Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Sexual Exclusivity among Dating, Cohabiting, and Married Women

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Sexual Exclusivity among Dating, Cohabiting, and Married Women

Article excerpt

In the past, marriage marked the initiation of intercourse, in particular for women in the United States. Both sexual activity and parenting were expected to occur within the bonds of marriage. More recently, however, changes in sexual norms have led to an increase in sexual activity outside of marriage. This rise in nonmarital sex has been accompanied by an increase in cohabitation. The proportion of first marriages preceded by cohabitation has grown from 8% in the late 1960s to about 50% currently (Bumpass, 1990). Thus, about half of all first marriages are now preceded by cohabitation.

Individuals who choose cohabitation instead of marriage vary in terms of commitment levels (Bennett, Blanc, & Bloom, 1988; Thomson & Colella, 1992). Past studies have generally used attitudinal data to demonstrate varying commitment levels between cohabitors and noncohabitors. For example, cohabitation is selective of individuals less committed to marriage and more approving of divorce (Axinn & Thornton, 1,992; Clarkberg, Stolzenberg, & Waite, 1993; Thomson & Colella, 1992).

Commitment, according to Johnson (1973), refers to a decision to carry out a line of action either due to personal dedication or constraint. Rusbult, Johnson, and Morrow (1986) explained that commitment is affected by satisfaction with the relationship, the availability of desirable alternatives, and the investment of resources in the relationship. Based on this framework, we use sexual exclusivity--a behavioral, instead of an attitudinal, measure--as an indicator of commitment. Having a secondary sex partner suggests dissatisfaction with the primary relationship, the availability of desirable alternatives, and reduced investment. Although commitment need not include a dedication to sexual exclusivity on theoretical grounds, sexual exclusivity does serve as an indicator for commitment on practical grounds. For example, couples typically endorse expectations of exclusivity (Blumstein Schwartz, 1983; Smith, 1990). Using sexual exclusivity as a proxy for commitment, we examine commitment within three relationship types: dating, cohabitation, and marriage.


For many individuals, cohabitation serves as a prelude to marriage and provides a context within which those who are uncertain about long-term commitment can test a relationship (Willis & Michael, 1988). For others cohabitation is an alternative form of marriage (Riche, 1988)--a relationship with looser bonds and different goals, norms, and behaviors than marriage (Newcomb, 1987).

Why some couples choose to cohabit rather than marry is still unclear. Some argue that cohabitation is selective of individuals who do not hold strong family values and who are leery of commitment (Bumpass, 1990). Blumstein and Schwartz (1983), in interviews with cohabiting and married couples, found cohabiting couples less committed to the institution of marriage and more accepting of sexual activity outside the relationship than married couples.

Clarkberg, Stolzenberg, and Waite (1993) concluded that, in their attitudes and values towards family, individuals who choose to cohabit differ from other people who marry and those who remain single. They found that men and women who reject the constraints and demands of traditional gender roles are more likely to choose an informal union compared to those who accept traditional roes. Their study showed cohabitors to be more egalitarian in their relationship behaviors than either married people or singles. Clarkberg and colleagues (1993) concluded that individuals who marry and those who cohabit differ in their conceptions of a good relationship. Cohabitors value and are more interested in equality and individual independence within a relationship, whereas people who marry value and rely more on interdependence and the exchange of services (Brines & Joyner, 1992; Clarkberg, Stolzenberg, & Waite, 1993). …

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