Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Progression of Sexual Relationships

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Progression of Sexual Relationships

Article excerpt

Sexual involvement has become normative as part of the courtship process (Finer, 2007). A sizable body of research explores factors associated with adult sexual behavior, including age at sexual debut (Johnson & Tyler, 2007; Pearson, Muller, & Frisco, 2006), number of sexual partners and sexual frequency (Smith, 1991), and contraceptive use (Sprecher, 2013). To date, however, few empirical studies have examined how sexual relationships progress, maintain, or dissolve over time in the United States. Some researchers have suggested that young adults are sliding into cohabitation or marriage without adequate time for dedication and commitment to develop (Glenn, 2002; Stanley, Rhoades, & Markman, 2006). Others have recommended that adults slow down the pace at which they enter into new attachments, given research showing that rapid involvement may negatively influence relationship quality, reduce dedication, or be adversely associated with parenting abilities and marital stability (Cherlin, 2009; Glenn, 2002; Stanley et al., 2006). Notwithstanding these suggestions, we know of no studies that provide national estimates of the relationship trajectories of sexually involved Americans or how the progression of sexual relationships varies by age, race and ethnicity, or social class.

Previous research using nonrepresentative samples suggested that the transition from sexual involvement to cohabitation often occurs rapidly (Sassler, 2004; Sassler & Miller, 2011) and unintentionally (Manning & Smock, 2005; Stanley et al., 2006), particularly among younger adults. The qualitative literature on dating also hints at the importance of social class in shaping the tempo to shared living. In their class-diverse study of 122 cohabitors, Sassler and Miller (2011) found that while more than half of cohabiting respondents with less than a college degree reported moving in together within 6 months of the relationship's start, college-educated cohabitors were romantically and sexually involved for about a year, on average, before cohabiting. Less educated respondents also mentioned moving in with partners because of financial need or family issues (e.g., pregnancy, a desire to move out of parents' home) more frequently than the college educated, who more often said that they began cohabiting because it was more convenient and economically rational or was the next step in relationship progression (Sassler & Miller, 2011). These findings are consistent with other studies suggesting that more educated individuals date for longer periods of time than do less advantaged individuals before entering into coresidential unions. Jamison and Ganong (2011) studied a sample of college students and graduates who were dating (n = 22) and found that respondents gradually began spending from three to seven nights together but continued to live in separate homes. They suggested that "stayovers" functioned as a comfortable and convenient alternative to forming more lasting commitments, such as cohabitation or marriage. Manning and Smock (2005) also found that respondents reported gradually spending more nights together before cohabiting, although they did not assess whether the timing to begin cohabitation varied by social class or race/ethnicity.

Empirical studies provide some purchase on why transitions into shared living occur more rapidly among the less advantaged. Disadvantaged status is frequently transmitted across generations. Women who grow up in poor families or with unmarried or low educated parents engage in partnering and parenting at younger ages than their more advantaged counterparts (Amato, 2005; Cavanagh, Crissey, & Raley, 2008; Pearson et al., 2006). Young adults who experienced their parent's divorce, for example, enter more rapidly into sexual relationships than do those growing up in intact, married-parent families (Cavanagh et al., 2008). Parental remarriage also accelerates young adults' departure from home (Aquilino, 1991; Goldscheider & Goldscheider, 1998; Teachman, 2003); these youth may lack the means to live independently, which may expedite their entry into cohabiting unions (Sassler & Miller, 2011). …

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