning, and high divorce rates have extended the amount of time substantial proportions of adults spend outside of formal marriage. Individuals select from a veritable smorgasbord of romantic options, including entering into casual, short-term sexual relationships; dating as an end toward finding a long-term partner; entering into shared living with a romantic partner (cohabitation) as an alternative to living alone; forming a cohabiting union as a precursor to marriage; or living with a partner as a substitute for formal marriage. Even though marriage remains among the most venerated of options (Cherlin, 2004; Edin, Kefalas, & Reed, 2004; Lichter, Batson, & Brown, 2004; Smock, 2004), it increasingly serves as a relationship capstone that takes place well after sexual involvement, shared living, and even childbearing and parenting (Carlson, McLanahan, & England, 2004) and may not even be a desired goal (Byrne & Carr, 2005; DePaulo & Morris, 2005).

A common thread unifying all relationships is a desire for intimacy - whether emotional or sexual. Involvement in romantic relationships, as a spouse, a cohabiting partner, or in a steady dating partnership, is beneficial to mental and physical health and sense of well-being (Kamp Dush & Amato, 2005; Williams & Umberson, 2004), though the benefits vary by race, gender, social class, parental status, and union type. Partnering behaviors change over the life course, both for structural (e.g., economic barriers or limited marriage market opportunities) and behavioral reasons (e.g., changing marital aspirations). Research published in social science journals over the last decade suggests that the behaviors and goals of emerging and young adults are widely divergent from older single adults. The topics studied differ dramatically, as does the frequency of coverage and how partnering behavior is framed as problematic or beneficial. Scholars from many different disciplines study partnering and parenting, but seldom is the research truly interdisciplinary, synergistic, or even complementary. …

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