Change in Romantic Relationships over Time

Claire M Kamp Dush. Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. Editor: Harry T Reis & Susan Sprecher. Sage Publications, 2009.

Romantic relationships develop and change over time. Indeed, romantic relationships have been conceptualized to follow developmental trajectories. In the 1950s, a single developmental tra jectory would have captured a majority of the pathways that romantic relationships followed and would have been characterized by dating, engagement, and subsequent marriage. More than halfway through the first decade of the 21st century, this trajectory can take more diverse forms, and it would be difficult to define the most common trajectory because of the wide variety of types of romantic relationships. For instance, relationships still may develop through the traditional stages of dating, engagement, and marriage. But currently, the developmental trajectories of romantic relationships may be characterized by a period of casual sex in which the relationship may or may not be a formal dating relationship, followed by dating, visiting (defined as often spending the night together but maintaining two separate residences), cohabitation (defined as living together prior to marriage and maintaining no separate residence from partner), and perhaps subsequent engagement and marriage. Thus, the change in relationships over time is marked by two processes: first, the developmental progression of individual romantic relationships, and second, changes in romantic relationship partners (and thus romantic relationships) across the life course.

In this entry, the primary focus is on these processes over the individual life course, but changes are noted across historical time when relevant. The focus is also on heterosexual romantic relationships in the United States, though these processes occur and, in some instances, are changing across many cultures. The entry begins with a review of the dating and predating literatures, continuing with a discussion of cohabiting and marital relationships. The entry ends with a discussion of serial monogamy, or the process of individuals changing their partners over time.

Progression of Individual Romantic Relationships

Social norms and scripts for the courtship process have become more varied over time. Many adolescents and young adults may not go through a formal courtship process that includes dating and betrothal. One increasingly common trend is for adolescents and young adults to have relationships that are nonromantic but sexual. The rising prevalence of these relationships has changed the landscape of dating and courtship. Recent estimates from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health have found that 60 percent of sexually active teens have had sex in both romantic and nonromantic contexts. Qualitative work suggests these patterns continue in young adulthood so that college students argue that college campuses are increasingly characterized by a hook-up culture whereby sexual encounters may occur with random people or perhaps with a friend-with-benefits. A friend-with-benefits is a friend with whom a young adult will have multiple and ongoing sexual encounters outside the context of a romantic relationship. Although at any one point in time, a minority of adolescents and young adults may be in these more casual relationships, the percentage that report having experienced them at some point is high. These casual relationships are often a testing ground for both a more intimate relationship with the casual relationship partner and for future relationships as adolescents and young adults mature and learn new skills for making relationships work. For those with relationships that grow out of non-romantic sexual contexts, the transition between friends and dating can be more ambiguous.

Some scholars have argued that relationships that begin in nonromantic contexts have relatively high levels of inequity and more negative consequences in particular for women, while other scholars have argued that they empower women by allowing women to enjoy their sexuality outside the context of a gendered heterosexual relationship. Evidence suggests, however, that women sometimes comply with casual sex because they believe or want the relationship to become a romantic relationship. Thus, women may be more vulnerable in these relationships if they do indeed want it to become romantic. Both nonromantic casual sex relationships and dating relationships are by their nature marked by lower levels of commitment than most coresidential relationships. One way individuals can bolster commitment in their relationship is to increase equity and investments in the relationship. However, in a dating culture where women experience less equity and are in more ambiguous relationships (complicating the ability of women to invest in them), progression to a committed relationship may slow or halt if the woman (or her partner) is able to find more attractive alternatives.

As casual dating relationships develop, couples do move into more committed forms of relationship. These forms include visiting, cohabiting, engagement, or some combination. Cohabiting relationships in particular affect many adults across the life span. Estimates vary, but among women ages 19 to 44 forming first unions between 1997 and 2001, it has been estimated that nearly 70 percent of first unions were formed through cohabitation rather than through marriage without a preceding period of cohabitation.

Often couples do not have a formal period of engagement prior to moving in together. Indeed, some couples may not discuss the implications of moving in together nor discuss the implications of cohabitation for their commitment to their relationship. Some scholars have argued that most couples slide into cohabitation rather than decide to cohabit. For instance, a couple may be visiting and decide to save money by maintaining a single lease. Many couples may not realize that by moving in together, barriers to leaving the relationship are created. As couples spend more time together in these visiting and cohabiting unions and acquire more joint social and economic capital, they may find it increasingly difficult to leave the relationship, even if it were to be less than satisfactory. Given the pressures to marry that many cohabiting couples experience, as well as the greater likelihood of an unplanned pregnancy, the foundation from which a marriage is built upon may be less solid and more fragile in particular for those couples who begin cohabiting out of convenience and then marry. There is a large body of evidence that links premarital cohabitation to poor marital functioning and stability. On the other hand, couples who cohabit with marriage in mind or because they desire to increase the commitment in their relationship, may build a stronger relationship foundation as they develop strategies for making their relationship work prior to marriage, hence making the transition to marriage easier. Indeed, scholars have also found that spouses who cohabited with plans to marry look similar to those couples who marry without a premarital cohabitation in terms of their marital functioning. Other couples use cohabitation as a testing ground for the relationship to gain a better understanding of the potential of a long-term commitment with their partner, while enjoying lower costs to exiting the relationship should it not work out. Overall, cohabitation does not tend to be a long-term union for most individuals: about half end within a year, while over 90 percent end within 5 years, and more end by dissolution rather than marriage.

Even though cohabitation rates have risen, marriage is still very much valued in American society. Those couples who do marry tend to enjoy health and social benefits of marriage. Indeed, individuals who are married consistently report higher levels of well-being than unmarried individuals including cohabitors, daters, and single individuals, even taking account of relationship quality. Over time, however, all relationships change, and marital relationships are no exception. Many studies have examined how satisfaction changes across the life course of marriage. Early studies that relied on cross-sectional data found that marital satisfaction declined in the early years of marriage but rebounded after children leave the household; hence, scholars believed marital satisfaction follows a U-shaped curve across the life course. However, more recent work has demonstrated that the U-shaped curve was an artifact of the cross-sectional nature of the data and was driven in part by older cohorts being more satisfied with their marriages than younger cohorts. Thus, more recent work using longitudinal data has found that marital satisfaction declines across the early years of marriage but does not increase following the decline.

Another critique of the research on the change in marital satisfaction over time is that because of its primarily sociological, large-scale nature, little effort was made to find subgroups of married couples who do not experience declines in marital satisfaction over time. Recently, scholars have used new methods that specialize in finding subgroups in data and have found that there are subgroups of married couples who remain highly satisfied with their marriage over 20 years. This subgroup accounts for about 40 percent of couples in the longitudinal Study of Marital Instability Across the Life Course. A second subgroup, also accounting for about 40 percent of couples, remained around the median of marital satisfaction across time, declining slightly in the early years of marriage and then increasing later. A final subgroup was found, representing about 20 percent of the sample, which began with a lower level of marital satisfaction and experienced a more precipitous drop across the early years of marriage but which rebounded somewhat in later years, though never to the levels of satisfaction that the more highly satisfied groups experienced. This research needs to be replicated, but it points out that all marriages, and indeed all relationships, do not change uniformly over time.

Serial Monogamy: Romantic Relationship Experiences across the Life Course

Most relationships do not last forever; as individuals search for a long-term, in some cases lifelong commitment, they date, live with, and sometimes marry different partners. Overall, unions in the United States, defined to include both cohabitating and marital unions, are at their most unstable point in recent history. Using longitudinal data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) 1979, a nationally representative data collection of over 10,000 adults who were between 14 and 21 in 1979, scholars have found that by the age of 40, about 12 percent of the sample had never had a union, while 40 percent were still in their first marriage, and 2 percent were in their first cohabitation. Therefore, 46 percent of the sample by the age of 40 was in second, third, or even higher-order unions. Thus, over time, individuals cycle through relationships, experiencing divorces and the dissolution of cohabiting or dating relationships along the way.

Union instability may be even greater by the age of 40 for contemporary cohorts of young adults. Scholars have compared data from the NLSY 1979 cohort and the more recent 1997 cohort, a nationally representative sample of over 8,000 individuals who were ages 11 to 14 in 1997 and have been re-interviewed annually since. By age 24, 41 percent of the NLSY 1979 cohort had never had a union, while a similar 39 percent of the NLSY 1997 cohort had never had a union. Thirty-seven percent of the NLSY 79 cohort was in their first marriage, while only 20 percent of the NLSY 97 cohort was in their first marriage. In contrast, 6 percent of the NLSY 79 cohort was in their first cohabitation, but 12 percent of the NLSY 97 cohort was in their first cohabitation. Another change was that by age 24, only 5 percent of the NLSY 79 cohort was in a higher-order union, 60 percent of which were marital unions, whereas 9 percent of the NLSY 97 cohort was in a higher-order union, 86 percent of which were cohabiting unions. One final note of change is that the proportion of individuals who were single after a union dissolution doubled between the two cohorts, from 11 percent in the NLSY 1979 cohort to 20 percent in the NLSY 97 cohort. Thus, even by age 24, it is apparent that changes in relationships, including unions, have increased both over time for these individuals, and across historic time as well. Some scholars, including Paul Amato and Andrew Cherlin, have called this cycling of monogamous relationships “serial monogamy.” Serial monogamy has come to partly define the baby boomer and subsequent cohorts’ relationship experiences.

The process of individual relationship development occurs and recurs across the life course and in historical context. Given the changing historical context of romantic relationships and their various forms at the beginning of the 21st century, it is difficult to predict what is in store for the development of romantic relationships. Although almost 95 percent of high school seniors in the 2006 Monitoring the Future study reported that they planned to marry someday, only about 36 percent agreed that “most people will have fuller and happier lives if they choose legal marriage rather than staying single, or just living with someone.” It is likely that as time goes by, relationships will become increasingly diverse, while simultaneously, individuals will experience increasing numbers of relationships that vary in their degree of commitment across their life course.