Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Relationship Dissolution as a Life Stage Transition: Effects on Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Relationship Dissolution as a Life Stage Transition: Effects on Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors

Article excerpt

In this paper, with the use of linear regressions to investigate how relationship dissolution affects sexual attitudes and behaviors, the authors address the stereotype that newly single people seek multiple sexual partners. Although the newly single people surveyed did obtain new sexual partners, the rate at which they acquired new partners did not support the stereotype. Specifically, men with custody of their children seemed oriented toward finding a steady partner. Additionally, men and women with low incomes reported relatively high rates of partner acquisition after relationship dissolution. The high rates reported by disadvantaged groups may be more directly related to familial instability accompanying poverty than to cultural characteristics associated with income or race. We argue that a life stage model with categorical stages in a rigid, anachronistic progression provides insufficient means to gain an understanding of newly single people.

Key Words: African American, cohabitation, divorce, life stage, marriage, sexuality.

Newly single people are often imagined to be wildly sexual, seeking multiple partners out of a sense of freedom or out of desperation for validation. This stereotype resonates in part because, of all dimensions of identity, sexual identity is one of the most extensively structured by life stage requirements (Bancroft, 2000; Simon, 1996). Life stage transitions such as divorce are increasingly common in contemporary America, as is the experience of being newly single after the dissolution of a nonmarital cohabitational relationship (Bumpass, Sweet, & Cherlin, 1991; Seltzer, 2000). Such transitions require adjustment to new (although sometimes familiar) identities and circumstances (Amato, 2000). Indeed, sexuality is a central component of the intimate relationships) involved in divorce and divorce adjustment. Ending a marriage or cohabitational relationship, therefore, should mean a transition to different evaluations and expressions of sexuality. Furthermore, because this is a transition process, one might expect distinct phases. Theoretically, such evidence could inform a life stage transition model.

Studies have carefully examined dating behavior and social participation after divorce; however, most of these studies have not investigated how relationship dissolution is related to specifically sexual attitudes and behaviors. We used a social constructionist theory of sexuality and a social structure theory of gender in which gender is an accomplishment, as opposed to a static trait (West & Fenstermaker, 1995), to explore how the dissolution of a cohabitational or marital relationship contributes to the permissiveness of sexual attitudes, the frequency of sex, and the acquisition of new sexual partners. These three standard sexological variables allow for meaningful comparisons with other research. Furthermore, they tap into important dimensions of sexuality. First, an examination of sexual attitudes measures the extent to which a life stage transition is accompanied by changes in evaluative thinking about sexuality. Second, the frequency of sex and the rate of acquisition of new partners are suggestive of the nature of the relationships) the respondent is experiencing. A respondent with a large number of sexual partners and a low sexual frequency is unlikely to belong to a monogamous dating relationship. A respondent with a high sexual frequency but a low rate of acquisition of new sexual partners is likely to be in a monogamous dating relationship. A respondent for whom both measures are low will appear to be largely abstaining from sexual relationships. A respondent for whom both measures are high is perhaps maintaining one or more ongoing relationships and acquiring new sexual partners as well. In conjunction, the three dependent variables provide a broad picture of the sexuality of newly uncoupled people.


For this project, we drew on the divorce-stress-- adjustment perspective to understand the consequences of both marital and cohabitational dissolutions. …

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